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Rototiller Advice for Virginia Red Clay and Rocks?

Warrenton, VA

Hello, I am thinking hard about buying a rototiller for a 13' x' 35' vegetable garden. My garden is fenced is fenced, with wire, so would appreciate advice about a rototiller. I especially would like opinions from those who have years of experience with tillers. I've heard that rototillers pack the soil right under their maximum digging depth, so wonder if anyone can say something about this?

My garden spade is fine, but jeese, I can't get much done at a time, and it's already November! YIKES!

Right now, Hubby and I have decided that there are too many choices, and we don't know squat, except that we wish the tiller to be heavy-duty, gas-powered, 4 stroke engine. We intend to rent some tillers to get to know them, and feel this is the right path at this moment.

Central, MD(Zone 7a)

Gracye. I have an old troy built horse tiller. The tines are in the back and I can run it and control it with one hand. It is quite heavy though but I would suggest renting a larger one for your space. I use to till garden plots at nearby garden and something your size would take 45 minutes and I'd charge $45-$50.

Now that I'm thinking about it you might as well pay somebody else to do it. I'd call around check community garden plot areas or garden stores by the time you rent, haul and sweat over it you might as well pay somebody to do it.

That's my opinion. Good luck.

Dover, PA(Zone 6b)

The bad part about rototilling isn't packing the soil it's the pulverizing, Tilling clay produces a loose fine soil which allows wetted soil to compact to a concrete like finish. The adding of compost or any organic material will prevent this as well as amend the clay in good ways, after a few years of amending, repeated tilling becomes less necessary. Check the Ph as decomposing organics produce acids and are easily neutralized by adding lime. Our beds have been amended for so long I just easily break them up with a wide fork and finish with our Toro. Clay soils usually have a -charge, which is good as they hold minerals and fertilizers better.
We have a couple of tillers. The rear tillers are fairly easy to handle, but our fav is a small 2 cycle Toro, even Holly can use it when preparing beds or to shred and loosen compost from our pile.
The problem with clay is you can develop what is known as clay pan, this condition becomes oblivious during periods of heavy rain, the soil remains wet for too long. The best cure for this is to double dig trenches the length of the garden. If you want more info on double digging just ask.
Renting or paying someone is the best way to see what works for you. Large 4 cycle tillers can be a major investment, so testing is recommended. Ric

Somewhere in, MD(Zone 7b)

Just a little 2 cents' worth, to back up what Ric just said (as I am not very experienced with tillers).. add organic material!!!!! Whether you rent/borrow/pay someone to do it, be SURE to add lots of compost/organic material to break up that soil/clay. The more you add, the easier your bed(s) will be to work in the long run.

Warrenton, VA

WOW! All of you make sense! I surely appreciate your thoughts. I have my eye on the huge pines near our property - they just shed their cones and needles...and this stuff probably needs to come into the garden. Was thinking of throwing in a cover crop, never have done this, and then again I could shred some straw over the ground...thoughts?

Dover, PA(Zone 6b)

I love pine "straw" as a decorative mulch, it's very good for acid loving plants. I personally would not use it on my garden. I have tried using annual rye as cover and it grew too well, especially the next spring. LOL My current cover crop is chickweed. BLUSHING What I used to do regularly is cover the entire garden with uncomposted manure and bedding (shavings or straw), and leaving it to be leached out by the rain and snow. I think this even killed weed seeds. The stuff would be steaming as I applied it.In the spring I would lime and till it in. If you have perennials in your garden be sure to avoid them if you try this, it's just too strong. I know gypsum can be use to help break down clay, but it sound as though your garden has already be broken and worked to some degree. Ric

Somewhere in, MD(Zone 7b)

My Dad, too, used to grow an annual rye as a cover crop in his veggie gardens, and it was GREAT!! I don't know if it grew "too great" like for Ric, but.. all his gardening was veggie gardening, so every Fall it got covered in rye, and every Spring the WHOLE thing got tilled in. He grew some massively yummy veggies, very healthy and flavorful, never had any bug or disease problems.
I think cover crops work best when the entire bed will be unused all fall and winter.. like for spring/summer veggies, or if it's in preparation for a new bed. Rye would work well, and some Clovers would be great too (and the bunnies will thank you for that!). I know Clover is great for working nitrogen back into the soil, and probably Rye is too.

I've heard that straw, unless it's "wheat straw", contains HUNDREDS of weed seeds per bail, so that would be my only caution about buying bails of regular straw. The pine stuff would work well, but add lime to it at the same time. And/or start asking your neighbors for their Fall leaves; run 'em over with your mower to 'mulch' them then throw them in there too. (works for me!) =)

Warrenton, VA

Double-digging? YIKES! I can't even get to the SINGLE digging, and it is DECEMBER...My heart is sinking, as I have known that there is no simple way to fix my veggie soil, and yet, the thought of doing all this only to have the doggone stinkers (stink bugs) thank me...I dunno, folks...but gee i love to have a veggie garden! Do you share my conflicting thoughts?

Somewhere in, MD(Zone 7b)

Sadly, I do indeed share those conflicting thoughts... or, I should say, I **did**, before I bit the bullet several years ago and went ahead and broke my back with the double-digging anyway. OK, well, not literally, but it sure felt like it for a few days, and then the aching went away, as did the excuses to have DH tie my shoes for me (heehee, it's true!!). Thankfully I was smart (HA!) enough to dig organic material into the area while I was at it, which made for a much easier row to hoe, so to speak, every year thereafter. No, it wasn't all for veggie gardening, it was for my ornamentals, but still the same back-aching idea. It's hard, sweaty, pesky work, but once done, you'll be soooo thankful (to yourself) that you did it. =)
I'm a horrid horrid procrastinator, but that summer (yes, 100+ degree summer), I finally clenched my jaws and said "enough's enough already!", out loud, to myself and whomever else may have been listening, and just did it. Now, I rarely look back.. but when I do, it's with a cheerful grin and slow rub to the lumbar region in fond memory. < =D

Anne Arundel,, MD(Zone 7b)

Here's a story, just as foor for thought.

This past spring, in 2012, I decided to make a new garden bed for sweet potatos. The new area was lawn with dense (though loamy sandy clay) soil. My soil is not that clay like I know from where I grew up because I am closer to the Bay. But my soil does tend to get very compacted, I think its very low in organic content. Well- I outlined the bed with 2 by 8s boards, covered the grass with newspaper, and filled it with the partially finished leaf compost which had been started in fall 2011. To eight inches or so. I guess I dug little holes for the nine sweet potato plants. I may have planted them with scoops of dirt from the other garden.
They grew like monsters! Loved the heat I suspect. Put lots of tubers in the leaf layer and some rooting below.. After harvest, I dug into the soil layer to mix with the by then more rotted compost. AHHH!

Well, my point it, if I have one, that consider fixing a small hole for individual plants and surrounding them with compost etc, and letting nature mix them, and the plants send roots into it if they wish.

If un dug soil is so bad, why is the entire east coast covered in woodlands (when it's let grow?)

Silver Spring, MD(Zone 7a)

Gracye, is it not possible to do a raised vegetable bed in that area? (Sorry if I missed this information from above)

It sounds like Sally's plan is the least labor-intensive one.

Warrenton, VA

OK, I'll confess. You've twisted my arm! The REAL problem that I've been dancing around? My husband and I are Living Historians for the War Between the States, incorrectly referred to as the Civil War. Now, we just got married two years ago, and wanting to please me, hubby hired a friend to dig a nice area for a veggie garden.

Well, turns out, the guy replanted lots of "wiregrass" (horrid stuff) while he was plowing away, and of course I had to dig that cr__ out, so I had dirt that suited me. Don't think for one moment that I got rid of it all, mind you...

We live on property that was camped on by many soldiers during the War Between the States. So, I'm diggin away, and doggone it, things keep turning up...found belt buckles, old bits of shattered flow blue pottery, hand made nails, and tiny glass bottles...oh yes indeedy I have found these!

So, the REAL issue is, when you all are telling me to DIG, I'm thinking that I will never see another veggie in that land. For, I'm SURE that I'll find more stuff, and get carried away like I did before...

NOW do you understand why I'm dancing around that diggin' thing?

Somewhere in, MD(Zone 7b)

Well, my point it, if I have one, that consider fixing a small hole for individual plants and surrounding them with compost etc, and letting nature mix them, and the plants send roots into it if they wish.

Sallyg's idea sounds pretty darned good to me, since ya put it that way, Grayce! < =D heeheeheee

Warrenton, VA

SallyG - You do make a great point! Thank you, one and all, for this most interesting topic. I'm learning alot, and stalling the inevitable back strain a bit...LOL

News Flash: A metal detector friend of ours came out this week and sent photos of some of those belt buckles to a friend who is into the Rev (Revolutionary) War. He thinks that they are of THAT era. Neat, huh. I think I've happened upon the old outhouse site...!

It's not so much that my dirt is bad, it is that my BACK is. So, Speedie, I'll soon join you in looking back at the work!

Somewhere in, MD(Zone 7b)

The old outhouse site, really!?!?! Just imagine the cr.... never mind. ;) Wow, you REALLY want to be careful digging around such precious areas, really, WOW!!!!!!! (sorry, now this is just me typing the way I talk). Hearing all of this, I'd say it's not only too much lifting of dirt is bad or your back, it's accidentally hurting a major find that might be really bad! ... heh heh, how cool would it be next year to harvest a huge-mongous sweet potato with a belt buckle hanging out of it? heeheeheee =)

Dover, PA(Zone 6b)

Grayce, Hiring someone to use a heavy tiller to turn in unrotted manure for over winter may help a lot, by the time winter has passed the heat is gone and so are some of the weed seeds.
If you use Sally's lasagna method you can also start with that before the compost. Wire grass take years to completely get rid of without chemical. I know cause I opted for a more natural way, you have to be ready to dig 24/7/365 when you see it. Just a small segment of that root and it lives on. I wish everything we planted was so tenacious. LOL Ric

Anne Arundel,, MD(Zone 7b)

I fight wiregrass here too. If there's bits of it all over- oh man. You can grow between it but you do have to go after it eventually.

But that is really neat about the artifacts! But you can grow on top of them this year and dig for them sometime in the future.

Culpeper, VA(Zone 7a)

Grayce- I sympathize with the issue of your heavy, compacted clay soil. I'm just "down the road" in Culpeper. Packed clay and some sort of flinty rock. The "artifacts" I turned up the most this past year were buried Matchbox type cars. My toddler began to refer to them as "dirt cars." Each time he saw me head out with a trowel he would ask if I was getting him another dirt car. Some poor kid's loss in 1977 was my kid's gain in 2012!

As to the soil, I've double dug, I've tilled. I've added compost, organic materials, rabbit manure, and even alpaca droppings. The bed that thrived was the very back-breaking double-dug bed. I'm committed to that for landscaping beds but I think for vegetables this year we are going to throw in the towel and build raised beds. Oh! To have brown, loamy soil is my dream!

Dover, PA(Zone 6b)

If I had a dollar for every wheelbarrow of manure, mushroom soil and compost we've added to our gardens I'd retire, Oops, my bad, been there done that.
I'd buy a house on the beach where I couldn't garden. Soil enhancement is better than Yoga for learning patience. Especially the part about too much rototilling can turn your soil to compactable powder. I have rich dark loam, 2 decades in the making, amended once or twice a year. This year I want to surface burn some straw and lath to add charcoal and ash, as well as kill weed seed. (I read too many "Mother Earth News"). I usually turn once with a fork and till once, then rake and hoe. We have earned every square foot of good loam we have, and as to wire grass, it's either chemical, or 24/7/365 removal, even if that means pulling 1 sprout and dropping it on the walk every time you go by. A non-chemical control for a lot of weed seeds is corn gluten, I'll not expound on it's virtues, but when it's done inhibiting seeds for germinating it adds nitrogen to the soil.
I once met a guy from Cooke College/ Rutgers U. with a PhD in dirt. But that's another story. Happy New Year~!!! Ric

Anne Arundel,, MD(Zone 7b)

Ric let me just say I enjoyed your post and fully agree with your 'soil philosophy' as it were. But you KNOW after a few weeks at the beach you'd be planting something--then amending the sand...

Warrenton, VA

My dear German friend is saving her fireplace ashes for my garden - true German - waste not, want not! LOL! I am also planning to put charcoal into the soil before plopping in my squash this year - if you get a Southern Exposure Seed catalog, now, that's a WEALTH of information.
We've decided to rent some rototillers before purchasing. Why not experiment with someone else's machines?

Frederick, MD(Zone 6b)

I'm late to this party... but I hire a guy with a tractor-tiller for anything major, especially if I'm tilling a new area for the first or second time. For my own use out there, I have an electric Mantis, which I dearly love and hope to be able to use again this spring (lymphedema issues in one arm). And yes, lots and lots of organic amendments will help!

Carlisle, PA(Zone 6b)

Would you believe that I brought back some of that hard red clay from Central Va. last year because I couldn't get any seeds I brought back the year before to do well in our Pa soil? But I ran the rototillar, myself and put in the garden with the help of a friend because DH was laid up from ankle surgery.

Dover, PA(Zone 6b)

Judy, You didn't need to go to Va. to get hard red clay, York Co. has plenty and is a lot closer. LOL Ric

Carlisle, PA(Zone 6b)

Really? York County? Never knew that. Well, I wanted to make darned good & sure the seeds germinated. They would come up in our soil but die eventually & I wanted to be able to get the flowers in Central Virginia to come up and flower & produce more seeds.

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