June is a very busy month on the farm in terms of some of our bulk crops like sweet potatoes and winter squash. We plant 10 300-foot beds of sweet potatoes (varieties Orleans and Covington) and 19 300-foot beds of winter squash (1 Blue Hubbard, 4 Pinnacle Spaghetti Squash, 8 Waltham Butternut, 3 Jester Acorn, and 3 Delicata). We plant both of these crops on biodegradable plastic mulch.
Once big enough, these crops vine out and take over the aisleways. If you are good about cultivation, and of course if weather permits good cultivation windows, the vines will cover the clean aisles and block out weeds once you are unable to get a tractor into the field.
Our main cultivating tractor is a Kubota L245H, a very useful tractor on the farm. We cultivate the winter squash and sweet potatoes perhaps 3 or 4 times, depending on how fast they grow. Our setup is very basic, but very effective.
We use a Buckeye Tractor Co. three row cultivating toolbar. We mirror the setup on both sides of the plastic bed. On the toolbar closest to the tractor, we use an S tine with a 7” wide shovel. This fits perfectly between the two S tines that are placed on the second toolbar. These two S tines have slightly smaller shovels at 4” each. The inner S tine is slightly deeper than the outer S tine. We put a 5-gang Spider Gang on the third toolbar, centered between the two middle S tines. This setup fits over plastic beds and any 30” wide bare ground plantings, like our beds of lettuce and beans which are 3 rows spaced 15” apart.
Of course the bane of a farmer’s cultivating existence is the two inch shoulder right next to the plastic. After lots of research and trial and error, we decided on a shovel and disc setup on the belly mounts. We place the shovel in front of the disc to help loosen soil in the aisle way which can then be used by the disc to just cover and bury the weeds on the bed shoulder.
I like to leave the shovel just enough loose on the toolbar so that I can move it and angle it more or less aggressively depending on how hard the dirt in the aisleway is. We only have the setup on one side because it is easier to be more precise and accurate only having to focus on one side at a time. Although it is a bit more time consuming since you have to do two passes on each bed, and sometimes even a third with just the back shovels down to loosen the soil enough to come back through with the disc, particularly after a heavy rain event dries the soil in a compacted way.
The very important trick is that you don’t want to overcover with dirt; You don’t want to bury any part of the plastic that wasn’t covered with dirt when the bed was originally laid. It’s convenient when a light rain compacts the edges just enough to give you room to add some more dirt just up to the bed top. If you overcover, and throw more dirt onto the bed, that makes it harder to cover the next time. If you have to resort to hoeing at all, it can also cause people to dig too deep with the hoe and rip the plastic. I always think: just drive the dirt, not the tractor.
There are a few other pitfalls. One is when the weather doesn’t allow you to get in to cultivate at the right time. The weeds really should only be at cotyledon stage to effectively bury them. If it rains about this time, by the time it dries enough to cultivate, the weeds may be too large. Another pitfall is when it doesn’t rain at all, the weeds still germinate, albeit more slowly, but the dirt from the previous cultivation has not settled down at all. This causes dirt on the shoulder to pile up, and then becomes very difficult to bury without burying the plastic.
Thankfully winter squash grow fairly quickly, and if you get a few good cultivations in with the tractor, and perhaps a touch-up with a scuffle hoe, they should take over the aisles before too many weeds can pop up! And may I recommend hanging a speaker (like the durable Ecoxgear speaker) off the tractor to crank some tunes; it really makes the tedious task of cultivation a lot more enjoyable! Best of luck and may you have a bountiful squash harvest!