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When to use a scythe

Scything ragweedA lot of people buy an Austrian scythe because they want to replace their weedeater and/or lawnmower with a hand tool.  Why use gasoline when you don't have to?

Although I agree with that logic to some extent, Mark has turned me into a realist when it comes to homesteading tools.  If a hand tool takes a significant amount more muscle than a power tool, I might choose the power tool.

On the other hand, I also factor in the long term effort involved.  If I'm afraid of the power tool, can't get it started easily, or can't fix common ailments myself, I might find it simpler in the long run to use a hand tool.  That's why our tool kit contains a mixture of power and hand tools, into which the scythe slid gracefully.

So which power tools does the scythe replace, and when?  Pros use their scythe to mow the lawn, but I have to admit that I find the lawnmower much easier in that respect.  On the other hand, the scythe is great on rough terrain or when cutting tall weeds that would bog down the mower.  There, Mark would turn to the weedeater, but that tool fails all three of my power tool tests, so I stick to the scythe.  (Despite being scared of the weedeater, I wouldn't try to use my scythe for the tasks Mark turns his ninja blade to --- really heavy duty brush is a job either for power tools or for slow and steady work with loppers and a hand saw.)

Scything clover

Closed hafting angleEven if you like your weedeater, you might find a scythe handy in certain situations.  Scythes cut right where you tell them to without shredding the severed plant to bits, so they're great for harvesting grain and cutting comfrey for mulch.  My scythe also makes it easy to mow with more discernment, a boon in my complicated forest gardens and pastures, where I might want to leave a berry plant to finish fruiting, mow red clover at six inches but ragweed right at the ground, and be able to feel that I'm hitting a fallen branch before damaging my tool.

(I can't say for sure that a weedeater can't do all those things --- I've hardly used one.  But I can tell you for sure that it's easier for me to scythe my complex pastures than to explain to Mark how I want them cut.)

Now for the downsides of the scythe.  You need to commit more time to learning the craft, paying special attention to sharpening the blade.  On the other hand, while you can just start a weedeater and let her rip, you'll still have to take the tool in for a tuneup from time to time if you can't figure out how to clean the air filter, change the spark plug, etc.  Austrian scytheIn the long run, I think that a scythe requires less knowledge to keep the tool running at its best than a weedeater does, unless you're already an expert at small engine repair.

I was also disappointed to discover that scything is very wrist intensive.  I'm prone to carpal tunnel flareups, which is why Mark splits all the wood around here.  While not nearly as bad for my tendons as splitting wood, half an hour of scything is really all my wrists can handle before they begin to protest.  This is a problem because scything is extremely addictive and fun, and it's hard to make myself stop once I've started!

I'm sure I'll discover additional pros and cons of the scythe as I use it more.  I haven't quite put in the eight hours required before I need to peen the blade yet, so take my advice with a grain of salt.  Maybe other scythe-users will chime in with the times they choose to (and not to) use their scythe.

Our chicken waterer keeps the coop dry and the chickens healthy.


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Looking at the picture, your blade is a brush blade not a grass blade. It should be able to cut an one inch sapling easily. Just hook it low with the base of the blade at a 45 or sharper angle and jerk up, or swing hard with an upward pull at the end.
Comment by Errol Tue Jun 12 08:05:22 2012
Daddy --- It's actually a short grass blade. I had a choice of various types of blades when I ordered, and decided on the shorter grass blade since it's recommended for multiple uses if you're only going to have one blade. They do have brush/bush blades but I figured I'd leave the weed whacking to Mark since those blades are heavier, so yet harder on the wrists. That said, I have cut through blackberry canes and even half inch trees with this blade with little problem.
Comment by anna Tue Jun 12 09:05:22 2012

I love my Austrian scythe! I also got a fairly short blade, because I use it to mow rather tall grass and blackberry canes.

One of the things that takes practice is swinging it with good posture. I often find my right arm starting to ache because I am holding the scythe off the ground. If I relax my arms and let them hang straight, it really helps. If you have a copy of "The Scythe Book," read his section about posture. It helps that I am already familiar with the Alexander posture technique that he mentions.

I also noticed recently that if I allow my left arms to do some of the work (balance the work between both arms) that helps. And it helps to use the motion of your body to swing it.

I am still an amateur, so perhaps there are some other mowers who could contribute suggestions. I do love my scythe, for the same reasons as you. It's great for clearing tall weeds, although I still haven't gotten the trick of mowing clumpy grass with it. (The kind of grass that makes little hillocks.)

The other reason I have it is that I'm in the middle of a land purchase negotiation (wow! nerve-racking) and I am hoping that if I can get the land, I can do some small grain growing.

Speaking of which, I would love to see a post about what small grains you would consider growing in the Appalachians. (You are in the Apps, right?) I want to grow winter wheat using the Marc Bonfils method (related to the methods of Masanobu Fukuoka) but I am told that our climate is too humid for wheat.

Comment by Faith T Tue Jun 12 09:23:49 2012
I am so glad to see someone using a scythe! I have one in my garage that cam with the house and I have been thinking about taking it down and cleaning it up for a while. For someone who grew up closer to the city, how did you learn how to use it?
Comment by sarah Tue Jun 12 09:37:19 2012

Faith --- I'm still working my way through the Scythe Book, but do remember enjoying his section on the Alexander technique. (I'd heard of it before, but never seen it explained.) Unfortunately, I don't think posture is going to help my wrists --- just closing my hand solidly around something for an extended period of time is enough to inflame my carpal tunnel. I probably could rig some kind of brace that fits over my forearm and prevents me from having to grip if I really needed to use the scythe for longer, but I'm not that desperate. :-)

I had the same problem you did with clumpy grass. Luckily, we only have five or six plants around the garden, so I'm just digging them up one by one.... :-)

We're in the infancy of learning about grains. We didn't have much luck with wheat, but our neighbors seem to do well with barley and rye (and maybe oats as a summer crop?) Field corn, of course, is the most productive and easiest to grow, but it doesn't make straw and isn't grown like other grains.

Can you point me to a book about the Marc Bonfils method? I'm very interested in a more sustainable way of growing grain, and while Fukuoka's books are interesting, they need a lot of tweaking to fit our climate.

Sarah --- I got a copy of The Scythe Book with my scythe and have been slowly reading through it. It helps to read the book a bit at a time, practicing in between. People who like watching instead of reading have turned to youtube, where there are apparently a lot of instructional videos. Good luck!

Comment by anna Tue Jun 12 16:32:13 2012
How does it do on your back? I always end up putting straining my back after using the weed eater...
Comment by Chris Tue Jun 12 17:29:20 2012
Chris --- Keep in mind that I only use my scythe for about half an hour at a time, but I haven't felt anything in my back at all. I suspect it's a lot easier on your back in general than a weedeater is, because it's much lighter. (That's an Austrian scythe --- American scythes are heavier.)
Comment by anna Tue Jun 12 18:36:00 2012

Regarding Marc Bonfils - when I google him now, I immediately come across references to "The Harmonious Wheatsmith." But when I first learned about him, it was through vague references to a pamphlet... hardly any real information.

Essentially, he uses winter wheat that sends out a lot of side shoots - so many side shoots that the plant gets to be a foot across. He plants it on the summer solstice, staggered at 2 ft intervals, with clover between. Then next summer solstice, he plants new wheat in the foot intervals between. Then he harvests the first (mature) plants in August. So this allows for a continuous cycle.

Comment by Faith T Tue Jun 12 18:45:33 2012

Faith --- Thanks for such a succinct sumup! I was just reading various things about him on the internet and your analysis seems to summarize it all up perfectly.

What I'm going to have to figure out, unfortunately, before I give it a try, is how to turn the powerline cut (full of stumps and high weeds) into a growing area without tilling it. It's too big to kill mulch all at once, but I could poke at it slowly but surely. Or maybe just scythe until things scale back down. Hmmm....

Comment by anna Tue Jun 12 18:57:56 2012

I am also pretty new at this, have not had to peen my blades yet. I got a 28" grass blade and a 24" ditch blade, thinking those will cover most of my needs. When I have heavier stuff, it is usually time to break out the digging bar and bush axe, etc.

I have not found any reasons to go back. I have been wanting to stop using the lawn mower for a while, because I feel it creates many unsustainable external dependencies and provides absolutely no benefits. I don't need a golf course or a soccer field, and there are better ways to create walkable paths. When I determine I am putting too much time into scythe mowing, the conclusion I come to is not "I need a gas mower", but "I have too much grass".

Before I got my scythe, I was paying for: - mower gas - mower maintenance - straw (likely from GMO plants sprayed with herbicides) - compost mix (also likely to be contaminated)

Now I avoid all those costs by using my scythe to mow and find uses for all the biomass it produces.

While it is true that mowing with a scythe takes longer than a gas powered mower, I reckon I spend less time mowing overall because now I mow much less frequently. Gas mowers don't function well when the grass gets tall, but the scythe works like a charm whenever I feel like using it.

There isn't much to be done about your wrist issue other than what you are doing - don't mow for more than you can stand. Those short breaks to whet the blade are helpful to prevent fatigue.

As you pointed out, using the scythe puts us in a much better position to choose what we mow or leave. My honeybees and other pollinators like flowers, my chickens and other birds like seeds, and I prefer my straw mulch long as well. I usually leave clover and other N-fixers as well as dynamic accumulators, because taller plants mean longer roots and more delicious soil.

I am also keen to learn more about small scale grains - making my way through "Small Scale Grain Raising" by Gene Logsdon now. I am also very interested in Bonfils, as well as the research of Wes Jackson at The Land Institute on the development (by cross breeding existing stock, not GM) of perennial grain crops.

Comment by Chris Wed Jun 13 13:49:41 2012

I seem to remember that Bonfils had a method of bringing a meadow into wheat cultivation. Something about mowing (with a scythe) at the right intervals during that first summer when the wheat is fairly short. You would want to read the information available online.

And the real question is, can you effectively grow wheat where you live? A good friend of mine (who is an excellent gardener) has warned me that our mountains near Asheville are too humid for wheat. Although he mentioned in passing that some people have made strides with special varieties of wheat; I do not know if those varieties would work well in Bonfils's method.

Comment by Faith T Thu Jun 14 08:28:45 2012

Chris --- I totally agree. I think the scythe is a prime permaculture tool because it makes it easy to cut your own mulch from whatever is growing around you, which opens up a lot of possibilities beyond lawn. You might enjoy the chapter Mowing in Lee Reich's The Pruning Book since he uses a similar scything method to create "Lawn Nouveau".

Faith --- I definitely wouldn't try wheat. As I mentioned earlier, we tried it before without much luck. Barley and rye seem to do better locally.

We might have to mow that area for a year or two before it even reaches the meadow stage, but it's good to hear that if we can get there, we can probably convert to grain no-till!

Comment by anna Thu Jun 14 15:41:36 2012

Anna,

One of the obvious times to use the scythe (for us anyway, here in overcrowded Japan) is very early morning. If I'm out at five in the morning on a Sunday (quite likely, now that the summer heat and humidity have arrived), then I can quite happily put in a couple of hours of mowing without worrying too much about waking the non-farming neighbours in the vicinity.

Clumped grass... the best method I've found to date is a drastic change in technique, from an easy swing to a power stroke (really put more upper-body energy into it) and, at the same time, pull back sharply towards you with the left arm (for right-handers). Don't be afraid to circle round the clump and cut again from a different direction to get those left-over blades of grass that always seem to be slumped over on your side of the clump.

Back ache... for me, using the scythe is actually beneficial. The relatively static lower body and the gentle swing of the upper seems to loosen up my spine and back muscles.

When not to use the scythe? We have some really steep slopes surrounding some of our land (think rice paddies on hill sides) which are also very stony. Using the scythe on these slopes is positively dangerous (actually, using just about any tool on those slopes is dangerous), with the added problem of not just blunting, but damaging the blade on those hidden stones. The weed-whacker is still a pain to use, but a lot less likely to send you skidding down the slope on your rump, plus replacement blades are available just about everywhere.

As a side note... I spent a few minutes a couple of weekends back introducing my (adult) daughter to the scythe when she was here on a visit. It was interesting to see her progress as she went from the initial limp swings ("This thing is heavy!") to a more coordinated, parallel cut in about ten to fifteen minutes. There was a certain point where she started (subconciously, I think) making slight changes to angle and swing to suit the vegetation (we were working over some very rough, mixed terrain), where it was obvious that she "got it" and it very suddenly came together for her. I seem to remember, in the very, very distant past, digging holes in the dirt and generally being a danger to dogs and co-workers for what seemed like weeks while I got the hang of scything. How about everyone else? How long was it before you felt reasonably competent?

Comment by John Sat Jun 16 11:37:37 2012

John --- When I started reading your comment, I just figured you were our regular commenter from Japan. Exciting to have two of you commenting! :-)

Excellent information! I was thinking of using the scythe on our steep powerline cut, but maybe I should hold off....

I still don't feel like I'm all that good at scything after maybe four to six hours (spread across a month or two :-) ), but I do feel like I've gotten past the stage where I spend all of my time pondering the exact body movements. That happened for me maybe an hour or so in?

Comment by anna Sat Jun 16 18:46:22 2012
A few years ago I switched my upper handle, from its conventional position on the snath, round to the opposite side, ie so that it is pointing away from me instead of towards me. That gives me a huge mechanical advantage so that I can pull more effectively, with less effort, with my left hand. Am nearly sixty, so need to be as cunning as I can be to make up for lack of strength. Immediately less carpal tunnel and less thumb arthritis pain. I'd still recommend avoiding excessive hours doing unaccustomed activity, but this way I can do much more than previously.
Comment by Judith Mon Dec 24 17:57:32 2012