Horse-Powered Market Garden
by Anne and Eric Nordell

Patterning a market garden after traditional field crop rotations is a natural way to create a rhythm for working horses over the course of the growing season. Sowing produce in single rows, in the manner of farm crops, readily allows horse-drawn implements to be used from planting through harvest.

When we started farming in the early 1980s, horse-powered market gardens were few and far between. Most of the organic growers we knew planted their crops in multiple-row beds or on black plastic. They had successfully adapted organic gardening techniques to a commercial scale. To prepare a seedbed they used tractor-powered rotovators and bed formers. For weed control they used plastic mulch layers, belly-mounted cultivators, or specialized hand tools.

Thinking that these intensive systems, no matter how productive or efficient, did not provide many opportunities for working a horse, we decided to take the opposite approach. Instead of adapting organic gardening practices to a farm scale, we seized on the diversified farm as a model and tried to adapt traditional farm practices to the market garden. We felt our approach would be the best way to realize the full potential of work horses in vegetable production.

Take, for example, the traditional 4-year rotation of corn, oats, wheat, and sod. Popularly known as COWS, the system was developed at a time when most farmers worked horses. Each crop was planted and harvested at a different point in the growing season, making it possible for farm families to do all the work with draft animals. Why not apply the same principle to the market garden? We soon learned that steady work, spread over the whole year, was an advantage when starting a young team in harness. Year-around employment also gave us a good return on their feed.

We suspected that using the traditional diversified farm as a model might benefit the market garden as much as the horses. The staggered planting/harvest dates of the four farm crops in the COWS rotation, for example, prevented any one family of weeds from getting permanently established. Annual weed pressure was further reduced by rotating cultivated row crops with solid-seeded small grains and mowed hay. For controlling perennial weeds, such as the quackgrass that infested our farm, the bare fallow period between the oat harvest and the fall seeding of winter wheat proved effective. Applying livestock manure, liberally bedded with oats and wheat straw, to the grass-legume sod improved soil structure and fertility for heavy-feeding crops like corn.

To make these farm principles work for our market garden, we alternate the fields between cash crops and fallow lands. Organizing our 12 one-half acre strips in this way gives us a lot more time and space for working the horses than we would have with an intensively planted garden. Strip farming also allows us to integrate into vegetable production such traditional cultural practices as soil-building sods, small grain covers, and summer fallow.

Our next step was to group together in the same fields those cash crops having similar planting/harvest dates, so we can alternate between early and late crops, just like the old-time rotations. The result is a 4-year rotation bearing similarities to the traditional field crop rotation known as COWS:
  1. A cover crop of yellow blossom sweet clover is mowed in the fallow field, which serves the same soil-building purpose as a legume-hay crop, improves soil structure and fixes nitrogen for the next year's heavy feeding cash crops of...
  2. ...late planted mixed vegetables. Our cultivated row crops, such as squash, tomatoes, and peppers, take the place of corn in the COWS rotation.
  3. The bare fallow falls between two small grain cover crops, just like the traditional summer fallow between oat harvest and seeding winter wheat. We count on the summer fallow, in conjunction with cover crops, to create weed-free conditions for the next year's crop of...
  4. early planted onions, which, along with most other early planted or overwintering vegetables occupy roughly the same growing window as wheat in the COWS rotation, putting on the bulk of their top growth in spring and maturing midsummer. To start the 4-year rotation over again with a soil-building sod, we often seed clover right into these early harvested cash crops in much the same way clover is established by broadcasting the seed into a nurse crop of wheat.
This 4-year rotation repeats itself three times during the course of our 12-field market garden. We simply substitute different cash crops in the early and late slots. The types and timing of tillage may be rotated to benefit both the crops and the horses. The details of our rotation keep changing as we adapt to changes in the marketplace and climate. Using horses to manage the progression of cover crops in the fallow fields remains the key, because this is what keeps both the land and the horses in working condition, while allowing us to use the tools—and the rhythm—of working horses.

As we see it, designing the market garden with work horses in mind has led to a hybrid approach combining the long-term biological efficiencies of traditional field crop rotations with the short-term profitability of direct marketed produce. Our land-extensive system has virtually eliminated hand weeding and the need for off-farm inputs other than seed, feed, and rock phosphate.

Many dairy farmers in our area still practice the traditional field crop rotation of corn, oats, and hay, which is just a throwback to generations when horses were a farm's only source of power. Compared to an intensively planted garden, alternating our half-acre strips between cash crops and fallow lands gives us a lot more time and space to work the horses. And, using the composted manure from just four work horses, we are able to maintain good growing conditions on our six acres under cultivation.


Ann and Eric Nordell operate their market garden in Trout Run, Pennsylvania. The above article appeared in the Autumn 1998 issue of Rural Heritage.

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26 April 2012 last revision