Monday, December 7, 2009


As a young gardener, so many mistakes are made. Mistakes tend to cost you, whether it be time, money, your crop, life and limb, sweat, or your sanity. Sometimes your failures are to serve as Public Service Announcement warning to others, or so entertaining in a pathetic sort of way that they make a descent story. Such was the case the very first time when I decided I wanted a garden. Armed with a shovel and a rake I set out to dig a plot. Hours of back-breaking work and lack-luster results later, I was wiping the sweat from my brow, smearing dirt across my face, and panting in the midday sun. My only thought was, 'This stinks. I need some equipment.'

My first stop was to my Aunt's house. She informed me that it would be significantly easier tilling if I first cut the grass as short as I possibly could. She armed me with one of those electric weed-whackers that you plug in to speed through that process.

Excellent! I wouldn't even have to spend money on gas. She also had one of those mini tillers that I thought would serve my purposes just fine. I didn't want a gigantic garden, just a little of this and a little of that. She was giving me some mini-tiller instructions, but I wasn't really paying attention. Visions of gorgeous vegetables were dancing in my head. I was eager to get started, and I'd seen my father, George use a full-size tiller with complete ease in my childhood, how different could it be? I loaded that mini-tiller and the electric weed-whacker into the trunk of my car and back I went to the spot of my future garden.

So I commenced my grass cutting. I skipped the lawn mower and went straight to the very novel electric weed-whacker. I thought, 'Hey, I can even neaten up around my deck!' Great times.

I weed-whacked down to almost dirt, concentrating on not actually hitting dirt so I wouldn't demolish the cord that whacks the weeds. I had an excellent and reasonably sized rectangle when I was done. I neatened up all around my porch and the front step. Feeling like I'd killed two birds with one stone. It was wonderful the sense of accomplishment I had. It was too bad that it was so short-lived. I was just winding up the cord to the weed-whacker when I looked up. In the process of clearing my garden plot, and industriously edging around the deck, the cord had mangled everything growing in all 4 of my flower boxes. Sense of accomplishment gone. After looking over the damage, I did what little I could for my mangled flowers, and pressed on in my rototilling mission.

I pride myself on what little bit of mechanical ability I do possess. Back in the day I used to pull-start a snowmobile. This little baby tiller should be no problem whatsoever! An hour, a set of scuffed knuckles and an arm like jell-o later, I've managed to get the mini-tiller started. The thing is going, and I attempt to push it forward. The mini-tiller digs down into the sod making a nice little hole, but refuses to go forward. So, logic says I pull it backwards if it won't go forward. The thing is digging through sod into dirt, and I'm doing alright for a few seconds. One thing you may or may not know about mini-tillers is that they're not particularly stable. They tend to be a little tippy while they hop through the dirt, and there is also no guard on the back to deflect dirt and anything else you might till up. You'll figure this out if you're like me, diving right into your project willy-nilly. This mini-tiller bounced around and tipped sideways throwing dirt, sod, grass and rocks everywhere, including all over me as I struggled to get it under control. I kept at it for a little while longer. Pelting the side of my house, my car, the lawn, myself and my dog with dirt, rocks and clumps of grass. When a rather sizable rock tagged me in the shin at high velocity, followed by a string of cuss words to make any pirate proud, I decided I'd had enough of the mini-tiller. Its important that you know, I have since learned the proper handling techniques for a mini-tiller, and as it turns out they are very useful. I would just recommend reading the manual, and probably using it in your already de-sodded garden. Or perhaps when someone is trying to tell you how to use it, pay attention.

My next thought as I was icing my injury, was to call Dad. Why I didn't do this first, I just don't know. A tractor would make quick work of this little patch of sod! That evening, being the good Dad that he is, out he rode on his tractor with the appropriate attachment. It literally took him about 45 seconds to till up the plot marked out by my earlier weed-whackings. God bless John Deere. So after a short visit with Dad where I chronicled my difficulties with the mini-tiller, and he examined the chipped paint on my car, I got back to work. At this point I was tossing sod in one direction and rocks in another. I don't know how much you know about dogs, particularly Golden Retrievers. They just think its great fun for you to throw things so they can bring it back. Sunday morning, I've got a good sweat going tossing clumps of sod and rocks of varying size. Wouldn't you know that fool dog brought back most of the rocks and some of the sod I was throwing. She did her retriever breeding proud that day. After I had to back track and re-de-rock about 8 feet of progress, I had to put her in the house, where she watched me pitifully from the window. It took me most of the morning, but once I was done I had a lovely garden spot.

My next move was to re-till my dirt. After my harrowing experience with the mini-tiller, I wasn't eager to try it again. If the bruise on my shin and the paint missing from my car wasn't enough to convince me, the fact that the dog would run in terror from the thing was enough. When I found my Aunt not at home, I unceremoniously dumped the thing on her porch along with the weed-whacker, and set out on my next rototiller mission. I was on my way to rent one from my local equipment rental place. It was surprisingly cheap, I figured I'd only need it for a couple of hours.

I got my latest tiller home in a borrowed truck. To this day I'm very glad there was no one around to watch me take that beast of the back of that truck except the dog, and she's not talking. Death by rototiller wasn't a far off diagnosis of that dismount. I've got a smart dog, but I don't know if she'd run for help "Lassie-style" were I to be trapped and unconscious beneath that rototiller. Honestly, do yourself a favor and use a ramp of some sort to roll your rototiller down from the truck bed, or at bare minimum a sturdy plank, ideally more than one. It might have been a stroke of genius to back up against a natural bank to unload. However, luck (if not skill) was on my side, and I got the rental tiller to the ground with minimal damage to it or myself. The one ancient board I'd found in my shed didn't fare nearly as well. This particular tiller had tires on the front and the spinning tines in the back, also with a flap to protect me from flying dirt and rocks. I was feeling warm and fuzzy towards the machine already. So I wheeled it over to my plot, and started it up with minimal troubles. I was feeling successful so early in the game! I activated the tines and away I went. It was beautiful. That tiller made my dirt gorgeous. I was a happy gardener with my first pass…and then I came to the end of the row. I moved to turn, the tines that were my friend climbed up out of the dirt of their own volition and began clawing into the sod of my lawn, dragging me with it. I tore up a good 5 ft strip of lawn before I was able to work the necessary levers to stop the tiller without killing the engine. Nearly giving myself a hernia, I managed to turn the beast around, and wheel it back to what I actually wanted tilled. Beautiful tilled up dirt was the result, with some clawed up lawn on the other end, although much less lawn than my original pass. Although, seeing the tiller's work on my lawn, I might've just used it to originally break ground, rather than Dad with his tractor, although it probably would've yanked me in God-only-knows what kind of a pattern rather than the oddly shaped rectangle I was working on at that point. By the time I reached the last row of what was to be my garden, I about had the hang of it.

Why had this not been as easy as the rototilling I'd seen my father do in my childhood? I'd seen him operate a tiller similar to the one I was using one handed while he walked heel to toe beside it, making perfect rows. For starters, its always helps to know what you're doing. At the time when he was using a rototiller, that was not his first time. He was also very familiar with how a rototiller works. He knew how to work all the levers for speed, and depth of the tines. It is also clear to me that as far as upper body strength is concerned, he out classes me by a lot. The moral of this story, get informed! Enthusiasm counts for a lot in anything you do. But don't let it be the only thing you're armed with when you head into a garden project. Especially when it comes to any sort of power equipment. Upon reflection, I got lucky. I've since read articles about people dying by getting trapped under a heavy rototiller like the one I was stupidly pushing towards the 4 foot drop off the back of a pick-up with only a dry-rotted board for support. Going crazy with the mini-tiller certainly could've turned out a lot worse than chipped paint and bruises. If not for yourself, do it for your loved ones. Protective gear is never a bad idea. You certainly should protect your hearing, and your eyesight as well. Get informed about the machinery you're using. Trial and error is a great way to learn, but not when there are bones and arteries at stake. Read the directions, seek advice from the experienced, and pay attention. Its definitely a mistake to let your enthusiasm for your project override your sense of self-preservation. About the Author
Gillian Gaddis is a contributing writer for Mike the Gardener Enterprises, LLC the exclusive home for the Seeds of the Month Club.