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The Beast.... aka Instrument of Torture

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.

Before... The first (and smallest) of two sections of uncultivated land

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.

...and after. Almost worth the pain.

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.

12 Responses to “To rotavate – or not to rotavate?”

  1. Wendy says:

    Great post. Your description of rotovating did make me laugh! But on a more sympathetic note, I do feel for you! When visitors first saw the size of my ‘garden’ (apparently it was one about 30 years ago!) I’d get a lot of suggestions about rotovating it and I’d have to repeatedly explain about the 5-weeds-from-one law! Luckily because I don’t need a huge vegetable area I went for the raised beds option and so only had to dig 4 3m x 1.8m areas. I find there’s something satisfying about digging………if you don’t have to do it in a hurry! Well done you!

  2. crocuskitchengarden says:

    Thanks Wendy! I must admit when I had my allotment I did it bed by bed over about 5 years – I got some funny looks at the start as I was mowing most of my allotment and only cultivating a tiny bit, but by the end of that time I had the whole lot up and running, thoroughly dug and weed-free too.

    It’s always best I think to do a bit at a time if you can – trouble is once you’ve got a whole allotment’s-worth going at full steam as I had until last September, you get kind of used to having that much veg on the go. I just couldn’t face a whole season with one or two measly beds to play with and got a little impatient! Ah well – I’ve learned my lesson: I’m a one bed at a time girl from now on :D

  3. Bilbo says:

    You haven’t mentioned the other problem – all the valuable and wonderful worms you might have had in your soil are now minced ….

    Like you, I once thought a rotavator would be a good idea. It took half an hour to see the mess it made of an 8′ x 4′ raised bed and I’ve not used it since, nor will I again.

  4. Wendy says:

    Well I guess we have to try these different approaches to find the one that suits us. I’m just at the starting post of growing things in the garden so your blog is really useful to me. It has that natural ‘you don’t know till you’ve tried it’ approach which I can relate to; keep them coming please!

  5. crocuskitchengarden says:

    Bilbo – you’re quite right. Rotavating and indeed digging ruins a soil’s structure: quite apart from the worms there are zillions of little unseen micro-organisms down there doing their stuff in big ecosystems we can only guess at. Stick a big metal blade in there – on the end of a rotavator or a spade handle – and you blow the whole thing apart.

    I’m normally an advocate of a complete no-dig system: what I do is I have one big digging session (or in this case rotavating session) when I take on uncultivated land and take the hit on the soil structure in exchange for having cultivated and weed-free soil with organic matter dug down into the root zone (it would take years to get there otherwise). Then I leave well alone thereafter. I will never be digging this patch again: instead I’ll be keeping it mulched, topping with a thick layer of organic matter this autumn once the beds are cleared and covering with plastic over winter to keep the rain and weeds out. That’s it – and the worms and everything else I leave to get on with their wormy lives in peace.

    Wendy – I know most of the theory even for stuff I haven’t tried (like grafting apple trees and dealing with onion white rot) but until I’ve actually done it all the theory is just that – theory. I find things tend to take on a whole new meaning once you’re putting the theory into practice – and I often find myself having to invent my own ways of doing things on the hoof when the theory doesn’t work. It’s that bit I tend to go on about here :D Glad you’re enjoying it!

    • Sarah Cowell says:

      I’m with you on the no dig. I just covered my front garden lawn (or excuse for a) with cardboard and heaped compost on top over winter. The neighbours were curious but by spring only the odd weed poked through (dandelions, always dandelions). A year later, lovely soil to be colonated by ground cover plants any minute now.

    • Bilbo says:

      I’m completely with you on the “dig it thoroughly and clean it up once, and then leave it” school of soil management. I fully sympathise with why you cracked and hired the big machine, I’m slowly trying to reclaim half an acre of ground elder and ivy.

      Have you read Charles Dowding’s “Organic Gardening” book (the first one), I found it very helpful in confirming my own theories about leaving soil well alone.

  6. crocuskitchengarden says:

    Hi Sarah, I’ve heard of people doing that on allotments but never on a front garden before! Great to hear it worked so well – I might just have a go at that myself next year.

    Half an acre of ground elder and ivy…. Bilbo you have my sympathy. Ground elder in particular is a pig of a weed to get rid of: tbh I generally resort to glyphosate as it’s the only stuff that works. Even then you have to keep going at it.

    I love Charles Dowding’s approach to growing: he uses his common sense and doesn’t just follow the crowd. He entirely converted me to the no-dig system: the way he describes it you just realise it makes sense.

  7. Claudia says:

    Hi,
    any suggestion what to do with a clay (and rubble) garden that has never been worked and it’s really compacted by being and ex car park?!
    Is rotavate a good option? I tried with the fork and spade, after a week I couldn’t feel my back and my arms!

  8. crocuskitchengarden says:

    Hello Claudia, well you’ve got a heck of a lot on your plate from the sound of it.

    First of all, I wouldn’t tackle the whole lot in one go; from the sound of it I’m not sure you’d survive it! Just mark out a large-ish corner, or a few beds, and then cover the rest (black plastic, cardboard, old bits of carpet, whatever you have to hand) to stop it getting too weedy. Do that patch this year, then uncover a bit more next year and expand gradually like that.

    You could use a rotavator, but it depends on how much rubble there is: if a lot, a rotavator won’t cope with it any better than anything else, and removing it painstakingly by hand is the only option.

    If there’s not too much, give it a try with the rotavator and see what happens. I warn you, it’s not any easier than digging: you will still not be able to feel your back or arms at the end of the day but at least you might have a fair patch of soil to start growing in! Good luck!

  9. Ben Lannoy says:

    Hi,

    I’m in two minds as to use a digger or a rotavator for my next project. It’s about 100 x 50 with perennial weeds and some pretty stubborn bramble bushes and reading your article has made me think it’s digger time! Glad i found your article just searching for rotavator hire so thanks for that!

    I hope the veg patch is finally rewarding your hard work,

    Ben

  10. Kit says:

    Hi
    I’m thinking of rotavating a garden where a large number of trees have been felled and the ground has a lot of leave mould and ivy roots. The area is to be grassed possibly seeded. Is rotavating a good idea? Thanks

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