Designed for Smaller Growers & Home Gardeners
Note: The recommendations in this article are for beds that are ready and waiting for hands-on preparation. If you're battling a prodigious weed seed bank, you may want to plan some form of preemptive weed suppression. Opaque silage tarps or flame-weeding can both be used to create a stale seed bed in advance of planting. These methods are sometimes applied following initial native bed preparation, and tarping can also be used to reclaim fallow, grassy, or weedy areas prior beforehand.
Over the years, Johnny's has developed and brought into the offering a robust line of bed prep tools that boost efficiency for smaller-scale growers and home gardeners.
Not every grower's situation will call for every tool in this overview, but here is how these tools can be used when the problem seeks a solution.
1 • Loosening the Soil
Loosening the soil with a broadfork is an efficient and ergonomic way to improve its aeration without having a detrimental effect on its structure. Good aeration is almost invariably good for soil that is intended for growing crops.
Aeration is a key first step.
These are deep-aerating tools designed long ago in Europe and subsequently redeveloped by Eliot Coleman and Johnny's. Our broadforks are designed to deeply aerate while preserving soil structure and minimizing the surfacing of weed seeds.
Multiple sizes are available to match your strength and comfort level and the task at hand. Models are available in the traditional round-tine design as well as our newer Hardpan Broadforks, with chisel-shaped tines designed for tougher soils.
To use, gently hop on the tool and use your weight to drive the full length of the tines into the ground. Hop off and rake the handles back just enough to crack the soil (about 45°), lifting it and introducing air. Repeat this action at a spacing approximately the length of the tines (every 8"–10" or so), working backwards with the tool to avoid compaction. The ease and rhythm with which this can be accomplished will vary with soil conditions. The broadfork will reveal and lift rocks, but the rocks should be removed with a shovel.
2 • Tilling the Soil
Next, if you need to till, it can be accomplished with one of these tools or a gas-powered tiller.
Tillie, the Electric Tiller & Raised-Bed Former
The Tillie is designed from the ground up to fit the needs of small-scale farmers and gardeners.
This cleverly designed tiller is a good stepping-stone tool for the small-scale farmer as well as the ambitious home gardener who is just starting out. Driven by a powerful hub motor, this versatile tool can be used not just to till, but to cultivate pathways, hill crops, and even efficiently form raised beds.
Its portability makes it great for field work, and especially convenient for high tunnels because getting in and out with it is so easy. In addition, it is battery-powered, so there are no fumes and it runs very quietly — very welcome features for indoor bed preparation. Plus, as long as you have a charged battery on hand, you never have to worry whether the Tillie is going to start.
For all of its functions, the Tillie's speed and power depend on how far you engage the throttle, how fast your movements are, and how much resistance you provide.
The Tillie V2 has an articulating tiller head for cultivating between rows of plants in a bed while walking in the footpath. The 36V 10Ahr Li-ion battery gives it ample power and allow the blades to spin quickly.
Tilling with the Tillie is accomplished much differently from tilling with a standard rototiller or walking tractor. "Tillie-ing" involves sweeping the Tillie back and forth in 5–6-foot arcs in front, as the operator slowly steps forward.
You can also use the Tillie to shape raised beds after initial tillage has been completed. To accomplish this, you walk along one footpath with the Tillie positioned over and across the bed, with the head positioned in what will become the next footpath, but held at a 45° angle forward of the operator. Lines of twine can be suspended as guides (as shown in the photo) for keeping rows straight and bed widths consistent. This usually requires no more than one or sometimes two passes, depending on the soil.
3 • Amending as Appropriate
Incorporating amendments and improving "tilth," or the "crumb" of your soil, may be an appropriate step, depending on your situation.
Incorporating amendments and improving tilth are optional steps that depend on soil fertility and structure. The Tilther can nicely finish off seedbeds but is not intended for working out rough or rocky soils. Like our other ergonomically designed bed preparation tools, it is highly maneuverable and convenient for working in high tunnels, greenhouses, and other tight spaces.
Conceptualized by Eliot Coleman and is used extensively on his farm in Maine, the Tilther is a lightweight tiller powered by a rechargeable drill and designed to create perfect tilth within the top inch or two of your bed by mixing in compost and fertilizer while chopping up any fine debris remaining after clean-up of the previous crop.
If you have one of these on hand, it is very convenient to make one pass down each side of the bed top, to really work up the soil in that topmost layer and incorporate amendments you will be using. Amending the soil at this stage with the Tilther can be more efficient than adding inputs during earlier or initial tillage of native ground, as smaller quantities can be allocated directly where the crops will be growing, not in the footpaths.Watch a video demonstration of the Tilther…
Download our Tilther Instruction Sheet…
4 • Leveling, Smoothing & Firming the Bed
Smoothing and leveling the bed top helps assure successful seeding.
The Bed Preparation Rake can also be fitted with Row Markers.
Bed Preparation Rake
At this point, the bed top is raked smooth to create a perfect seedbed for successful precision planting. The Bed Prep Rake is a perfect tool for that — an excellent companion to precision seeders.
This Eliot Coleman favorite is so light that the user can support its entire weight, even when fully extended. Its Swiss aluminum head is 29" wide, with 20 curved, 4"-long teeth that grab stones and debris when pulled, then level and smooth the bed when pushed. Its 6-foot handle allows the user to reach way out, but still "float" the rake to achieve a nice, flat bed top.
If you are transplanting, you might skip this step, or skip the step above with the Tilther.
The perfect complement to precision seeders and mechanical harvesters, Johnny's Seedbed Roller is fitted with heavy-duty lobster trap wire mesh. Its 1" spacing is close enough to break up smaller clumps and dirt clods but wide enough to resist getting clogged with soil and mud.
The Seedbed Roller can also be used post-seeding, to press seed firmly into contact with the soil for improved germination rates. The implement's design permits it to be either pulled or pushed, and the handle is adjustable laterally to allow operation in-row or from either footpath. A metal rack fitted over the top can accommodate additional weighting if needed.
We've got dibbles for that.
Useful for open-soil transplanting as well as for puncturing through plastic mulch.
Snap-in Dibbles for the Seedbed Roller
Available in three sizes and easily interchangeable, the Snap-in Dibbles allow for numerous combinations of plant spacings, with perfect spacing every time.
The Seedbed Roller's 1" mesh and 36" circumference make dibble arrangement simple and intuitive. No special tools required; just squeeze the ends and they snap right in, securely gripping the coated trap wire mesh from both inside and out. Change-out for new setups is fast and easy. The Dibbles work as well through plastic mulch as they do in open soil — sometimes better, contingent upon soil moisture level.
Depending on soil conditions, additional weight may be necessary to achieve full dibble penetration. If additional weight is needed, the roller is more easily pulled than pushed.
Efficiently mark rows for seeding with a single-row seeder.
We've got Row Markers for that.
Row Markers for the Seedbed Roller
The Seedbed Roller's 1" mesh makes arrangement of the Row Markers easy, allowing you to mark perfectly-spaced rows for seeding while you roll the bed.
The Row Markers are fashioned of 5/16" polyethylene tubing with plastic quick-disconnects that can be readily installed around the Seedbed Roller to mark rows for seeding with a single-row seeder. (Some minor assembly is required.)
5 • For Succession Plantings
This is basically a short-form version of the procedure above.
In preparing existing beds for mid-season succession plantings, tilling is typically not necessary, but aeration with a broadfork is almost invariably a good idea.
If you have raised beds, they may need to be reformed if they have settled a lot due to weather or other forces of compaction. The Tillie is a great tool for that.
The rest of the bed-prep elements above fall into line next as you prepare the bed: use the Tilther to fluff and even the bed top and incorporate any needed amendments; the Bed Prep Rake to level and smooth; the Seedbed Roller to firm; Dibbles and Row Markers if necessary; and so forth.
6• Laying Mulch
Unless you have a tractor-mounted mulch layer, this step can be a labor-intensive process. Here is an alternative solution — a novel product that is "people-powered."
Manual Mulch Layer
Quickly and efficiently lay mulch by hand with this manually operated device. Fully adjustable for a wide variety of bed widths and mulch sizes, this hand-powered mulch layer can be a real game-changer. Designed for maneuverability, it can be useful in greenhouses, high tunnels, or areas where field space is limited.
One of the greatest features of the Manual Mulch Layer is that it can concurrently lay single or multiple lines of drip tape. For precise placement, optional Drip Tape Collar Stops can be fitted. The Manual Mulch Layer accommodates 36–60" mulch widths, weighs 97 pounds, and requires some assembly.
Laying mulch with this tool is a two-person operation. For added convenience, optional Transport Wheels are also available.