For many vegetable growers, April is the most important month in the gardening cycle. People who do not plant early vegetables like greens, potatoes and cole crops - which is probably the majority of gardeners - usually turn the soil for the first time in April. For them, the work they do this month will be the first opportunity to reconnect with the piece of ground they have been working for the past several seasons.
To the uninitiated, working the soil may seem to be a no-brainer, a necessary chore that entails substantial labor and no immediate rewards. However, the quality of the preparatory work done now will make for a more productive garden this summer.
The process of tilling or digging the soil also presents gardeners with an opportunity to refine their vision of what this year's garden will look like. As I pass the tiller over each section of the garden in the spring, I'm recalling what was planted there in years past and contemplating what will be there this year.
I make rough sketches on paper, but the hours working the soil within the dimensions I've drawn serve as an editing process. The lines, circles and squares on paper are erased and redrawn in my mind as I reassess the space available, how much I want to plant and where different varieties of vegetables will be located.
Every gardener has a different strategy for turning the soil in spring. Folks with smaller gardens and loose soil can get away with digging the plot by hand, using a garden fork. Raised-bed gardeners whose soil has not been compacted by foot traffic also fall into this category.
For most of us, though, the first forays into the garden require maneuvering a tiller through the soil. The most fortunate gardeners have high-end tillers that create little drag and are as physically taxing to operate as running a vacuum cleaner.
The Troy-Bilt tillers, which range in price from the Tuffy CRT Garden Tiller at $499 to the "Big Red" Horse Tiller at $2,799, are a good bet for a gardener investing in a first-time or replacement tiller. The Troy-Bilt tillers, which have long been the standard, are constructed to withstand heavy use, but their ruggedness is proportional to the size of the frame and engine and, of course, the price of the tiller.
Perfectly acceptable tillers are sold under other brands, but one consideration is most important. Rear-tine tillers, which dig the soil from the back side of the tiller, are easier to use because the digging motion also propels the tiller forward. The gardener's job is reduced to steering.
In contrast, operating the less-expensive front-tine tiller is a little like wrestling an angry goat back and forth across your garden. This type of tiller is not inclined to move in a straight line, and walking behind it places considerable strain on the shoulders and upper back. Chiropractic fortunes have been made from this tiller design.
In spring, the most effective way to begin working the soil is to make passes across the garden to open up the soil and let it breathe. After tilling east to west, go back and re-till going north and south. Then let the soil rest for a week before repeating the criss-cross tilling strategy. This will fully loosen the soil and allow you to till more deeply the second go-round.
If you won't be sowing seed or setting out transplants for more than three days, you'll need to make a pass over each section of the garden just before planting to aerate and loosen the soil. Precipitation, even dew, will cause a crust to form on the top layer of soil.
If you're thinking about investing in a new tiller, try to procrastinate until at least mid-summer, when manufacturers and retailers start cutting prices. Waiting until the gardening season is almost over seems counterintuitive, but the savings will make the delayed gratification that much sweeter.