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The Case Against Tillers

Peter Garnham reflects on his  sad realization that it's time to retire his rototiller from  duty in the garden.

I dearly love my old Troy-Bilt rototillers, but I’ve come to the sad conclusion that it’s time to have them bronzed or something. Maybe I’ll donate them to the Museum of Formerly Useful Tools. It’ll be tough. We’ve been through a lot together.

The simple fact is that rototillers do more damage than my conscience can rationalize away. When my 10-horsepower Horse churns its way through the soil, it’s genocide in action. Anyone who uses a tiller (well, almost anyone) has spotted the still-wriggling remains of the occasional earthworm and mentally apologized to the earth gods.

What we don’t see is the horrendous massacre for which we are responsible at the microscopic level. Nothing, be it ever so small, enjoys being hit by a steel tine traveling at some awesome number of revolutions per second. It’s a fairly safe assumption that a rototiller leaves in its wake a body count in the billions.

Now I know that Mother Nature is a vicious old tyrant with not a scrap of regret about the cycle of death that keeps her wondrous system in balance. Even down in the soil, everything seems to eat anything that moves more slowly or just tastes good. But my rototiller isn’t eating anything and digesting it and excreting it in useful form like the multiple denizens of the soil. All it does is indiscriminately kill, kill, kill.

A freshly rototilled garden – or field, for that matter – looks . . . well, neat. I think it satisfies that urge we have to subjugate the inherent wildness that threatens to make a mess of our careful plans. A plowed field is somewhat roughed-up, but a tilled field is definitely beaten. It allows us to say, “See, look what I can do with my machine!”

Decades ago, I learned about the multiple forms of life that exist in the soil, from the bacteria and fungi to the nematodes and springtails and on up to the beetles and earthworms. Sadly, it has taken me this long to accept the fact that the health of my plants depends on a healthy and relatively undisturbed cycle of life and death in my soil.

They’re not cute or cuddly, these little critters. You can’t hug ‘em, and even if you could you wouldn’t want to. Most of them look like something out of a horror movie. But God bless them, what they do makes it possible for me to grow my food, and lots more. Those tillers have to go.

Peter Garnham is a Horticulture contributing editor. He runs a 42-acre community farm in New York.