Information Number 14: This one's
caused far more harm to soil than almost any other garden
misinformation. Rototiller makers and advertisers want you to believe that
their product is another of those end-all answers to gardening success. They
make the job easier: no more back-breaking spading, raking and hand-pulling
last years' weeds. They make the job faster: why, using a rototiller
you can till up the garden in a tenth the time it'd take with a shovel.
that they're noisy, gasoline-guzzling, smoky and joint-jarring..."It's
nearly miraculous technology," we're told. "Get with the times -
join the real world...get the job done quicker with our machine! Put
your grandfather's out-dated shovel back in the tool shed!"
multiple spinning tines that chop and grind nearly everything they encounter,
rototillers do, indeed, create a smooth, small-particle seed bed, especially
for the vegetable patch. As is, the once-tilled soil is almost perfect for
planting most seeds, hardly needing to be raked smooth.
however, when natural human impatience sets in as winter draws to a close and
the time approaches for preparing the soil for the new seasons' crops. Here in
the Northeast, it almost always happens a few weeks before Memorial Day. The minute
the soil drains enough to walk around without the dreaded squishing sound of
mud season, out come the little, home-size rototillers...usually starting on
Saturday afternoons, followed every evening for a week - after the garden guy
gets home from work.
"Well," I've been asked many times over the years, "if once
over is good, then going back and forth for several days in a row must be
that most home-gardener rototillers only till down a scant few inches,
the end result of repeated bludgeoning with that noisy-smoky little piece of
technical advancement is little more than moist dust. Too-fine particles that
have lost the ability to hold vital oxygen...that compact into near concrete
consistency when walked upon, and that have lost the ability to efficiently
drain away excess water. Beneficial insects like earthworms (who aerate and
enrich the soil) and ground beetles (they're the ones who feast upon
destructive cutworms and rampaging slugs) have been virtually destroyed. And
the Cooperative Extension gets calls asking: "Why ain't the plants in
my vegetable garden doing anything?"
a pounding thunderstorm passes by, all that too-fine dirt (it's no longer
healthy "soil") turns into slippery mud that stifles success,
encourages consternation, and then erodes into the neighbor's yard or a
nearby stream or pond.
If you feel
must...go ahead and rototill -- once. Resist the temptation to
repeatedly and mercilessly pound and pulverize and abuse the soil.
once asked me,
"...why don’t you use a rototiller
like the rest of us?"
I used to have a medium-size rototiller. Nice one. I trusted and
believed in the noisy, smoky and awkward thing. Until one day I realized that it couldn’t possibly till deeper than
3 or 4 honest inches—and that’s stretching its ability. Even the "big"
bruisers hauled around by several-ton tractors don’t go deeper than maybe
7 or 8 inches. Oh, yes…I know what the advertising and tractor driver
says: "Yessir! It’ll cut right down to a foot or better. You
bet!" Don’t you believe it.
Sure, if the operator goes back
over the same patch over and over again, it may go a little deeper
but I’ve seen first-hand the pounding and bludgeoning soil endures
at the hands of repeated abuse by any size rototillers—and results still cannot
hold a candle to a good, sharp, 12-inch spade and some healthful elbow grease.