Gardening without a Tiller

ShovelI’m starting a new garden this year. My husband and I have been living in this house since last spring, but we moved in just a few weeks too late to plant a garden last year. I grew the majority of my vegetables at my parents’, just putting in a few things at our house in the fall: garlic, turnips, radishes, and spinach. But now that the winter weather is finally easing up and the ground is drying out, it’s time to get down to the business of digging a new garden, for this year and hopefully many years to come!

I get a fair amount of flak for my approach to starting new garden beds. Now that I think about it, the flak comes entirely from men. They cannot seem to understand why I would forgo the use of a tiller. And I can’t understand why anyone would want to use one if they didn’t have to. Tillers are noisy, heavy, cumbersome, don’t always start, require fuel, and produce fumes. They turn over only a few inches of soil, destroy tilth, kill earthworms, and chop perennial grass roots into tiny pieces–all of which then resprout with a vengeance. But one of the worst things about them, I think, is that they separate the gardener from the soil.

I don’t know about you, but my primary reason for gardening is the pleasure I take from being in the natural world and watching its daily goings-on. Gardening is, for me, a way to participate in nature. I get to play handmaid to an amazing array of vegetable and animal species very unlike myself. And I get an inside peek at whole realms of existence that non-gardeners don’t have the first idea about. How many people know what a stink bug egg looks like? Or that stink bug babies are actually powder blue and kind of cute?

One of the most important elements in any garden is its soil. Healthy soil, healthy plants. A gardener needs to have an intimate acquaintance with the ground. With its texture, its moisture level, the sorts of critters living and working there. Digging one’s garden is an excellent opportunity to deepen this acquaintance.

Two days' work (about five hours total)When I dig my garden by hand, I find myself frequently investigating the soil I turn over. I’m always spying new things: unusual insects, tunnels made by small animals, roots, fungi. Once I unearthed a rusty, hand-forged iron ring and chain that looked like it had once been used in some sort of horse-drawn equipment. All of these are things I would miss from behind a tiller. The ring and chain because they were buried deeper than the tines of a garden tiller ever reach. The other things because being behind a tiller keeps you at a distance from the earth. There’s something about the use of machinery–the noise, the knowledge that fuel is constantly being consumed, the efficiency-oriented machine-like mindset it puts you in–that keeps you from pausing in the work to lean down and inspect anything.

Working with a machine feels like exactly that: work. It’s almost an attack mentality. I am going to the ground to subdue it! Whereas, when I go to the garden with my shovel, I have a feeling of interaction with that ground. I am going, not just to prepare a place for my garden plants, but to investigate. To explore. To come to an acquaintance–even a friendship–with that ground. And I can’t do the same when I am behind a tiller. A tiller feels aggressive. Destructive. Maybe that’s why many men like it. But it’s not the attitude with which I approach gardening. I go to the garden out of love. Out of a desire for communion. And for learning.

I also go to use my body. I enjoy exercising my muscles. I enjoy learning to turn the earth skillfully. I enjoy seeing my strength grow over the course of the digging season, and from year to year. I come in from the garden invigorated.

And just in case any of you think that the reason I don’t see the point in using a tiller is because I have a small garden, let me just say that my garden last year was about 2,500 sq. ft. Not exactly tiny. And all dug by hand. Three times.

Honestly, I can’t for the life of me see any reason I would ever give up the joys of digging to use a noisy, cumbersome, temperamental motorized machine. My arms and my shovel do the work better and at almost the same pace, after a few years of experience. And I can simultaneously enjoy the peace and quiet of the afternoon, punctuated only by birdsong (and the occasional song from my own lips).

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For details on preparing new garden beds by hand, see my post The Digging Days…of Winter?

Also note that it is very important to dig with a sharp shovel! Shovels new from the store have horribly blunt tips that are very tiring to use. You’ll be using almost three times the energy to do the same work. (Maybe that’s the reason so many people believe digging is such a pain….)

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7 thoughts on “Gardening without a Tiller

  1. I understand the desire to feel close to, a partner with, the natural world. My question is why you’re digging the soil at all, which destroys the topsoil and animals living in it whether done by machine or hand? Why not use permaculture methods?

    • Excellent question! My reply is that this is the best method I’ve found so far. I have tried a so-called “permaculture” method of killing grass by laying down cardboard and then piling straw and earth on top. For me, this requires purchasing straw, which has to be grown, harvested, and transported, and the overload of carbonaceous matter in the soil doesn’t seem to sit will with the plants I’ve put in beds prepared this way. Also, there’s the time issue. It takes a lot longer to prepare a bed this way, and I’m not convinced it kills all the perennial weeds, either.

      In any case, I would be happy to discover a method of gardening that is more ecologically sound. What do you do?

      • I smother, as you describe, except I use what I have on hand … cardboard (wetted), newspaper (wetted), dirt, mulch (no straw unless a friend has extra to give, and never seedy hay). The lack of weeds has been a revelation to me after years of digging (mostly hand digging). I’ve had no weeds in the two largish beds I did this way two years ago. I’m going to do another one this spring after our 4 feet of snow melts, and you’re right, it’s labour intensive at the outset, but I think it saves a lot of weeding time later, and it preserves the integrity of the soil. It’s also great for planting right into, since it makes in essence a raised bed … doesn’t matter whether grass or hard soil is beneath it. Maybe you could try both styes side-by-side and see what the differences are where you live? (I’m in west-central NH)

  2. Oh, I do agree! I suppose there’s a bit of difference between a modern day tractor – all tricked out with hoods, air conditioning and music – and a hand-pushed tiller, but still, I think the tiller is the tool of a farmer – the spade alone makes one a gardener. Not to mention the total body workout!

  3. That’s fantastic – I can do this with our raised beds but not in the ground- live in Texas and with clay soil a tiller is a must. You would like Hoss Tools they have a hand push tiller. Happy Gardening!

  4. I was so utterly thrilled by the site of that little plot all turned over by hand that I almost cried. I want you to promise – to PROMISE, mind! – that you will diarise with photos your entire garden development. Thus and only thus will I be able to share vicariously the absolute joy of seeing your garden grow. And was I ever a gardener? – I was not. I’ve never lived where I was able to have one; and now I manage to kill all my potplants. Well, pests do. So GO FOR IT !!!!! 😀

  5. Pingback: Linky Tuesday | Lisa's Kansa Muse

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