Farmers prided themselves on choosing the optimum time for spring sowing e.g. to sow during a waxing moon was thought preferable. Many relied on the feel of the land on their feet even when these were covered with boots. Others wiped the back of their hands over the soil and some even took their trousers off and sat on the soil. A degree of exhibitionism may have been a factor in this!
When dispersing the seed of crops such as wheat, oats and barley it was important to get an even spread over the land. Broadcast sowing was the most common method used until well into the 19th century. The seed was held in a cloth basket or wooden container held in front of the farmer supported with straps around the neck and waist. Examples of these seed lips can be found in the museum.
Seed was gathered in the hand and thrown over the land. Sometimes, two hands were used but some found this difficult. Seed lips often had a handle to hold the seed lip firm with one hand. Although an experienced farmer could disperse the seed fairly evenly the spread was, nevertheless, patchy. It was easier to produce a more even dispersal by using a mechanical device called a fiddle. The seed fiddle had a box, extended in its capacity by a bag, to hold the seed. A rotating wheel that dispersed the seed was activated by a rod in an action like playing a fiddle. Once again, examples of these are in the museum.
A more time consuming but less wasteful means of sowing seed was called dibbling. A simple dibber/dibbler was similar to a fork with a single prong, widened at the end. It was inserted into the ground, by the farmer walking backwards, leaving a hole into which were dropped 3-4 seeds, usually by an accompanying woman or child. Not surprisingly, children found this tedious and often sang little ditties to relieve their boredom. An example of one went:
Four seeds a hole:
One for the rook and one for the crow;
And one to rot, and one to grow.
There were several elaborations on this technique including double dibbers and a spiked wheel to make the holes. Several examples of seed barrows, with a hopper above and a mechanism for controlling the fall of seed to the soil, can be found in the museum.
Jethro Tull, in 1733, first published details of the first really successful machine -a seed drill - for mechanising this process. Although the engineering has improved enormously over the years, the basic mechanism is still used today. As the seed drill is pulled forward a furrow is made in the soil by a knife (coulter) and the seed is dropped into this, through a coulter tube, from a hopper. An attached harrow at the rear, which might be no more than a piece of wood or hawthorn branches, covers the seed with soil. Various mechanisms have been devised to control the rate at which the seed is dropped into the drill. Jethro Tull’s seed drill used a rotating cylinder with grooves in it. The seed fell into the grooves from the hopper and, as the cylinder rotated, the seed fell down into the coulter tube. His seed drill had only 3 hoppers and drills but later machines had more.
The photograph shows the seed drill in the museum. In this machine from Suffolk the seed is literally spooned into the drills as the machine progresses, the spoons being attached to an axle driven from the wheels (6 rings of spoons within the blue box can be seen in the photograph). The faster the horse pulls the seed drill the quicker the spoons circulate.
With seed drills the seed is planted in straight lines with space in between that allows weeding by using a mechanical horse drawn hoe. The seed was planted to the correct depth and the width between the drills could be varied to suit the crop. Along with covering the seed with soil, all this increased crop yield.