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.
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.