The first year I had a garden I expected a humble crop: a few dozen cucumbers, a few ears of corn, a couple of watermelons, a few bowls of string peas, and two or three dozen good sized carrots.
What did I get? A few ears of corn that ended up being unpalatable because I waited too long to pick them. About a hundred carrots, none of which were longer than one inch or had a greater than a 1/4 inch circumference. Three cucumbers. Zero watermelons (the plants did not even grow). And maybe twenty string peas.
I was pretty disappointed, especially after all of the effort I put into rototilling the ground, planting the seeds, carefully watering and weeding, chasing away the deer and rabbits, and fighting to keep my kids from running through it.
But I’m not one to give up too easily. I promise, each year will get better until you become a food growing master (I still can’t get my strawberries to grow though).
Let me share with you the first thing that I learned that first year. Make sure to till the ground. The ground is naturally just too hard for food bearing plants to thrive in so you need to break it up and make it soft. With soft soil plants will not spoil. That was a bad rhyme, sorry.
I tried to do it by hand that first year. I grabbed a spade shovel and a hoe and went to town. In about twenty minutes I was exhausted and had completed the first pass over a square foot of my garden area. I would have to do it four or five more times to begin to get the soil soft enough and broken up enough to give my plants a fighting chance.
So I rented a rototiller. I figured the ground was not very hard so I would rent the cheapest rototiller the rental place had. When I went to pick it up the guy working there asked me if I knew how to use the tiller. I confessed that I did not and requested a demonstration. Next he began to pepper me with questions about my garden plot. I distinctly remember him asking if it had been tilled before because of his reaction when I told him that it had not.
He looked me in the eye and said “You’re renting the wrong tiller. You’re going to kill yourself if you try to use this one. Here, this is the one that you need.” It was a MONSTER!
This other tiller had it’s own trailer it was so big. My garden spot was only like twelve feet by fifteen feet, there was no way I needed a tiller THAT big!
After a lengthy discussion he finally convinced me, I paid twice what I had originally planned to, and hauled it home for the weekend.
I never did thank that man in the rental store that day but I should. He saved my back and my weekend. When I turned the beast on (that’s what I call the big tillers; their official name is “rear tine tillers”) it dug into the dirt like there was no tomorrow. Dirt went flying. After six or seven passes, a little less than an hour, the dirt was looking like it does in the movies: black and rich. The perfect place for my little plants.
So, this is my advice to you. Rent a rear tine tiller the first time you plant a garden to prepare the soil. Typically you can rent them for less than $100 a day and it will make quick work (at least quicker than a shovel and hoe) of preparing the ground. After that first year you can rent the smaller front tine tillers and they’ll do fine. But that first year, that first time, go with the beast. I promise, you will be glad you did.