Tiller Mania: How (Not to) Till Your Lawn

As a refresher, we’re in the midst of Operation: Chaos into Beauty, which consists of totally revamping the front of my teeny little city property. Last time, we watched my driveway turn from a narrow, broken strip of concrete and weeds into a spacious, organized set of turfstone pavers. The next step is, “The grass is getting ripped up and/or smothered,” so that’s where we are in this post. My lawn-annihilation tool of choice was the tiller.

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Get ready to go underground, you blades of nuisance.

There are a few different methods for getting rid of a lawn. I’m not keen on herbicide, not just because I have to be careful about what might get into my chickens’ and ducks’ systems (even though they stay in the backyard), but because I didn’t want to kill off the dichondra seedlings in my driveway or the new plants I’d be sowing in the garden. Smothering and decomposition would work, but I would’ve had to start that last fall. Finally, I’ve tried solarization (laying a clear sheet over grass and “cooking” it) in the past with no success. That method also requires several weeks, which I didn’t have. So that leaves . . .

TILLING!

A few days after the driveway demolition and installation, I took a Friday off of work (I was originally planning to work outside all of Saturday, but the forecast called for storms). I’d spent all week researching tillers on the local tool rental website and had found the perfect one.

My requirements:

  • The tiller needed to cut through tough sod and heavy clay soil.
  • I needed to be able to operate it by myself (I run and strength train, but I’m no body builder).
  • The tiller had to fit in the back of my Toyota RAV4 (and I had to be able to lift it in and out by myself).

And of course, when I rolled up to the tool rental counter, the employee informed me that my carefully researched choice – the Mantis XP – would not suit my needs at all. A key factor in selecting the Mantis XP was the claim of heavy-duty power in a lightweight (35-pound) model. Apparently that wasn’t quite true. She suggested the lightest of the heavier duty tillers, the Honda F220.

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Or as I like to call it, “The Tined Terror of Tremors.”

I enjoy trying new things and working outside, but the closest things to a tiller I’ve operated is a lawn mower. I was so anxious about using the tiller that, after picking it up, I decided to run errands for the next hour. When I finally returned to my house, the day was starting to get niiiice and hoooot.

Safety nerds, unite!

If an activity requires a helmet, you bet I’ll have one strapped on. So I dug my old composite-toed boots out of my closet and wore thick jeans, gloves, long sleeves, glasses, and a ball cap to keep the sun off my face. I fancied myself a real landscape pro.

The finally, finally, I wheeled the tiller onto my lawn and started it up. Very little happened. Guys, at 53 pounds, this thing was way too lightweight.

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I might as well have been smacking my lawn with this feather.

Most of my yard sits in direct subtropical sun, so the grass that has survived has grown in thick, tough mats. Combine that with hard clay soil (which I thoroughly wetted leading up to TillerMania), and you have a yard that reeeally doesn’t want to change.

Tiller Trial and Error

I started out by letting the tiller mostly propel itself forward, while I tugged back on the handles to provide some resistance. I figured I’d let the machine do most of the work. Well, in order to do any work, the tiller had to make about 20 passes over a patch of ground. Ugh.

Finally, I figured out that to really get the tiller to dig in, I had to either pull it backwards or dig in my heels and just let it sit in one spot until it chew up that sod. My front yard is, oh, a thousand or so square feet, and I spent about five hours tilling, only stopping for short water breaks. The funny thing is, while I was tilling, I didn’t feel tired at all. It was only when I took a break that I realized my arms hung by my sides like dead lengths of rope. And all that work led to this result:

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Welp, that’s disappointing.

As you can see, I did not end up with the fluffy, luscious soil that the internet said I should have. But at least most of the grass is dead. This is not ideal, but it is workable. My plan already included laying down thick brown paper and several inches of mulch, which should take care of the surviving grass and anything that tries to sprout.

If I ever have to till another yard, I’m getting the next size up in tillers, even though it’s 70 pounds heavier. I will find a daggum way to get it into and out of my car.

Side note:  A few days after tilling, I learned that rotting grass stinks, particularly if you have huge clumps of it all over your yard. Before I realized the source of the smell, I was afraid I’d nicked an unreasonably shallow sewer line. The dead grass does not just pleasantly decompose into the soil to create rich nutrients. Sooo keep that in mind if you plan to annihilate your yard anytime soon.

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< Step 1:  Demolishing & Installing a Driveway

Step 3:  Installing a Fence: the First Step (also, tearing out bushes!) >