A quiet solution for the garden

The big rototiller was too powerful – and loud. She needed a machine that would let her hear the birds while she worked.

One of the greatest blessings of gardening is the quiet. In the spring and summer, the scratching of my hoe sets a steady rhythm as I weed between the beets. A house wren trills from a birdhouse near the rose arbor while orioles sing from the nearby sassafras trees. Usually I work alone. But last spring my husband, John, rolled in the rototiller in order to prepare the soil for planting.

The engine snarled. The tines churned, chopping grass roots and whatever else resided in its path. The tiller chewed up the spiderlike roots of last year's corn, left behind after I had cut and fed the green stalks to our goats.

I was grateful for the soft seedbed that the tiller created, but I was also thankful when it lumbered back into the garage. Once again, I could hear the spring peepers singing from the blueberry bog, and John returned to the ever-increasing seasonal workload of farm life.

The only problem with this schedule is that I am a four-season gardener who yanks out dying pea vines while plotting to plant a crop of fall carrots, and I continue planting lettuce until the first of December.

I'm not a large enough person to control our heavy-duty rototiller, though, and by mid-July, John is absorbed in irrigating blueberries and preparing for the impending harvest. Sometimes, with a garden fork and rake, I can manage to prepare the soil for large seeds, such as beans, but these tools do not yield the fine soil necessary for small seeds.

I thought back to the high-wheel cultivator that my grandfather propelled through his large garden. A single, large wheel, connected to two high wooden handles, pulled a set of tines that turned over the earth.

As children, my cousins and I delighted in shoving the contraption between the bean rows. The grain of the oak handles pressed into our palms, and, when wet, the handles smelled earthy. We figured out how to lower the handles so that they reached our shoulders instead of our eyeballs, yet we still wobbled and left an uneven trail in the dirt as we circled the zucchini plants.

I needed a machine like my grandfather's cultivator, a quiet tiller that a small person could push. So I flipped through seed catalogs and ignored the inserts for powered tillers. The high-wheel cultivators were still available, but I spotted a smaller, newer gizmo.

Shaped like a hand-pushed lawn mower, the 20-pound tiller featured a 10-inch metal drum with saw-toothed blades followed by five tines. The gardener pushed the tiller like an old-fashioned lawn mower, the drum churned the soil, and the blades behind the drum finished the tilling.

It was just my size, so I filled out the order.

Now when I need to prepare the soil for fall plantings, I march my red and green tiller across the garden beds, leaving a wake of fluffed humus.

After the seeds sprout, I flip the cultivator over, and the metal bar stabilizing the drum chops up the horse nettles growing between the winter squash plants.

A field sparrow watches from her nest amid the peony leaves, and I can listen to the wren fuss at my orange cat. The gasoline-fueled rototiller now rests in the garage until next spring, when it will once again chew up corn and sunflower roots.

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