Down to Earth: The Death of a Tiller

| June/July 1993

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.

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