Rye grass defeats Rototiller in match of the season


May 28, 1994|By ROB KASPER

Hormones probably played a part in my decision to rent a Rototiller, especially the hormone that attracts guys to things that go VROOOM!

Another reason for the rental was that my horticultural clock was ticking. Every other gardener in the world had his vegetables planted weeks ago. My plot was still in the clutches of a cover crop, winter rye, that wouldn't let go.

I had planted the rye grass last fall in my 10-by-15-foot garden, one of about 70 such community plots that sit in Druid Hill Park. They are part of a program, administered by the horticulture division of Baltimore's Recreation and Parks department, that rents 572 garden plots in seven sites scattered around the city.

The rye was supposed to cover the garden in the winter with lush green grass. Then in the spring, I would till the garden, returning the grass and its valuable nutrients to the soil. When I visited the plot right around Christmas, the ground was a carpet of bright green. I felt like a good gardener, which was not a familiar feeling. In April, the rye still looked good, although the grass was about ankle high. I knew it was time to plow the grass under, but I was reluctant. It was my best crop, a prize winner. So I promised myself I would mow it down "next week."

Next week turned into next month, and when I finally got around to dealing with the "cover crop," the rye was as high as an elephant's eye.

The strands of grass, with kernels forming at the top, were quite scenic. It reminded me of the prairie, the land of the waving wheat. The once-supple blades of grass were now tough stalks. They made a loud "snap" when my son and I chopped them with a scythe. They did not fall willingly. It took my son and me the better part of a humid Saturday afternoon just to hack the rye down to shin-level.

It was time to turn to mechanized muscle, the Rototiller. When I saw that the cover crop was now taller than my kid, I had raced to Walbrook Mill & Lumber in West Baltimore, and forked over $40 to rent the soil-churning beast. As I drove down North Avenue with the Rototiller handlebars sticking out the back of the station wagon, and the can of extra gasoline sloshing around the back seat stinking up the car, I felt like I was a teen-ager back in the Midwest carting the power mower around in my car.

I wanted the machine to chop up the soil, not my feet. I even read all the instructions. When I fired up that engine, its throaty roar made me feel powerful. Watch out, rye grass! I put the tiller on "chomp" and headed for the grass.

The grass, however, turned out to be more than a match for the tiller. The grass refused to let the machine's blades bite the ground. The grass was too tall, too thick. It kept clogging the blades. The Rototiller bounced over the grass, shaking the fillings in my teeth but not denting the soil. I turned the machine off and adjusted the height of its wheels. I even removed the wheels. Nothing helped.

What I needed were more machines that made noise. If I had a motorized weed cutter, or a power mower, then the rye could have been brought down to stubble. At that height, the Rototiller could turn it over. But it was Saturday afternoon, the rental shop had closed until Monday, which was when the Rototiller had to be returned.

So I grabbed my spade. The spade couldn't penetrate the grass either. This was one tough cover crop. The point of the spade was bent, a result of time spent chopping ice last winter. There I was with a Rototiller that couldn't till and a spade that couldn't dig. I thought of quitting, of leaving the ground unplanted for a season, my own version of what the USDA calls "soil banking."

Instead, I pushed the machine up to a nearby plot that is rented by a friend. This plot was covered with a few weeds, not tough, towering rye, and the Rototiller ate it up, transforming the once lumpy ground, into fine, ready-for planting soil.

I went home. There I straightened the tip of the spade, sharpened it, and waited. A few days later I returned to the garden with the spade and a grass rake. I raked away several wheelbarrows full of fallen rye. Then I broke sod the old-fashioned way, one shovel-full at a time. As I stared at the overturned soil, I knew the clumps of grass should be pulverized.

And I knew just the machine for the job, a big, throaty Rototiller that went VROOOM!

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