Till Death Do Me Part

Scoping out the spot where I planned to put the new garden, I wondered would it be big enough. Of course, with 30 acres at my disposal, I can always add on. Still, I was concerned about having enough ground to produce sufficient veggies for us plus 10 CSA shares next season.

I’ve dug gardens before. I’ve dug all of them by hand. With a shovel and a pickaxe. It was hard.

But now we have a tiller! Troy’s parents generously gave us theirs a few years back. Each year we’ve used it to turn manure and compost into the ground, hill up our garden rows, and release the soil from the flattening grip of winter. This tiller is no prize. It’s old as the hills. The paint is so faded that they only way to figure out the choke is trial and error. The Forward, Neutral, Reverse lever has been stuck in Forward for years, and the start / stop dial was rusted into never-ending “Go” sometime around the invention of the telephone. Troy’s mom paid $25 for it at a yard sale. It did them for a while and it did us for a while longer. With a Briggs and Stratton motor as its driving force, there’s not much reason it shouldn’t go on forever. Not much reason except that I’ve got a hell of a garden to dig.But for the price, this tiller doesn’t owe anyone anything.

Apparently it knows that.

If there’s one absolutely true falsehood about the Annapolis Valley it’s that the soil here is made to grow veggies. It’s rich, it drains well, there’s very little rock. Still, if it hasn’t been worked in years, if it’s never been plowed, soil like this gets compacted and hard as a brick. There’s a reason that farmers have tractors. With plows. This soil is it.

I am a disciple of Joel Salatin. While I don’t much care for his religious bent, I think he’s spot on when he writes about making do with what you’ve got, and his philosophy that “good enough is perfect”. It was this philosophy that made me decide I could break a market-sized garden with nothing more than sweat, muscle, and a 40-year old front-drive tine tiller. I have a reputation for being tenacious (alright, stubborn), and I was damned if something like a little bit of soil was going to be a problem.

The garden began with an hour of moving pallets. Apparently, sometime in the past, my chosen garden spot had been the site of winter wood storage, and lots of it! Coaxing rotted pallets from the weeds and soil I waited for the surprise of stumbling upon a hornets’ nest. Thankfully it didn’t happen. Debris removed from the plot, I hopped on the lawn tractor and mowed the bejeezus out of the two-foot high weeds and grass. It was starting to look like something.

Finally it was time to do battle. I knew the tiller would likely be cantankerous to start. I didn’t expect it to take an hour, though. As I was almost ready to give up, I pulled the cord and the motor turned over. The blades were spinning, and I was in business.

Sort of.

I wrangled the renegade tiller into position and waited for it to bite into the dirt. It spun in futility on the damp grass like a lazy walrus trying to clamber up a steep bank of mud. As the blades flattened the freshly mowed grass I decided to offer it a little help. I lifted the beast from behind and it threw a sod skyward. Then it continued to spin uselessly on the soil lying below.

The only way to make any progress, it seemed, was to force the tiller into the ground by lifting it, and then twist it side to side, lifting dirt chunks a little at a time. When it sputtered to a stop signaling the end of the first tank of gas, I stepped back to survey my progress and realized I’d completed about 10 linear feet of tilling. In spots the sod was still attached. Bloody hell.

I retrieved the jerry can of gas and refilled the beast. The garden suddenly looked immense. I could not foresee making it to the other side – not this year, not ever.

I set the choke to what I thought was the right spot, grabbed hold of the cord, and pulled with all my tricep. Nothing. Then again. And again. And Again. Once more, I pulled the cord, and as the motor rumbled like it wanted to start, I saw something out of the corner of my eye – flying through the air. I looked down as the cord disappeared into the machine. The handle was lying several feet away in the grass.

I went to the garage and found the socket wrenches.

A Briggs and Stratton motor isn’t complicated. That said, recoil springs are the work of the devil. I got the thing apart and then realized that I had neither the time nor the inclination to dig out a new cord from the garage and make it work again. I gave up for the night.

The next day Troy helped me locate a new cord and I got to work fixing up the starter. Once everything was installed I fought with the beast for another hour or so before it gave up the protest and kicked into action. I made the same lame progress through the next tank of gas. Then another. Then a neighbour stopped by. I shut the machine down, fearing it would never start again, but 20 minutes later when he left we were off to the races again. By this time I had a garden plot that measured about 10 feet square! I was really getting somewhere. (Not.)

When the gas ran out the next time, so did the tiller’s willingness to cooperate. No way no how would it start again. I fought for another hour, then packed it in for another day. I felt like crying. I was sore. And more than anything, I was pissed off at the universe and all the soil it contained.

The following day, thankfully Troy was off. My arms and shoulders were now too achy to effectively yank the cord. He worked some spark plug magic and got the tiller running again. As I tilled, He set up next to the garden and burned garbage from the barn. When the flames got too hot for me, I decided to move to the other end of the garden and till away from the fire. As the tiller bit in where the pallets had been, I realized that the ground in that area was soft and easy to work. In about 1/2 an hour I tilled as much as I’d done in the previous two days. Several tanks of gas later, our progress still looked pathetic, but I was starting to feel like this was a do-able task.

Then the handle snapped off the pull cord. Once again, I was done.

Today, as I crawled out of bed, my back scolded me for my messed up tiller tango. I fed the animals and took the dogs for their morning energy-burn. Then I set myself up to continue fighting with the garden. For an hour or more I pulled the cord, adjusted the choke, fed gas into the spark plug, and kicked tires. Nothing would get that frikkin’ thing to start. Defeated, I sat in the grass with a pair of pliers and stared it down, wondering what would constitute torture for a garden tiller. When I tried to stand up again, my back complained loudly. I cursed the tiller and the havoc it had wreaked upon my body and hobbled to the house to spend the rest of the day making soap instead.

I’m not done yet. That garden will be finished this fall if it’s the last thing I do. As for the tiller, I’m not one to look a gift horse in the mouth, but if good enough is perfect, maybe this just isn’t good enough. I guess it’s all about the right tool for the job. This tiller might be fine for a backyard plot with a few tomatoes and carrots and squash, but it obviously wasn’t meant to take on a job like this.

Tomorrow I think I’ll break out the shovel. It might be slower than the tiller, but if nothing else I can be sure it will do the job. Hopefully I can do the job as well. I may not be perfect, but I’d like to think I’m good enough.

We shall see.

2 thoughts on “Till Death Do Me Part

  1. Definitely good enough 🙂

    Congrats on starting up your CSA!! We ran one for our first time this summer. Amazing experience 🙂
    We’ll also be breaking new ground this fall to expand our garden. Soon I’ll be feeling your pain….

    Happy Planting!
    – Deb

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