The Potato Digger
October 13, 2010
We were keen to plant things this spring and I had two garden plots all worked up, so in one we put lots of corn and then finished it out with last year’s Russet potatoes cut up as seed.
All went well until we began to worry about a raccoon attack upon the corn. There was nothing for it but to put up the electric fence. It clicked away and we relaxed. No raccoons attacked, even though I noticed some weeks later that the end of the wire attached to the fencer was hanging down behind the generator, grounding against it. So there never was a shock in the line, but the raccoons stayed away anyway.
The unintended consequence of this was that the potato patch was protected not only from raccoons, but also from the roto-tiller. The weeds joined in with the rampant growth of potato plants to make a thick, green mass.
It all came to a head last weekend when my wife announced that it was time to plant the garlic. “Uh, there are still four rows of potatoes in that space.” Bet waited until I was away and had at it with a garden fork. She made good headway, filling a wheelbarrow with a frenetic morning of digging. Then she could barely move for the rest of the week.
I decided to grab a fork and dig the things and be done with it, but I didn’t last as long as Bet before my back showed signs of giving out.
There’s nothing like a lame back to make a man think.
When I was little, my dad used a walking plough behind Old Jess to furrow the potatoes in and then dig them up again. He and Old Jess would roll them out neatly, and Glenda, Mom and I would scramble to pick them up before the next pass.
First I tried and discarded the furrower attachment for the tiller because it didn’t dig deeply enough to root out the potatoes without making gritty French fries out of them. Removing the tiller’s tines would be a lot of work, and the purpose of this procedure was to save labour, not increase it.
Internet research suggested that garden tractors don’t do well on ploughs. For example the leading maker of garden ploughs uses a 33 hp, 4WD tractor to pull the little single-bottom 12″ unit in demonstrations. Turning the soil requires weight and traction.
But I have two 35 hp tractors. Why fool with a toy when I can use the real thing? Out I went to the pile of weeds by the barn. My first plough, a 3 pt. hitch 3 X 16″, lay mouldering there, easily the worst implement I have ever bought. It was so poorly balanced, bent and awkward that I put a hole in the floor of my trailer just loading the thing. Later I tried removing one of the moldboards to see if that would help. It didn’t, but my friend Tom ended up with a brutally effective anchor for a floating dock from the left third of the plough.
I resolved to build an adult-sized, single-bottom plough from the remaining scrap iron and use it as a potato digger. An hour of fruitless grinding at the bolts at least allowed enough time for the penetrating oil to work, and after a few satisfying smashes with an eight-pound sledge the nuts turned right off. I dropped the right third of the assembly and put it back together with just the centre section remaining.
The only way to keep the thing upright while I hitched it to the TAFE was to hold it off the ground with the Massey.
Away I went to experiment on the potatoes. Down went the plough point. Ahead surged the tractor. A magnificent furrow appeared behind. Perfect, except that I didn’t see a single potato.
Maybe I missed the row. Tried again. Now I had two, almost parallel furrows, and no potatoes. Now what? Keep trying? A third pass between the others and a few fractions of potatoes appeared.
I walked along the row. An occasional potato fell out at my kicks. Before long I was digging through the debris by hand, looking for survivors. Most showed grievous injury, though a few small tubers had escaped.
More passes with the plough and the garden took on the appearance of a compost heap after a good turning. But the potatoes weren’t coming out of the ground the way they did for my dad and Old Jess.
So I gathered up the pitiful survivors in a large plastic pail and set it in the loader for the ride to the house. Started off. Heard a “crunch.” Somehow the pail had fallen out of the loader and I had crushed it under the tractor. Once again I rounded up the dwindling supply of potatoes and trundled them up the hill, ruing yet another session with this last remnant of the sorriest of all possible ploughs.