CA Series Entry 2: Manual Land Preparation

Actions and necessary tools are based on using readily available and free resources. It would be nice if all farmers had GPS devices – the accuracy would be unreal but the likelihood of that is even more unreal. Even if it were possible, it would not be practical. The best methods use local, cheap (this does not mean poor quality) and/or free materials any farmer can easily acquire. And most farmers in Northern Ghana are smallholders – having anywhere between half an acre to a few acres scattered here and there.

So, for smallholders, mechanized land preparation can be impractical or simply not possible (some farms are miles into the bush!). The method of manual land preparation I will describe here bring Conservation Agriculture (CA) within reach for any farmer.

Tools and materials needed:
-hoe                               -measuring tape (at least 1 meter long)
-rope                             -something to demarcate lengths on a rope
-wooden stakes         -manure
-plastic bottle cap     -NPK (optional)


Land measurement

Creating our 1 meter demarcated rope to measure land. 

For this, the materials needed are a measuring tape, rope, wooden stakes and something to mark the rope with. The last item, we were creative about and used pieces of plastic bags and bottle caps. The length of the rope can be to the farmer’s choosing and lengths of one meter are marked off all along it. A ten meter long demarcated rope is easy to manage and store. This marked rope would be used to determine the size of the land a farmer wants to do CA on. Recalling that precision is a key component of CA, knowing the size of land is absolutely necessary. This way, the farmer can calculate, with accuracy, all his/her inputs and spacing. And this is something that should be done regardless of mechanized or manual land preparation.



Digging Basins

The other land preparation tool we made were lengths of marked rope to make basins. Basins are rectangular ditches 35cm long, 15cm deep and hoe width. These are made in rows, with 40cm between each length (from the end of one basin to the beginning of the next). So, the demarcated rope should be marked as such: 35cm – 40cm – 35cm – 40cm – etc. For the one we created, we used bottle caps for the 35cm mark and pieces of plastic bag for the 40cm mark. Between each row depends on what is being planted. However, crop rotation is key, so this must also be borne in mind. More discussion on spacing follows below. The space around each basin acts as water storage and the basins are permanent. Every season, the farmer need only do maintenance by digging out the holes again.

Digging 35cm long basins along demarcated ropes

I cannot stress enough the importance of precision in these measured and demarcated ropes. They should be calibrated when first made and then again whenever used (remember, basins are permanent, so once dug, that is it!). If a basin-demarcated rope is off at every mark it will mean one of two things:

Calibrating ropes against each other

1. The marks are longer than they should be – it could be enough to add up to less basins per row
2. The marks are shorter than they should be – it could lead to over crowding and thus plants that are not as productive as they could be.


Creating basins upholds one of the main principles of CA: minimal soil disturbance. In creating the basins only hoe width x 35cm x 15cm is moved as 40 cm precedes and follows it. In conventional plowing, every bit of dirt, even where nothing is to be planted is churned. I stupidly forgot to write down the weight of dirt moved in a space of hoe width x 75cm (35 + 40) x 15 and the same area done with conventional plowing. I do however recall the weighing scale not having the capacity to carry the soil of conventional plowing – the needle went around twice.

Fertilizer amounts
If chemical fertilizer is available, for example, NPK, which comes in the form of little pellets (it looks like Dippin’ Dots ice cream), ten grams per basin in needed. The equivalent of ten grams is two plastic water bottle capfuls. At least this is the size of most water bottle caps in Ghana. It is a good idea to find a local and easily available container that can hold the equivalent of ten grams. The method of application is to return some of the loose dirt (about 1/3), then spread the chemical fertilizer and cover it with another third of the displaced dirt.

If manure is available, two double handfuls (cupping hands together = one double handful) should be put in and then topped off with the loose dirt, leaving a few centimeters from the rim of the basin. If both manure and chemical fertilizer are available, still add two double handfuls of manure but only five grams or one cap full of the chemical fertilizer. Here, also cover the basin with a few centimeters to spare.

It is amazing how much can go into each basin. For maize, it is ok to plant three seeds per basin. Of course as evenly spaced as possible. I was surprised at being told three seeds could be planted. I imagined it was trying to take into account germination rates but when I asked if this was why three could be planted, I was told the soil can take it. I can only assume this is because of the amount of fertilizer added to the basins. Also, it is only with three that it makes the plant population per acre through basins competitive with conventional land preparation. Protocol spacing for maize in our demo plots was 25cm x 75cm, giving 21,333 plants per acre. We were told an acre can hold 7,140 basins, so with three seeds per basin in an acre, it gives a plant population of 21,420.

These numbers are getting to me – where did this 7,140 basins come from? I am skeptical (only will not be until I try it myself) of the three maize seeds per basin as it just sounds too crowded. And, we were not given a ‘safe’ measurement for between basin rows. So, for theory sake, I have done some calculations. An acre as square as possible would be 60m x 67.5m (4m larger than an acre). Meaning 90 basins per row and roughly 79cm between rows to achieve 7,110 basins. Being absolutely exact here is difficult. But even with this smaller number of basins, it would give a plant population of 21,333 – the amount a conventionally prepared acre should be able to hold. Also, it is close to the protocol measurement for between row spacing from our demo plot. This still does not ease my skepticism of the three maize seeds per basin but I guess only a trial will tell.

For soybeans, eight seeds can be planted – two rows of four in the basin. Once the seeds are placed, cover the basins until the brim (seeds will only be a couple cm from the brim). Whatever is being planted do not compact the soil because when it rains, the force from the drops will remove some the air bubbles and the soil in the basins will sink a little. I cannot say much about soy beans because I did not do a demonstration plot on them and have only seen what farmers conventionally do.

I imagine vegetables could be planted too, such as chilli plants, cabbage, lettuce and tomatoes. I could see how this was almost like permaculture gardening with the addition of fertilizers and creation of water catchments. It was also clear how basins are a practical form of land preparation for a half acre or less. The digging is really not so strenuous and considering they are permanent, it is only initially where more work is necessary. The years to come should be easier.

I want to try a few basins back in Macondo. Maybe a few short rows next to the permagarden. Just to see how well they produce and also see what three maize plants looks like in that space. Watch this space!


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