To my mind, power tools are the least important equipment for any garden under 500 square feet, so let’s get them right out of the way. During my ten years as a market gardener I was absolutely dependent on machines to get enough work done to make a living—even a meager one. I started out with 2,500 square feet, double-dug by hand, and kept expanding until I had three acres of raised beds maintained with a tractor-mounted tiller. Along the way I tried many different types of garden machinery.
Realistically, as gardeners in a modern industrialized society, we can’t avoid some use of power machinery, but I think we ought to be more aware of its appropriate use. A small garden can easily be prepared by hand with nothing more than a spade and garden fork; given time, all garden material will compost, without shredding; and given the human energy (which comes, after all, from the food you grow in the garden) the lawn can be cut with a hand mower. That said, let’s consider which power tools may be appropriate, both to the job at hand and to the health of the planet.
The three machines that I use most frequently are a lawn mower, a line trimmer, and a rototiller, in that order. Grass is a good cover for garden paths, and not hard to maintain with a mower. Experts agree that you should use a mulching mower, which shreds the cut grass instead of bagging it, so that it mulches and fertilizes the sod as it cuts. If you do rake up or bag your clippings, use them for compost or mulch in the garden; do not send them to the landfill. Guidelines for using grass clippings are in the composting section of the site. The size, features, and quality of the machine you buy should be determined by the particulars of your situation.
Light-duty line trimmers are ideal for cutting tall growth and for places that a mower can’t reach. They can be particularly helpful in harvesting cover crops and battling weeds in waste places too small, too rough, or too irregular for mowing, such as drainage swales, fence lines, and storage areas. The best kinds have a shoulder harness and a pair of handlebars rising out of a straight power shaft; these two features go a long way toward lessening the fatigue that comes with long bouts of trimming. Again, balance your budget against the features that you need.
There are many kinds of tillers, but we will limit our discussion to three types: lightweight, no-wheel tillers; front-end tillers; and rear-tine tillers.
No-wheel tillers were made possible by the development of truly lightweight two-stroke engines, which made it feasible for the machine to be picked up and carried to the garden for use. These differ from conventional tillers in that the tines are one-piece, star-shaped wheels made of lightweight steel, which are sharper and rotate much faster. Whether these characteristics are of real value, or are simply requirements of the high-revving two-stroke engines they use I can’t say. However, because of their light weight and lack of wheels, they do make more sense for the raised bed gardener—especially one whose beds are timber-framed—because, if the bed is not too wide, they will turn the soil from the edge of the bed without your having to step in it, which is one of the major problems of the larger tillers. These units cost about $200 to $400.
The next step up in size is the front-end tiller. They are generally powered by a lawn-mower–sized engine mounted above the tines, which are of the standard alternating left and right “L”-shaped configuration. A front-end tiller will usually have a set of wheels behind the tines, so you can tilt the whole machine back and roll it to the garden. Once there, it effectively “walks” on the rotating tines. This kind of tiller is not really effective at breaking sod or turning under heavy cover crops for initial garden preparation, as it tends to walk over anything it can’t immediately cut into with its tines. Thus, to make it chop sod ,you have to hold it back with brute force, which is quite tiring. In an established garden it works well enough; but I have to wonder what the point is then, as cultivation of the average garden is more quickly done by hand, using a good hoe. Plus you can work backwards, covering your tracks as you go, which isn’t possible with any kind of walk-behind machinery. The last time I checked, prices for front-end tillers were in the $400 to $600 range.
The top rung in rototillers (short of buying a tractor with a tiller attachment) is the self-propelled rear-tine tiller. With a good, heavy-duty model you can break sod, turn under cover crops, and do spring garden preparation—even hill potatoes if your garden is absolutely level and the soil in great condition. I used to have one of these tillers and I did use it occasionally, though for the average gardener I think it would make more sense to rent one in the spring for initial preparation, and perhaps again in the fall to turn under the remains of your crops. The $1,000 to $2,000 cost of a large rototiller is, in my mind, rarely justified by the amount of work that needs to be done.
Some of the largest components of yard and garden waste—leaves and prunings, as well as spent corn, sunflower and Brassica plants—do not rot quickly. My grandfather had an extra compost pile for these kinds of garden wastes and so do I. But, if you are short of space, leaves and shrub trimmings can be put through a small chipper-shredder first, and then added to the compost pile.
If you do decide to purchase a chipper-shredder, buy it for the job it was meant to do. Many of the inexpensive electric models can handle only brush and twigs; the throat of the machine is not large enough to take a broccoli, corn, or sunflower stalk, nor can leaves be efficiently fed into them. Other models are designed almost exclusively to shred leaves and have large throats, but will clog immediately if fed solid material. The larger (and more expensive) gas-powered models will handle both kinds of materials, but only if they are fairly dry and stiff.
Don’t be misled by advertisements that show chipper-shredders consuming branches big enough for firewood (that’s not what most of your waste is, anyway) and assume they will be able to handle everything else, too. I have tried both gas and electric models, and none of them effectively chops up spoiled hay, still-green tomato stalks, or pea vines. If you hope to speed up the composting process by first shredding the materials, you’ll be disappointed. You’ll also spend a lot of time cleaning out the machine. Small electric shredders cost about $200 to $500, while gas-powered models will run you $500 to $1,000. Make sure the garden generates enough refuse to justify such an investment.