The rain finally let up for enough days in a row that I went out with my new grub hoes to try tilling over a garden bed. I dug a 4’x20′ bed using the 4″ grub hoe yesterday, and another 4’x20′ bed using the 6″ grub hoe today. So, what’s the verdict?
It’s hard work. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. It’s certainly easier on your back than using a shovel, but I broke a sweat in our 55° weather. If you have health problems or grow an acre market garden I wouldn’t recommend it. There are those for whom a garden tiller is the only reasonable option.
But, I like it.
It’s good exercise. It gets your heart rate up without straining anything. You can easily control your pace to match your fitness level (my pace was slow). Our great-grandparents had better health than we do not just because they ate better food but also because they didn’t have a gas-powered-gadget-for-everything.
It does a better job. Many will disagree with me on this one, but please hear out a few points. Hand tilling does not destroy the soil structure as thoroughly as rototilling, preserving valuable mycorrhizal mycelia structure. You can aim your strikes to avoid earthworms or fetch out rocks as you see them. Also, I dug the soil at least 9″ deep, and often deeper. As Steve Solomon points out in Growing Vegetables West of the Cascades, most rototillers only fluff up the top 5″ of soil. He recommends hand spading to 12″.
It is meditative. You can hear the birds, smell the fresh air, pause when you like, and lean on the tool’s handle. The chickens will inspect your work (a little too closely sometimes) instead of fleeing in terror. There’s no vibrating handle bars or gas fumes or roar.
It is faster. In Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, he argues that walking is faster than taking the train if you count the time required to earn the train fare. Similarly, digging with a grub hoe may well be faster, if you count the time to earn the money for the tiller and the fuel and the maintenance. Beyond that, ownership of a tiller seems to imply a gardening system of yearly tilling. (More time!) I hope to manually till only once, and thereafter rely on a system of top dressing, cover crops, broadforking, and no stepping in beds. We will see how this works out.
It seems I’ve launched into a philosophical discussion without reviewing the actual tools in question. They were sturdy and functioned well. I worked at about the same pace with both the 4″ hoe and 6″ hoe, although I expect I’ll prefer the 6″ for tilling as I get more accustomed to the work. I used the trenching and perpendicular nipping method recommended on the seller’s site, but I briefly tried the alternate method mentioned by the writer of the Stonehead blog. This actually seemed much more effective, and I plan to till the next bed in this manner.
With 160 square feet of raised beds complete, only 2200 square feet to go …