I’ve been doing a lot of raking recently, leveling the ground for sowing a new lawn. We have two rakes hanging in the shed but I always reach for this one. Strong and springy with a properly straight head, it’s a pleasure to use.
I’ve learnt much of my practical gardening by trial and error but preparing a seed bed is one of the garden tasks my father taught me systematically; rough digging followed by forking to break up clods and shake out weed roots, then using a rake to produce a fine tilth and a firm, even surface. It sounds, and looks straightforward but as with all practical skills there’s more to the succession of different actions than meets the eye.
There are many different ways to handle each tool, some more successful than others, depending on the task in hand. There are three main actions in using a rake, pulling, pushing and stomping the blade flat on the ground. With more pull than push you’ll drag the soil into a heap, together with the weeds and stones you collected along the way. Push and pull equally back and forth and you’ll start to dig a hole, uncovering stones and clods that might better have stayed buried. Working backwards with a firm pull stroke (starting with a downwards chop) followed by a light, bouncing push stroke will (once you’ve got the knack) clear roots and stones from the surface while leaving the ground more level than before.
To produce a fine tilth, or crumb structure, for a seed bed you need to break down large lumps of soil. That’s where a flat, springy blade comes in useful, stomped vertically on the ground. How much effort that takes depends on the soil you’re working. If you garden on heavy clay you’ll know the elusive moment between the soil being too wet and sticky to work and its drying out into clods like concrete. I’ve gardened on clay before but in Spittal I’m lucky to be working with a rich, friable loam. After a few breezy days newly dug clods are easily broken up with a fork. The resulting lumps are still too large for a seed bed but working backwards and forwards with a rake soon produces crumbs rather than clods.
Some years ago, tasked with organising a workplace volunteer group on a community gardening project, I found myself faced with a complete novice convinced he knew all there was to know about gardening. I briefly talked through the preparation of a seedbed while demonstrating the task then handed over the rake…..