Monday, September 19, 2011

Digging Lily Bulbs with Antique Potato Diggers – Gently and Quickly

For those of you who read the previous post last Thursday [scroll down or use link] and have wondered, “How did those two lily bulbs become planted in the wrong place anyway?”  It’s probably not what you imagined at all.  Definitely not squirrels – which can sometimes happen in city landscapes with newly planted bulbs – as there are too many coyotes for the shy tree dwellers to take a chance in our open field.  Nor is it random acts of mischief; our property is well monitored.  But rather, it is a simple case of mechanics.

We use an assortment of old-fashioned but quite serviceable iron potato diggers, some of which date back to the early 1900’s – parts of them, anyway – to gently harvest our lily bulbs in fall.  The machine shown on the right just dug 800 row feet of potatoes for the neighborhood over the weekend.   "Modern" embellishments to this model include rubber tires from the 1940's (technology at its finest and gentle on the driveway) plus a converted Model A car transmission to neatly attach to our tractor’s PTO (power take off) shaft.  These two simple changes are more innovative than at first glance.

In the early years, 3 to 4-inch deep “fins” on the wheels rotated the wire link “belt” while a team of 4 horses pulled the machine through the field and the two photos of this Dowden digger show the fins quite nicely.  The fins are not retractable, so pulling the digger out of the field and into a pasture or driveway tears up the ground, making a mess. 

Common to all harvesters is a sharply pointed shape that digs underground as the tractor moves through the field to lift lily bulbs (or potatoes) up and onto the traveling belt, which sits on an assortment of oval shaped gears to “shake” soil and weeds away.  In the past, we've even used these machines to dig daylily and iris clumps, which is much easier than hand digging if you need to dig quite a few plants.

If the field soil is dry it works like a charm and bulbs are easy to pluck off the belt, but if there has been rain then the clumps of soil, roots, weeds and bulbs can be somewhat cumbersome and much hand labor is involved to gently separate our lilies from the soil.   Smaller bulbs and bulblets attached to old stems may fall down between the bars and either become buried back into the soil or simply take a ride around and around within the mechanism.  When the next variety is dug, that wayward bulb - if not noticed - could end up in the next batch of lilies to be planted.  What happens to the bulbs and bulblets that fall through the bars?  We rotate crops after harvest, otherwise all of those stem bulblets and small bulbs that fell back to earth would happily grow and cause all kinds of trouble – popping up everywhere.  We find very few out of place lilies, mostly because the belt is checked between varieties for strays.

At the end of harvest Bob “sweeps” the field with the tractor; piling old stems, weeds and clumps of stem roots into a corner of the field into a giant compost pile.  The field is then tilled and usually left bare over winter because there aren’t enough warm days left to sow a cover crop so late in the year, especially if the last lilies are dug in November between rain and freezing temperatures.  In early spring there are usually a few stem bulblets and cosmetically damaged bulbs left in the fields that begin to grow, but they are sacrificed as the soil is again tilled and a grain crop is sown.  Midsummer, before the grain stalks begin to toughen, everything is tilled back into the soil along with any lily bulbs that survived.  Despite the tumbling of soil during tillage, a few bulbs will endure the process and pop up in a row of their cousins, which leads us to hand digging any rogue lilies during the blooming season. 

(Yes, those rogue bulbs generally are moved to Dianna’s garden if they can be removed without damage.  For years, Bob’s mother would pick up every little scrap that was discarded in the field or on the packing room floor until there was no more room in her city garden.  The next season, a new row of pots would line the front sidewalk.)

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