This weekend I was faced with a dilemma. Eighty feet of weedy veg plot: no time. And a slightly lazy disposition. My default position in such situations is to throw power tools at the problem, so I decided to break the rule of a lifetime and rotavate the lot.
Usually I’m a bit of a rotavator snob. I’ve watched the old boys up at the allotment fire up every spring, year after year, and grumped about them ruining my peace and quiet: what’s wrong with a good old-fashioned spade, eh?
Well – I’ll tell you what’s wrong with a spade: when you’ve got 80ft of uncultivated ground to turn and you need to get your shallots in some time next week and the greenhouse is rapidly filling up with seedlings, digging takes a blimmin’ long time, that’s what.
So I sold all my high-falutin principles down the river and went off to the hire centre to rent myself a rotavator. Alarm bells should have started ringing when I was asked to choose between a full-sized rotavator, weighing in at an eyewatering 90kg (almost four sacks of potatoes – at once) and a mere cultivator, at 59kg, which is still two-and-a-bit potato sacks.
I chose the two-and-a-bit potato sacks option: I couldn’t actually get the 90kg one into the car. I still clung to some optimistic idea that the machine would somehow propel itself around the plot. Hah.
Imagine pushing a Mini Cooper repeatedly out of a deep sandpit and you have some inkling of what rotavating is like. And when you’re not heaving a dead weight out of the hole it has just dug itself into, you’re frantically leaning back with all your weight as it sinks its claws into a bit of compacted ground and takes off at breakneck speed heading for the horizon.
The effort involved is something akin to ploughing a field without a horse. Don’t let anybody try to convince you that this is the easy option: it is the excruciatingly painful option, the sweaty option, the leave-you-wrung-out-like-a-damp-dishcloth option, but it is not, repeat not, easy.
It’s not even all that much quicker. You don’t just whip the machine over your plot once and hey presto, it’s done: you rotavate at least twice, preferably in different directions, and you rake in between rotavating to even out the enormous craters left in your wake and to remove weed roots and the like. Raking 80ft of vegetable garden twice is torture of another order altogether: I added carpal tunnel syndrome and aching shoulders to my bruised legs and battered back.
Four hours it took me to get the veg garden done. Mind you, four straight hours of digging and I’d have been at almost the same level of shuffling, hobbling wreck.
Anyway: should you be masochistic enough to wish to undertake such a thing, before you pull that starter cord there are a few things to double-check first.
• Weeds: A certain high-profile garden presenter has never quite lived down the moment he enthusiastically rotavated his couch-grass-infested allotment in front of the TV cameras a couple of years ago. Rotavators chop up persistent perennial weeds, like couch grass, bindweed and ground elder into tiny pieces, each of which sprouts a new weed – so you end up with five times the problem if you rotavate ground with any of these weeds in. My veg plot had annual weeds and a little buttercup; but I made sure it had nothing more pernicious first.
• Soils: Different soils react differently to being pounded by extremely heavy blades. Rotavating heavy clay soils, however tempting it might seem, is a great way to create a garden made out of pottery and about as easy to cultivate. Lighter soils don’t compact as easily: my crumbly chalk was if anything too soft, which probably explains the craters.
• Pans: Rotavators only dig down to a certain depth, and they’re heavy (did I mention that?). That means that below the depth they reach they can cause the soil to compact into pans – concrete-hard layers almost impossible for roots to penetrate and prone to flooding. This is particularly the case on clay soils which compact easily, and also if you rotavate each year so the soil is only ever cultivated to the same depth.
• Machine: the larger your rotavator, the better the job it will do: bigger rotavators turn the soil to a greater depth, are more robust and often have gizmos which help the machine pull itself along better. But heavier machines are more likely to compact the soil, and you’ll still need a Schwarzenegger-esque physique to turn it at the end of the row.
• Weather: Rotavating when it’s too wet or too frosty will ruin the structure of your soil: follow the same rules as you would do for digging, and if you wouldn’t dig the soil, don’t rotavate it either.
Peace has once again descended on the veg garden: and I’m off to nurse my bruises. I think next year, when I break new ground at the end of the veg garden I haven’t reached yet, I shall be doing so at the end of my trusty old spade.