After losing our entire first tomato patch to deer last summer, we are focusing our energies on preparing some ground for a future fenced-in garden with cover crops.  Last fall we rototilled a bit of land and planted the area in winter rye.

This spring at the Midwest Organic Farming Conference  I learned that we needed to build a crimper to turn the rye into mulch and then plant a legume into that crimped rye.

This spring that winter rye jumped out of the ground.

I was told that crimping is the best way to kill the crop and make a mulch that won’t blow away.  Organic farmers pull roller crimpers behind their tractors in no-till agriculture.  (see my blog on what I learned about cover crops and crimping here .

So yesterday we finally got time to put together a hand crimping tool.

The instructions we had were a little vague.  It involved attaching a piece of angle iron to a 2×4 board.

We started with a 3-foot piece of wood and angle iron (1/8″ X 1-1/4″)  but the 3-foot crimper didn’t pack much wallop.  We cut it down to two feet, and it worked crimped much better.  

As I worked, I appreciated the shorter size.  Though I had to make more passes to get everything crimped, I didn’t have to push down quite so hard on a smaller swath of rye.

It seemed to work very well, reducing the plot of swaying rye into a flat mat attached snugly to the soil it is mulching.  With the kind of rain and winds we have had the last week, that attachment seems especially valuable.

The class on Soil Building through Cover Cropping and Composting, taught by Jeff Moyer, Director of Farm Operations at Rodale Farm emphasized that it’s important to keep your soil covered at all times after that initial tilling.  That makes sense to me.

Our rye cover crop really did suppress the weeds.  I’m hoping that it helped encourage mycorrhizal fungi and created more complex soil structure.  If you want a quick course in cover cropping, check out this website from the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service.

Those of us who are practicing agriculture on any kind of slope need to really manage erosion because intense rain events are coming more and more often as the globe warms.

Our next step is to plant edamame beans into the flattened rye and see what happens.

Hopefully, we will further improve the soil and also enjoy any  beans that the deer leave us.

What’s your favorite tool this spring?

23 replies

  1. Since it is my husband’s role mainly to deal with the land as I have been studying, then I would say his favourite piece of equipment at the moment is a two wheeled tractor. We have a small tractor but are still conscious of the damage it can do, although very necessary when cutting huge swathes of grass. The two wheeled tractor though can make short and easy work of cutting back the dreaded ground elder that we are trying to beat into submission this year. The theory is if we keep cutting it then the stuff will give up and die, whereas the grass will not object too much to being cut. Well that’s the theory anyway.

    The two wheeled tractor is also good for tilling small areas but larger than can be dug by hand. Digging up potatoes and a host of other jobs if we get more attachments for it.

  2. Hi Joanna,
    A 2-wheel tractor sounds like a great idea. As fuel becomes more expensive, I think more and more people will be thinking about using the minimum horsepower for each heavy-lifting task.
    I also think that a walk behind tool is a great opportunity to get a good workout.
    We have a hefty walk-behind brush mower and a walk behind power wagon, and with those two implements we can multiply our strength amazingly but not spend our days sitting on a bumpy seat.
    And you are totally right about the soil compaction issue.

  3. It is also good if the terrain is slightly uneven and steep which is why we got the two wheel tractor. Our meadow used to be an old ski slope and that should give you an idea of how steep it is.

  4. Joanna –

    I don’t know what is a two-wheeled tractor. Is there someplace where I can look at a picture? Is there some website that advertises them? Sounds like something that maybe I might be able to use. Thanks for any recommendations!


    • Hi Dennis

      Here is a the website we got ours from, we live in Latvia in Northern Europe so it is not a US website

      If you go to products you can see the range of tools you can use with the tractors.

      Can’t remember where my husband read it now but it was recommended to go for a European one as they are built to agricultural standards as opposed to gardening standards. Our two-wheeled tractor is here standing next to our small tractor

      We bought the two-wheeled one mainly to cut grass up a very steep bank but have since used it to plough small areas for vegetables.

      • Wow, I love the photo of mother and baby, Joanna. I think a 2-wheel tractor may be in our future.

      • Wow! That 2-wheel tractor looks amazing, especially all the attachments for it. Now that is truly an intelligent approach to designing a useful implement.

        Wonder if there are any American manufacturers someplace?

        Anyway, thanks, Joanna.

  5. Denise –

    I tried a lawn roller — a large drum, about 2 feet long and 18 inches high filled with water — to crimp a bed of alfalfa. It didn’t seem to work: the alfalfa is back up and growing. Which is fine, except that I wanted to plant some broccoli in that bed. I guess maybe I’ll try your crimper and see how that works.

    I bought the lawn roller to tamp down seed beds after planting seeds.

    • Hi Dennis,
      Is your lawn roller the kind that you fill with water to give it weight? We used one of those when we were helping some friends put in a bit of prairie.
      I don’t think it would work on rye. The thing is to actually break those fibers that hold the stalks up. And that took some serious stomping with that dull blade of the angle iron.
      I was SERIOUSLY beat that night. I came home and wrote the post about crimping and practically crawled up the 2 flights of stairs to get to bed.
      I had a very sedintary winter while teaching journalism at UW-Platteville. That was a big mistake.
      But crimpling felt very good. And it seemed to do the job.
      I won’t be back out to the land till Monday or Tuesday, and then I’ll see if the rye has stayed lying down like a l left it.
      Incidentally, the crimper had no effect on the grass growing along the edge of the rye bed. That just bounced right back. I suspect it works best on wider diameter stalks. I will report on how well it has stayed down.
      The overhead to get going with a handmade crimper is very minimal, and I love simple, hand tools, so I have high hopes for it.

  6. There are American manufacturers and lots more implements, but they are not quite as robust for agricultural work is my understanding from our research.

    This is a US dealer of the machine we have

    What I would really like is the mini baler but they are more expensive than a baler for our bigger tractor, which seems rather ironic.

  7. Thanks Joanna,
    I’m with Dennis. These two-wheelers seem perfect for big garden/small farming applications.
    Interesting about the baler. Does it make smaller bales? That could be useful too. My main experience with bales is at straw bale workshops, and they are hefty items that I hope I will be able to swing for many years to come, but being in the process of breaking down my mother- and father-in-law’s home, I am reminded daily that we don’t stay as strong as we are today.

  8. The problem with the small baler is they make round bales, which is fine if you have animals to feed but not if you want to use them to build a house – square bales are better for that obviously but there aren’t as many square balers for sale of any sort. Quite maddening really as they do stack better

  9. Great post, thanks for posting pictures of the tool! How did your bean planting go and what are you doing with no-till green manure mulching in your garden this year?

    • Hi Jean. thanks for you comment.
      The beans came up but were eaten by wildlife before we could harvest. Our garden area has been pretty much a wildlife cafeteria the past two years because we did not live on the land and were only out there a few times a week. This summer we are building a strawbale, unmilled, timber frame house on the site, and I am anticipating that the activity will be some protection. Ultimately, we will fence the garden area, but we don’t have time right now.
      In fact, we were not going to plant any garden this summer because of the hub bub. But one of the men working on the house asked if he could put in a garden. He has mulched heavily over the garden area and is getting ready to plant into the area we have prepped. It’s going to be interesting to see how it goes, and I will be blogging about that as the summer goes on.
      I just got a “follow me” widget on my blog site, so if you want to keep in touch, it’s easy now.
      I would also say that we decided to sharpen the edge of our tool just a bit because the first time we crimped, most of the plants made some kind of attempt to stand up again. I don’t think we adequately crushed the stems. That’s important to crimp effectively.
      Also, we let the winter rye get quite tall, and so it had a real “current” when it was all laying down. Trying to plan in any direction other than along the line of the stalks was difficult. I would crimp a little sooner next time.

      • We have big fuzzy white dogs who do a good job of keeping the wildlife at a distance 🙂 I’m looking forward to building and trying a crimper; I think I may try giving it stiff handles (like canes) rather than twine, to allow one to push it down a bit before stepping on the business bar. Good luck with your home!

  10. Thanks, Jean. I’ve heard that dogs can be very helpful in this regard. Please let me know how your crimper works out.

  11. Pros and cons. I had a very sweet Golden Retriever for 12 years, and when he died a few years ago, I decided to try it without a canine companion for a while. It has simplified certain aspects of my life amazingly. My husband and I are waiting till we are relocated on our land to decide if a working dog makes sense for us. A fence might be a lot easier, but a fence won’t be glad to see us when we come home.

  12. Thank you for these great pictures. We are trying rye crimping in our community garden on the advice of another garden, but were having trouble visualizing the tool and how to do it. This makes is very clear.

    • Glad to help. I too, was very happy when I had this kind of crimper explained to me. What we found was we needed to sharpen the edge just a little to get a definitive crimp. It’s a very pleasant aerobic task.

  13. Thanks for your comment Jean. Earthtools is a great site!
    I couldn’t agree more about how important timing is in so many interactions with plants.

  14. We would like to send you our pictures from our rye crimping. We built a tool just like yours. We would like to write you about this process in our community garden in Apex, NC. Please tell us how to get in touch with you. Thank you.
    Fred D’Ignazio

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