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Author Topic: Using a Cultivator/Rotavator  (Read 18013 times)

Norfolk Newby

  • Joined Aug 2009
  • West Norfolk, UK
Using a Cultivator/Rotavator
« on: August 27, 2009, 03:55:23 pm »
I am new to the world of smallholding. I have a small tractor but need to get round small trees and fruit bushes to remove/manage weeds and prepare patches of ground for planting seeds. The tractor is too clumsy for this sort of close work.

I decided to buy a 5.5 hp cultivator (or rotavator - I am not certain of the correct name for this sort of machine). Having spent a year trying to get the best out of my tractor with no previous experience, I wonder if anyone can direct me to a source of reliable advice on using these machines?

My new toy is a SARP Eze Cultivator with 2 sets of rotating tines driven by a 5.5 hp petrol engine. Control is by engine speed and muscle power (not that I have much!) as there are no gears or devices to set the depth to which it 'cultivates'. So any thoughts on how to get the best out of it when digging over land would be appreciated.

I will mainly be using it to prepare small plots for growing trees from seeds (like oaks and hazels) and controlling weeds around previous year's seedlings (now up to 1 metre high).

Are there any books or other publications available regarding the use of machinery in this context? I haven't found anything useful so far.

So, thank you for any suggestions.

Novice - growing fruit, trees and weeds

Norfolk Newby

  • Joined Aug 2009
  • West Norfolk, UK
Re: Using a Cultivator/Rotavator
« Reply #1 on: August 29, 2009, 10:37:37 am »
I can now add an update. I tried out the new cultivator yesterday.

I should mention that my field is in Norfolk and we don't get much rain. The land is a light sandy loam over chalk so when it is dry for a long period the chalk takes all the moisture out of the top foot of soil. The surface then turns into concrete.

So trying out the cultivator meant waiting for some rain and getting on the land quickly before it disappeared. There was about 8mm rain midday yesterday. While the surface was still dry (no puddles) there was some moisture to soften the surface.

First Attempt
Picture yours truly standing in the middle of the field with the machine leaping and running across the ground. It felt like I was trying to strangle an ostrich!

Second Attempt
I adjusted the handles up a bit and pressed down hard on them. The machine has a steel spike at the back which was then pressed into the ground. As a result there was less pressure on the rotating tines and the spike acted like a brake stopping it moving forward. The ground was broken into crumbs (and a fair bit of dust - bath time after). The digging process continued as a series of 'digs'. Easing off on the handles allowed the machine to step forwards to the next area. Not a smooth process but quite effective.

Having broken the surface, a second pass (at right angles to the first where possible) was much smoother and evened out the digging.

It was not an easy experience but would have been much easier if the soil were damp. However, it was possible even in the relatively dry conditions.

All this relates to using the cultivator on light dry soil. I am sure it would be a different experience on heavier land. While the basic process might be similar, the tines might get clogged with mud if the soil were too damp. I doubt that would happen to me here.

A small point is that the machine doesn't mind weeds but they get wrapped round the hub of the tines making them difficult to remove. The spool of weeds seemed to trap quite a lot of dirt which was being held onto the hub where the shaft holding the tines met the drive. Dirt entering the drive mechanism at this point was then a potential problem.

Novice - growing fruit, trees and weeds


  • Joined Jul 2008
  • Milton Keynes
Re: Using a Cultivator/Rotavator
« Reply #2 on: September 13, 2009, 04:55:52 pm »
Hi N-N. Clearly I'm a bit late to be saying this, but maybe it wasn't the best choice? Sorry.... I've used several cultivators as a result of owning a couple and being given a few to 'try to make them work properly'. These included Wolseley, Merry Tiller, Howard Gem, Howard Bantam, and a few others. Despite what this may suggest, I wouldn't call myself an expert. However, for anyone else contemplating a similar choice/machine, I would make the following observations:

All machines that have a drive to the tines only, and rely on the tines for propulsion as well as cultivating, have the same drawbacks.
1. All of them, regardless of size, 'skip' over hard-packed, dry, or VERY weedy soil, rather than cutting a regular swathe.
2. They all use a single bar at the back as a 'leg', to set the cutting depth and slow the 'surge-ahead' tendency, supposedly allowing you to pace the speed of progress. With so many variables of soil structure, stones, weeds, dryness/compaction, etc, this system can't cope, and the machine will either skip merrily over the top or dig itself in deeper and deeper.
3. Some people recommend allowing the machine to career all over the plot when the ground's hard, and simply go over it again and again, in all directions, until the thing's broken the soil enough 'to do it again properly'! Besides being a collossal waste of time and fuel, this is still hard work for a few hours and rather haphazard at getting the job done. From experience of trying this, I've also found it leaves dips and mounds like a bad attempt at the medieval 'Ridge and Furrow' system or the Scottish Run-Rig cultivation!
4. Combining the propulsion and the cultivation in one 'axle' is a compromise, and this kind of machine does neither very well.
5. SOMETIMES, it's better to remove the outer tines and use the narrower ones only, giving you more control. It's far less effort to handle the beast, and you can adjust the depth and speed of progress with more precision as you go. It's less tiring, but it takes twice as long to work the ground with the narrower tine set.
6. BECAUSE you invariably have to manhandle the machine when using it; either holding it back or trying to get it to move forward, and because you have to lift them on and off transport (as they don't propel themselves), this type of machine tends to be smaller in its' capacity. Either they cut deep enough, with a narrow swathe, or they cut wide enough, but not very deep. They seldom cut at full depth AND full width unless the soil has already been worked!

The other main sort of 'walk behind' machine uses two drives; one propelling the machine on wheels, and the other cultivating the soil with tines. They have one engine serving both functions.
1. The tines work the other way round, not moving the machine forward, but cutting the ground from the 'already cut' side towards the 'hard' side. This is more effective when cultivating. It throws less dust at the operator, too.
2. Even though the same engine drives both the cultivators and the wheels, neither interferes with the other. So the machine plods on at a steady speed, regardless, and the tines work the soil for as long as they are on it (according to the ground-speed selected). This makes a better tilth.
3. Because the wheels set the speed, you don't have to! You neither have to hold the damn thing back, nor haul it out of the pit it's dug itself into!
4. Even though wheeled machines are usually larger and heavier, they are easier to use. They usually have at least one forward and one reverse gear, so they can propel themselves around the smallholding, and in and out of a trailer or pick-up. So you do't have to carry them or lift them about.
5. Simpler wheeled machines are dedicated rotovators; that's all they do. But some, even smaller ones have a range of attachments. This makes them the 'Black and Decker' of the smallholding! Even allowing for drawbacks from having to swap gadgets, this versatility is much cheaper than having to buy a range of different powered machines; cultivator, mower, plough, ridger, harrow, etc. You can even get a range of things you'd not thought of, like snow-plough, hedge cutter, different types of mower (finger-bar, topper, flail, rotary, etc).... Some also have a true 'power take off', to drive other bits of kit, like saws, generator, stump-grinder, etc. It makes the machine a true 'two wheeled tractor' (or 'single axle tractor'), as they are called throughout Europe.

There isn't one simple technique for using a wheel-less rotovator such as you describe. What you are doing; the experience you're having, is exactly what they do. They CAN dig their way through weedy or compacted soil, and they can make later use of hand tools much easier. But when you've worked your way through even a 1/4 acre with a rotovator that's inclined to gallop away or dig for victory, with you alternately heaving it out of a pit or holding it back in a dust-storm, it may feel as though you've done enough hard work already!

After having my Howard Gem stolen, I've tried several others, with the same experience as yours. Even though the Gem was forty years old, weighed in at around three hundredweight, and had to be started by hand, it was streets ahead of the others. It's wheels (and 11 h.p.engine and low gearing) would drag a car out of a ditch, and it would plod all day through weeds, 'concrete-hard' ground, rocky soil or anything. Nor was it expensive to run. Nor did I feel after a day's labour that I'd carried the thing, as I have with the non-wheeled types. It also gave a deeper and wider swathe, with no need to take off tines to make it manageable.

I'm currently looking for a machine to replace the 'Gem' rather than spend any more time or effort with the wheel-less machines. I have three of them, and they are such hard work, I don't use them!

I think it may have been on this site that someone recommended a 'Maxtra' rotovator for around 200. Certainly, there are several testimonials on the internet. Perhaps they aren't ALL posted by Maxtra employees (cynic that I am!). The list price is around 240, but several suppliers seem to have them for far less. They cut about 60 cm / 2 feet wide and around 30-40 cm / 12-15" deep; as good as any non-wheeled jobbie. In value-for-money terms they seem sound, and they're reportedly reliable. So that's what I'll be going for, unless I happen on a used 'single-axle' tractor somewhere, with a range of attachments I'd find useful, or a working Howard Gem...!

If you're really stuck with your machine, persevere, and yes, you ARE using it right. That's how they are. I guess it does beat trying to break new ground with a spade... just! And sorry if I'm sounding like a smart-arse or like Harry Enfield's "I don't think you meant to do that..." character. It just goes to show, if you'd come to this forum sooner....

Best Regards,   John

Norfolk Newby

  • Joined Aug 2009
  • West Norfolk, UK
Re: Using a Cultivator/Rotavator
« Reply #3 on: September 15, 2009, 04:57:20 pm »
Hi John

Thanks for your assessment and comments. They are much appreciated.

I am using the cultivator to prepare small beds for growing seedlings and vegetables. My soil is light sandy loam but it is very dry here and the soil is too hard to dig easily. My attempts with the cultivator have been disappointing but I am prepared to persevere when there has been some rain.

I bought the machine from Northern Tool. It is called a SARP EZE cultivator. It's fitted with a 6hp Briggs & Stratton engine and is a bit plasticky. It has two tine sets each with two rows of tines so you have little choice about what you can use. The brand appears to be French but I am fairly sure it would have come from a factory in China. However, it was being offered new for 350 so I didn't argue.

I was tempted by  larger machine but cost and weight ruled it out. I live a few miles from my land and everything has to be transported there and back or risk it being stolen. So size and weight were a limitation. This machine weighs about 50Kg and it fits in the back of my 4X4 provided I can lift it in and out!

Have you tried different designs of tine? I remember using a Merry Tiller many years ago that had the option of some straight tines - like steel spikes - as well as the more common paddle blades which is what I have now. I think the Merry Tiller also had wheels to fit in place of the tines so that you could pull a plough or harrow.

My reason for asking for advice here comes after a year of trying to get the best out of a small tractor I bought when I got my land. I have struggled and cursed with it but I was learning all the time what you can do with a harrow, topper, transporter box and chain. The last is very handy for dragging tree trunks when cutting timber for the fire at home. Simple but it works. You can also use a bunch of leafy branches as a sort of improvised harrow for leveling soil provided it's been worked over with the disk harrow first. I only mention these tricks as it's what I have had to learn by trial and error as there doesn't appear to be a handbook on this sort of thing.

The tractor is taken to my land in a trailer. But this makes it a bit of an expedition to get all the necessary bits there (fuel, the required attachments) so the cultivator also gives me a second string if I just want to work on a small area for a few hours.

The tractor and harrow are fine for preparing a few acres or land at a time but f little value if you want to work on a 10m X 10m square (or similar) particularly since I have to avoid rows of plants and small trees. Even a small tractor is too clumsy to use around bushes and trees.

So, thanks again for your comments.


Novice - growing fruit, trees and weeds


  • Joined Jul 2008
  • Milton Keynes
Re: Using a Cultivator/Rotavator
« Reply #4 on: September 15, 2009, 09:37:35 pm »
Hi again,

Yes, 350 sounds a good price; I can see the attraction. And your light loam should be workable with it, even allowing for its' idiosyncracies!

I've used the 'finger tines' as they seem to be called. They're fine on worked, free soil, and do improve the tilth for planting, especially planting out seedlings or direct sowing. I found you still need to 'let the machine run a bit' to make a fine tilth, and it had a tendency to dig down too deep. I couldn't find an optimum position for the 'trailing leg' thing that's supposed to set the depth. When the soil's that fine, the leg sinks in more! It was an interesting experiment, which I've repeated on a couple of other allotment plots for other people. (My 'land' is all made up of allotment plots!). I never got it what I'd call right.

I found the 'finger tines' were no good for breaking new ground, or where the soil was weedy. Weeds clogged the tines up even more than the curved blade 'standard' tines, but that may be because the finger tines aren't even meant to be sharp (as oposed to blunted by use), and there are more of them. The worst scenario was couch-grass, which made the tines look as if they'd had a fight with a fishing net, and lost!

I also tried a set of 'clod crushers'. I don't know if they were a standard issue product...? I've seen things like them on BIG tractor outfits, but the ones I tried looked a bit home-made. Or maybe that's how they come? They looked like a pair of cylinders of metal spiral  - a bit like chunky, non-sharp cylinder mower blades, and the idea seemed to be to trundle over the ground, using the cylinders like wide, aerated, driven wheels, allowing the weight of the machine and its' (substantial) vibration to crunch up the lumpy clods of soil. It worked OK on dry to dryish soil, but in damp conditions, it just became like a pair of wide, muddy tyres, and didn't break anything, apart from my resolve! I don't know if anyone else has tried these? Or if there are any other attachments to try?

I also had a go with a 'toolbar' on the back, using the drive to a pair of metal, bladed wheels (I think they may be called 'straked'?). The toolbar was supposed to drag stationary tines like a variety of hoes, allowing you to adjust the width to weed between rows, or drag a potato ridger (like a snow-plough...) or other strange ironmongery. I never got on with any of them in my varied soil, which includes a lot of stone, some clay, patches of sandy loam, and persistent weeds/roots. The 'distractions' veered the machine off course too easily, and repeatedly I was close to ripping up my tender crop plants by accident. The machine seems unable to differentiate! This may be true with any driven machine, of course, and may not be an inherent failure of the 'single drive' (no extra wheels) type of machine. I guess you'd need a four-wheel machine to have directional stability?

Has anyone else any experience / suggestions?

Cheers,   John

Norfolk Newby

  • Joined Aug 2009
  • West Norfolk, UK
Update: Using a Cultivator/Rotavator
« Reply #5 on: October 08, 2009, 04:24:12 pm »
This is just an update.

I live in mid Norfolk. The last 3-4 months have been very very dry. I know, all of you living in the north and west of this Sceptered Isle can't imagine that, however...

As a result, the land I own has been like concrete even allowing for it being a light sandy loam. The last two days have been wet (finally!!). There were no puddles anywhere this morning but the soil is now workable.

I used the cultivator to prepare an area for planting soft fruit bushes - mainly black currants. It took me about 3 hours to dig an area 10 metres by 15 metres.

I went down each row to break the surface to a depth of 2-3". When the area had been dug once, I went back over it a second time. As I am only planting individual seedlings, my main objective was to reduce the weed population rather than deep dig the whole area. So I probably dug it to a depth of about 4-5" (10-12 centimetres) on the second pass.

The first pass was fairly hard work with the machine wanting to dance all over the place. This required a fair amount of effort to keep it moving straight ahead. The second pass was much easier to control.

I probably used about 1 litre of petrol doing this - perhaps a bit less.

I am not particularly young or fit. After an hour using the cultivator, I wanted a rest - a cup of tea or a break for lunch. I could have continued longer but my immediate objective was achieved.

I am writing this so that anyone thinking of buying a similar machine can appreciate its limitations and possibilities.

I would like to add to its value (as a tool) by getting attachments to rake, level and prepare seed drills. Is that the correct word? A shallow groove in which to places seeds for - say - a row of carrots. However, at present I have been unable to find anyone who supplies wheels or the required attachments. I may finish up making them from odd and ends. If I had bought one of the more expensive but better established brands, I think these attachments would be available. One more thing to think about when choosing a machine.

If I don't add to the cultivator's capabilities, there is a risk it will sit unused for about 10 months of the year. This isn't good for it or my peace of mind!


Novice - growing fruit, trees and weeds


  • Joined Jun 2009
Re: Using a Cultivator/Rotavator
« Reply #6 on: October 09, 2009, 08:57:52 am »

Hi Norfolk Newby - I can sympathise, I live in Willingham (near Cambridge) and have the same dry rock-like soil. Early this year we hired a rotavator to dig some veggie beds into grassy/weedy soil - it was extremely hard work and to be honest I don't think it was worth it, we put potatoes in there but they didn't do brilliantly and the bed is almost weed covered again now!!

We also put in some raised beds and although I felt this would be more work than just digging in the ground this is definitely my preferred option - we filled them with soil that we dug out of our ditches (they needed clearing anyway) and free compost from the council composting site and everything we grew there did really really well - it's much easier to weed too due to the soil being loose. I have enough wood left to double my number of raised beds (so I'll have 8 7'x7' beds) and have found a great source of free top-soil in Freecycle (as long as you're not in a rush for it). I will still use the patch we dug in the ground but probably for crops which don't grow their 'fruit' underground like grains, maize, beans etc.

We do keep revisiting our need for a rotavator or 2-wheel tractor but we're just nor convinced that they'll be effective!! Maybe a couple of pigs is a better option??  ;)


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