Working the soil

One of the thoughts I try to remain true to is to use muscles instead of machines whenever practical. On one hand this is driven by a desire for exercise and a belief that the best exercise is physical activity, and on another hand it also seems like a waste to use energy in the form of electricity or gasoline to do that which can be done without either. That said, I am anything but rigorous in this approach (note the use of “practical” to start off with) and am quite happy to use a machine when it provides a more effective, faster, or better quality result.

In my first gardens I used prepare the soil under my own power. They were typically small “flower bed” sized gardens. Starting in late winter I would go out and start turning the soil spadefull by spadefull and then let the freeze-thaw cycles break up any lumps, then I would repeat the process every few weeks until it was nearly time to plant, when I would do another thorough turning and then rake smooth before planting. On the days that I did this, I would more often than not go to bed stiff and sore but happy to have spent the effort.

All higher intentions aside, the current garden is simply too big to do without some form of mechanical assistance. Last year a tiller was rented, and over the winter I decided to buy one. I opted for a mid-sized one, as the small one seemed far too little for the task at hand and the larger ones were overkill. I had used a front tine tiller in the distant past, and the advantages of the self propelled rear tine design were pretty self evident.

I naively expected that the tiller would happily run along much like a lawnmower and only require moderate input to steer in the desired direction. While that held true while in transport mode, when I lowered the tines and started actually working the soil I found it took far more upper body strength than I had expected to turn or to adjust it’s direction. It wasn’t impossible to do, just more effort than I had expected. On the other hand, I had the entire garden uniformly tilled to a depth of about 8 inches by the time I would have done about 10% of it by hand. I anticipate that the amount of strength required is a function of the tilling depth, and mid-season “cultivation” runs through the rows will likely be much easier.

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