Down to Earth: The Death of a Tiller

When I first moved to the farm more than a decade ago, I’d just survived a divorce, and I tackled the garden for therapy as much as for food. The family who had farmed the property for a lifetime before me had planted gardens but hadn’t attended to the overall appearance of the property. With my background in landscaping and my love of gardening and herbs, I began shaping the garden to fit my mental view of order.

The main garden was a flat piece of ground, about 100 by 130 feet, on an otherwise sloping hillside. It was surrounded by wire fencing and filled with head-high weeds, along with two dozen young trees. After clearing out a lot of debris and mowing the weeds, I spread corrugated roofing (blown off the barn in a storm years ago) over about half the garden for a few weeks to kill any remaining plant life. I then borrowed a tractor, cleared away the trees, and plowed most of the space.

However, the site I envisioned for my herb bed was a raised area along one side of the garden, so close to the fence that I couldn’t use the tractor there. The space contained a telephone pole with its buried brace wire and several thorny honey locust saplings. As I didn’t own a tiller, I dug much of the bed by hand, but I wasn’t really satisfied; hand-digging is no substitute for the soil mixing and grinding that a tiller can do.

The first year’s herb bed wasn’t particularly successful, and I decided that I needed to improve the soil’s tilth. During the winter, I piled on composted manure, added sand, and mixed in old chicken litter in the mistaken belief that herbs need rich soil to thrive.

I struggled that winter just to keep food on the table, and relied on what I raised on the farm for most of my sustenance and livelihood. At planting time, I was faced again with the problem of how to till the soil. A tiller was the obvious answer, and a friend helped me buy one on a time-payment plan.

The new tiller was a heavy-duty machine, its tines like fingers reaching into the earth (rather than the blades that most tillers have). The tines worked well in my rocky soil, and because the tiller was much lighter than the tractor I’d been using, I felt the ground would be less compacted. I named the new machine Merry Tiller after its brand name.

Merry Tiller was miraculous. It breezed through my raised herb bed, churning and pulverizing soil that may never have been turned before. After such deep tilling, I found I could dig out areas where pathways would be, raking the tilled soil from the pathways into new raised beds. This created back-saving growing areas for both vegetables and herbs.

It was a struggle wrestling the heavy tiller in and out of the raised beds, and the few times it had to be hauled to town for minor repairs, Merry Tiller required two strong men to lift it. But what a hard-working piece of equipment it was! Year in and year out, Merry Tiller made it possible for me to garden, turning over new ground to create more garden space, fashion new raised beds, and lay out new pathways.

One hot summer day, while we were digging up some very tough ground behind the herb shop, Merry Tiller broke a chain. I pulled it into the shade and took it apart, but I found that I couldn’t fix the broken chain drive. I called the dealer from whom I’d bought the machine, but he informed me that the company was no longer making tillers and he wasn’t sure that he could just order a part. He suggested that I bring the tiller to his shop.

I gathered up the pieces and loaded them into my truck. At the shop, the dealer and I discussed options. “I have to have this tiller,” I insisted. “I can’t garden without it. Whatever it takes, please fix it.”

Weeks turned into months. Fall came and went, and winter passed. By February, after many calls to the dealer (who was still trying to find parts), I realized that I’d have to find a replacement tiller. It was a hard decision to make: Merry Tiller had always been so dependable. Anytime, winter or summer, I could go out into the garden, uncover Merry Tiller, and pull the cord. Within two pulls, the motor would roar to life, and I could till merrily along.

I finally found a good used tiller and went to work on my garden. The new tiller worked well, started immediately, and was easier to maneuver in and out of the raised beds. I felt like a traitor when, three months later, Merry Tiller finally came home, complete with a new chain drive.

Merry Tiller sat covered up, semiretired, for a couple of years, and I began to feel foolish for having two tillers. I thought about how difficult gardening had been for me that first year without one, and how great it would be if someone would come along who really needed Merry Tiller.

Then, one afternoon, the young man who did my mowing asked me about Merry Tiller. “Does it work?” “Yes, it’s a great tiller,” I replied. “It’s just what I’ve been looking for,” he said. “Would you sell it?”

His wife came over to listen to the conversation. They had been married only a few years, had a small child, and were struggling to keep food on their own table. Here was what I had been hoping for–someone who really needed Merry Tiller.

We uncovered it and pulled it out into the yard, pulled out the choke, and within three pulls of the cord, it roared to life again. What a sweet sound, I thought. I priced the tiller low, wanting to help this young couple. “I’ll take the price of one week’s mowing,” I offered. The couple was obviously pleased, and I helped them load Merry Tiller into their truck. As a farewell to them, but even more as a farewell to the tiller, I said, “I hope it will give you as much service in your garden as it has in mine.”

“Oh, I don’t garden,” he said. “I only want the motor for my son’s go-cart. I’ve been looking for this size motor all summer.”

I looked at Merry Tiller and felt awful: I had sold it away to be dismantled. I tried to console myself that it was only a machine, yet this machine had enabled me to feed myself in the leaner years. I would miss it even though I knew it would give life to a little boy’s go-cart. I mentally waved goodbye to Merry Tiller as the couple drove away. Then, hoping it would make me feel better, I went out and oiled the gears and tightened the belts on the replacement tiller, which still has no name.

Jim Long is an herb grower and a many-faceted herbalist who owns and operates Long Creek Herb Farm in Oak Grove, Arkansas.

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