The Rototiller

This is another story from my, “Laments of the Gardener’s Husband,” series.  These articles give a very good insight on precisely how not to do things.

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The Rototiller

220px-Jean-Baptiste_François_Joseph_de_Sade_

Inventor of the Rototiller

When my wife and I moved into our first home together in the autumn of the year 2000, our backyard was a simple, rectangular green patch of grass.  To me, this looked perfectly normal.  Our new backyard looked like the backyard of virtually every other home in the city I grew up in: safe, easy to mow, and very suburban.

My wife, however, did not grow up in the suburbs, and to her our new backyard looked anything but normal.  It looked drab.  It looked stark.  It looked like a great, green, empty blank canvas, ready for her to paint on great, sharp strokes of roses, a touch of pointillism in the form of raspberries, and various, colorful dabs of spice plants, patio blocks, and statuary.  In short, she saw a grand, blank masterpiece, needing only a little attention to bring out its full potential.

But the other thing she saw was a profound lack of privacy.

And my wife likes privacy.

Like all of the other homes in our neighborhood, a metal fence surrounded our backyard, and this fence, like all of the other fences in our neighborhood, was mandated to be boring by city ordinance.  The ordinance decrees that these fences must be no more than five feet high and built of simple chain-links and aluminum poles.  Most importantly, the ordinance decrees that the fence must not impede in any way the ability of your neighbors to spy on you.

Fortunately (from my wife’s perspective, anyway), there exists a loophole in this charter, and this loophole manifests itself in the form of a plant called a bush.  Bushes are permitted by the rules of the city, and no height restrictions exist for them.  So, before we even finished filling out the three and a half foot high stack of papers consigning our souls to the mortgage gods, my wife had ordered twenty-eight Columnaris bushes from an on-line gardening supply catalog.

The bushes arrived shortly after we moved in, and being somewhat concerned about the amount of time they could comfortably survive in paper bags, my wife decided that we should plant them immediately.

Now, I had spent a fair time gardening with my wife, and even I knew the basic formula for planting something the size of a single bush by this time.  Essentially, it involved digging a hole far larger than what I would have thought necessary, adding a handful of something that smells horrible, mixing in at least one (or more likely two) forty-pound bags of something from the garden store, plopping in the plant, burying it, stomping on the ground around it, and then treating it to enough water for it to survive indefinitely even if the great dustbowl of the 1930s were to repeat itself the following week.

The rules for mass quantities of plants are different.  For this, the easiest solution involves a gizmo called a rototiller.  A rototiller is a noisy, gas-powered device with spinning blades designed to break up patches of earth.

While I am generally never very enthusiastic about yard work, having the opportunity to use a loud, destructive, potentially lethal piece of machinery goes a long way toward making the idea sound more appealing to me.  I was therefore looking somewhat forward to this task, which is something I was of yet too inexperienced to recognize as a very bad sign.

There are two types of rototillers: front-end and self-propelled rear-tine.  Rear-tine tillers are the top of the line.  They allow you easily to break through sod for spring garden preparation.  They are designed for digging, and they do the job effectively.

A front-end tiller is a simpler invention that was developed by a gentleman by the name of Donatien Alphonse François de Sade in the middle seventeen hundreds; a man who was later promoted to Marquis for his efforts in this endeavor.  In this design, the front of the tiller has a set of wheels behind the tines, so you can tilt the whole machine back and roll it onto your soil.  Once there, it effectively “walks” through the soil on the rotating tines.

This design is fine if you have a soft, pre-dug garden with loose, easily broken soil.  In other words, it does a good job of tilling soils that do not really need to be tilled.

Trying to use a front-end tiller on sod-laden, hard-packed clay is exactly the kind of thing that gave the Marquis his chuckles.

When I rented the tiller, I was ignorant of this tiller minutia, not even knowing that there was any minutia about tillers to be ignorant of.  All that we knew was that a friend of ours had rented a tiller once and could not stop praising its virtues, commenting on how quickly he was able to do the job.

So, on the afternoon that the bushes arrived, we decided to rent a tiller and found the nearest place to us that had one.  Unfortunately, this place had a ridiculous closing time of 4:30 pm, which meant that, not only did I not have time to ask questions, but that in order to get the tiller back on time, I would have exactly one hour to do the job.  My wife had to go somewhere, so she left me to it.

Between getting it home, setting it up, packing it up, and bringing it back, this left me with approximately one-half hour to till about forty feet of soil to the depth of about one or two feet.

Based on our friend’s description of the wonders of this device, I thought it would be a piece of cake.

What I didn’t know is that we had rented a tiller of the Marquis’ design.

The next half hour was, without doubt and without exaggeration, the hardest, most frustrating, and most physically torturous period of labor that I have ever spent in my entire life.

The first time I squeezed on the activation bar, the tines of the tiller struck the clay soil like the cleats of an Olympic athlete.  Within half a second, I found myself standing four feet from my starting position.  The only way I had managed to keep my footing was by performing a frantic, high goose-step that would have made Adolph Hitler proud.

“Gosh Golly Gee Willikers!” I exclaimed in shock (or words to that effect).

And then the real work began.

To get the tiller to function usefully at all, I had to use all of my strength to hold back its exuberance for racing across the lawn.  Beyond that, I seriously cannot recall how I got through that half-hour.  I have flashes of memory.  I recall extracting midsized chunks of sod from my mouth.  I remember trying to fall sideways in exhaustion, but my feet being so buried within the soil that I stood tilted at an improbable angle like a mime falling against the wind.

Mostly, I recall dirt, and straining, screaming muscles trying to hold reign on a powerful machine that I suspect, had I just let it do what it wanted, would have dragged me half way across the state within five minutes.

I managed to get through about twenty feet before I ran out of time and will to live.  The soil I worked was not cut quite to the even twenty-four inch depth that I had envisioned.  It instead varied in depth from a single inch to perhaps four-fifths of the way through the earth’s crust.

I was broken, babbling, exhausted beyond reason, and choking on both exhaust fumes and bits of sod that I had not managed to swallow completely.  I believe that the process had actually created brand new muscles for the exclusive purpose of rupturing them.  I was also a sweaty, clay-encrusted mess, and filthy beyond belief.  I was certainly not fit to drive, or even to be seen in public–but I managed to throw that contraption into the van and race back to the rental place, anyway.  I wouldn’t have cared if the experience had voided both my bladder and my bowels, and if I then had to walk through the Waldorf to return it.  I had to get that nightmarish device out of my sight.

My wife is not a cruel person.  When she returned, although I had showered and really didn’t say much comprehensible, she obviously judged from my gibbering, my convulsive sobs, and my expression of wild-eyed horror that I probably had not had an easy time of it

She let me dig the holes for the rest of the bushes with a shovel.  Bless her heart.

The Snow Blower

The following is one of my favorite stories from my “Laments of the Gardener’s Husband” series.  I wrote the series several years ago to document the life of a man who hates gardening himself but by a twist of fate managed to fall in love with a woman who loves it.

I wrote the articles, thinking to sell them to a gardening magazine at some point, only to realize that there were absolutely no magazines that met the necessary criteria.  In other words, there was simply no market for them.

This particular article is not deeply about gardening per se, but it does fit the season and it did fit the spirit of the other articles.  Everything from the series are based on true experiences, with only a little poetic license thrown in.

Anyway, read and enjoy

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The Snow Blower


Snow is beautiful, magical thing. When I awoke one morning last December after our first significant snowfall of the season, I stood at the window, mesmerized by it. It covered all of the ugly, brown death of autumn with the cleanest possible white coat. The neighborhood sparkled with white crystals. It was captivating, and the windy game the weather played with the still falling flakes was entrancing.

“Time to try out your new snow blower,” exclaimed my wife enthusiastically.

Sigh.

I immensely enjoy the spectacle of the great outdoors of winter so long as I can enjoy it from within the warm confines of the great indoors. Going outside, you see, rather spoils the effect, as it is invariably cold out there. As far as I am concerned, going outdoors in the wintertime is one of those unavoidable evils–a kind of a chilly channel through which one must travel to get from one furnace-embraced haven to another.

As a corollary to this, which probably does not require any further elaboration, I have never been big on shoveling snow. Thus, that autumn my wife and I had researched and purchased the best snow blower we could afford. It was an impressive thing, with horsepower that would be the envy of the neighborhood. Its most important feature, however, was that it would considerably cut down on the amount of time that I would have to spend outside.

Nevertheless, I wasn’t really exuberant about having to try the thing out that morning because it looked, as I said before, cold out there.

Still, it had to be done, so I went out, did the job, came in, and hung my wet clothes down the basement.

“So, how’d it go?” asked my wife.

“Great,” I replied. “Much better than shoveling.”

And it had been much better than shoveling. It got me inside in half the time that shoveling would have taken, and that had to be a good thing.

Calling it “great” however may have been a bit of a stretch, as I had experienced a couple of small difficulties with the process.

The first problem I had was a failure to realize that snow blowers, in fact, blow snow. While this seems obvious, what wasn’t obvious to me is the snow blowers are not always very particular about where all of the snow goes.

On a windy day in the middle of a storm, the snow tended to blow everywhere, including, unfortunately, my face.

It was singularly uncomfortable experience, and not one that I had anticipated in any way. Snow blowers have a directional nozzle that ostensibly directs the snow in the path that you want it to go. Snow, for those in the South lucky enough to be ignorant of its basic properties, is composed of all kinds of icy, bitter-cold little flakes. These flakes are not designed by nature to be aerodynamic, and while the snow blower suggested that most of them go in one direction, a strong wind can be quite persuasive and will ultimately convince a significant number of them to go in a direction totally other.

And when the direction in which the wind is blowing is toward yourself, the result is that your face will instantly be covered with wave upon wave of miserably bitter, wet, cold, white powder. You breathe it. You spit it out. You squint into it and try to keep your eyeballs from freezing. It is so cold that it causes your forehead to throb and pulsate in pain.

And there isn’t any way to avoid it. Driveways tend to go in only one of two directions, and, as the space between homes in a small suburban neighborhood can be narrow, a little wind tunnel invariably forms between them.

This means that, no matter what I did, half of the time I felt like someone was dumping gallon upon gallon of Slurpee onto my face.

This was only the first difficulty I encountered. Another difficulty arose from the very nature of powerful snow blowers. Much of the snow that the blower does manage persuade to go in the desired direction tends to go into that direction with a single-minded force. This can be a good thing if you know how to direct the flow. Should, however, you foolishly choose to direct the flow at your neighbor’s house (a natural enough inclination as there are areas where there really isn’t too many other spots to direct it), the snow tends to stick and clump upon your neighbor’s vinyl siding.

After I was finished, the neighbor’s house looked like someone had taken a giant tube of white toothpaste and gobbed it up along the side.

A third difficulty was that, for various reasons (mostly lack of foresight), I ended up directing the snow blower’s snow stream over regions that I had previously cleared. I did this simply because there was no other direction for me to target the stuff. This required me to go over some areas twice, and was thus counter-productive to my goal of getting back inside as quickly as possible.

By the time I was done, however, the driveway was beautifully free of snow.

When I reentered the house, my wife, who was waiting for me at the door, took one look at me, started to laugh, and sent me down the basement next to the cat litter to change out of my clothes. I was so coated with snow that I looked, she explained, like the Abominable Snowman. I think abominable is something of an exaggeration, but I could certainly accept that I looked like the Very Disgruntled and Uncomfortable Snowman.

And because it was still snowing, and because I am a very slow learner, I had the exact same experience a couple of hours later.

So, as a public service, I pass along the following lessons to those who are in that infinitesimally small percentage of people who will actually read these words at a time when they can actually do them some good.

First, when you use a snow blower, wear a ski mask. Yes, I know that they look stupid. Trust me on this.

Second, wear a nylon or leather coat. Cloth coats may be warm but they are snow magnets and will subject you to ridicule.

Third, when you are between two houses, aim your snow nozzle just “slightly” toward the nearest driveway edge. The snow will land safely on where the grass would be if it weren’t covered by snow, and your neighbor’s house will not look like it was spat upon by a giant with deficient oral hygiene.

Fourth, start from the center of the driveway and work outward. It’s counterintuitive, but it gets you back inside faster.

Fifth, move to Florida, so you can relax and not have to worry about the first four lessons.