The Italian Rototiller

I have a number of garden tools to which I am mightily attached, but none so precious as the Italian rototiller, my husband Bill, who has written this guest post about his favorite tool.

The Italian Rototiller

By Bill Bakaitis

It may not be what T. S. Elliot meant when he referred to April as being the cruelest month, but around here the breaking of spring ground also means breaking the sweet silence of winter.  Motorcycles roar, dogs bark, the machinery of lawn maintenance springs into gear and out come the rototillers, churning and burning their way into the modern landscape. The ‘greening of exurbia’ is what they say.  Consumer doublespeak is more like it.

 The Grape Hoe, Mattock or Italian Rototiller, all oiled up and ready to go!

The Grape Hoe, Mattock or Italian Rototiller, all oiled up and ready to go!

When I break ground I use Grandfather’s tool. Anglo types who hang out at the Agway probably call it a Mattock, and it is often listed in specialty garden supply outlets as an Italian Grape Hoe. I once heard it referred to disparagingly as an “Italian Rototiller” and in honor of my Calabrese Grandfather, that’s what I call it. Were he alive today he would chuckle and cherish the approbation.  Leslie, of course, says it only works when used by an Italian (meaning me).

Why do I use and love it? Let me count the ways:

1. For starters it is INEXPENSIVE. The price of a brand spanking new one online at Easy Digging is about $27. EBay has several listings for the hoe w/o handle for $18, and I have seen used ones at yard sales for $3 to $5, a hundred  times cheaper than the cheapest rototiller you can find.

2. And they are DURABLE. Not to worry about purchasing a used one for unlike the motorized rototillers, these things don’t break down, and if they do they are easy to repair.  The one I own was used by my Grandfather in the 1930’s and ’40’s.  In 1956 he and I installed the current handle, cut from an oak branch and shaped by him with a drawknife.  Maintenance by me has included replacing the end wedge once and rubbing the handle with Tung or Linseed Oil once a year. It even sharpens itself as it is used.

This durable Grape Hoe has been in use since the 1930's.  Its self sharpening edge cuts like a knife.

This durable Grape Hoe has been in use since the 1930's. Its self sharpening edge cuts like a knife.

3. It is STRONG, I might even say MIGHTY, able to loose large clods with a single stroke, able to bounce off rocks, even Kryptonite, with impunity, and able to chomp roots as if they were linguine al dente.

A large clod.

A large clod.

removed.

removed.

with a single stroke.

with a single stroke.

4. And yet, it is also EXQUISITELY SENSITIVE. In use I can direct it to shave a little or a lot, to go deep or skim the surface, and to change the angle from aggressive to gentle all automatically in a dynamic nanosecond as the hoe falls to earth.

If this sounds implausible, think of the way your foot on the gas petal adjusts to the 80 miles per hour traffic on the highway speeding up and slowing down instantly gliding into a lane without so much as a conscious thought.

The angle of attack is easily adjusted as the hoe falls to earth.

The angle of attack is easily adjusted as the hoe falls to earth.

On Easter Sunday as I was tilling a few rows in the garden, I uncovered a potted plant inadvertently left in the garden from last fall.  Underground, new tender red shoots were beginning their journey moving out of the pot up from the roots. A mechanized tiller would have lunched the plant in an instant but as the Grape Hoe transmitted the feel of the thin plastic pot to my hands it immediately fell limp, dead in mid-stroke, the plant saved for rescue and future identification.  So too with the adventitious asparagus and arugula that have taken up residence in another row; they too were saved by the feel of the fall of my grandfathers tool.

5. Perhaps the most noticeable attribute of the Italian Rototiller, however, is that it is QUIET and POLLUTION FREE. It uses no gasoline, no oil (save the yearly smear on the handle), produces no noxious fumes and no noise. I love its whispering whisk, whisk, whisk and occasional clink of stone to metal as it cuts through the earth. The melody rises softly joining the breath of air that stirs in the trees and the bright cheery, cheery, cheery of bird call that floats down in response.  Call me what you will, but in its serene, dignified simplicity this experience rivals all for its reverent, sensuous spirituality.

6. And, it is EFFICIENT. In High School I was fortunate to have majored in agriculture. Mr. Lowery, our one eyed Ag instructor (losing his other to a clutch assembly that fell from a tractor on which he was working) also taught Earth Science and Physics. He had it right when he spoke of efficiency.  To have an honest measure of efficiency, be it on the farm, in nature, or in the lab you have to account for all of the variables involved.

For the motorized rototiller some of these variables range from the energy costs of mining the ore, smelting, milling and machining the metal; exploring and drilling for oil, cracking, refining and delivering the gasoline; developing, assembling and maintaining the machine, along with the associated labor costs at every step along the line. No motorized machine can compete with the inclined plane for energy efficiency, he said.

Years later, long after graduate school, reading sophisticated tracts on General Systems Theory I ran across input/output energy accounts of raising grain. For every calorie expended by a farmer with a bullock driven plow, the authors calculated, one could expect 10 calories from the sun in return. For every calorie extracted from the soil by modern machine methods, on the other hand, some 10 to 15 calories had to be expended. Hardly green are these technologies. They are economically efficient and viable only when major costs have been externalized. The authors concluded that it would be cheaper and more energy efficient to eat the oil than to convert it into tractors and fuel to plant, cultivate, harvest, process, distribute and market grain with the mechanized agribusiness technologies.  (These are important lessons and when understood reveal why grain ethanol is not green. But that’s a different story.)

For a graphic illustration, take these before and after shots of one row in my garden.

before,

before,

during,

during,

after

after

It took only 17 minutes to do this row from beginning to end, including the time necessary to stop and take four or five images, and to separate out the weeds. Not only did I end up with a clean weed free row, but I also have a barrow full of excellent organic matter fit for a compost pile or land improvement project at the edge of my property. Two for the price of one: now that is a good measure of efficiency in action.

7. Cultivation with my Grandfathers Grape Hoe has yielded a VANISHINGLY SMALL CARBON FOOTPRINT. Consider that this single Italian Rototiller has been in nearly constant use since the Great Depression when my grandparents bought their farm at the end of Dewy Avenue in Washington Pennsylvania.

They had a truck garden in the bottom land of their sixty four acre farm, and with his ‘mattock’ as he called it, my Grandfather scratched out smaller plots across the hillside. The farm prospered and the produce they grew was sold in their own store at the corner of Park Avenue and Main Street. The surplus was distributed to two or three other grocers in town.

As a teenager, I contracted with a local florist to grow his mums on a three acre hillside plot. I used my grandfather’s big hoe, and when he died, a few years later,  possession of the hoe was passed on to me. It has been used in every garden I have created ever since. I can’t begin to calculate how many acres, tons, mountains of soil have been moved with it.

Use of the Grape Hoe to turn the compost pile. With the exception of the initial tilling of sod with a machine, this garden has been maintained for the past 17 years exclusively with hand tools, chiefly with my Granddad's Rototiller

Use of the Grape Hoe to turn the compost pile. With the exception of the initial tilling of sod with a machine, this garden has been maintained for the past 17 years exclusively with hand tools, chiefly with my Granddad's Rototiller

As for the amount of carbon based energy necessary to make the Grape Hoe? Well once for the 8″ blade, undoubtedly from the coal and steel industry based near Pittsburgh, once for a braze to repair what looks like a crack in the eye, and twice for oak handles. What does this add up to?  A bushel or so of coal?  A gallon or two of Gas?  An evening’s use of heat for the home? As I say, a vanishingly small carbon footprint!

8. Using this big hoe is HEALTHY and ECONOMICAL. Using it helps relieve me of the cost of joining and maintaining a membership in a Health Spa. It helps keep me reasonably trim, limber, calm and clear headed, and in good cardio-vascular health. The same cannot be said of some I see using the machine version.  One poor fellow I know can no longer see his knees. Another sits on his motorized lawn and garden machines, then gets into his faux luxury car to drive to the gym in order to work on his sculpted abs and pecs, muscles that are quite likely to turn thick and fat in a down economy. (Don’t get me wrong: I know some will need a bit of mechanized help to till their gardens, but most, I am willing to bet, would do well to avoid this consumer trap.)

9. COMPACT STORAGE. It takes only a few inches of wall space to store the Grape Hoe.

“]Storing this rototiller is a cinch]

Storing this rototiller is a cinch

10. Use of this inclined plane PROMOTES SOIL HEALTH. In the tilled row, there is virtually no soil compaction. One is left with a loose friable structure of the bed. Because the weeds are not chopped into the soil there are few, if any, to compete with the seedlings or sown seeds and therefore less cultivation and subsequent soil disturbance – with accompanying weed growth – is needed throughout the season.

A bed of deeply cultivated, friable soil ensures easy rooting and a healthy start for the seedlings that follow

A bed of deeply cultivated, friable soil ensures easy rooting and a healthy start for the seedlings that follow

Tilled in this manner, our New York beds will be able to maintain themselves with modest input throughout the summer. Leslie and I both operate on the assumption that if you build a healthy bed in the spring the seedlings get off to a great start, root deeply and given adequate mulching can be left to their own devices throughout the growing season. This is vitally important to us as we maintain both the New York and Maine gardens. And less time in the garden enables us to invest in those other activities we so much enjoy.

So, there you have it. A bountiful life, full of promise, produce, and vitality all made possible by my Italian Rototiller.  Who woulda thought?

Thanks, Grandpa!

Fred Cario, my granddad, tending his cattle, mid winter, in the mid '50's.

Fred Cario, my granddad, tending his cattle, mid winter, in the mid '50's.

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8 Comments »

  • Ali Said,

    Thanks, Bill for sharing! I love beautiful, well made, well used tools. I have many tools from my parents, some of which belonged to their parents, and I just love using them. I greatly enjoyed reading about your rototiller’s history. And I love the non-polluting silence when using such a tool in the garden!

    Ali

  • Bill Said,

    Hi Ali,

    Thanks for your comment.

    To my mind too the most beautiful of our human inventions are those which simply and with elegance sculpt the form to function. I suspect that is why these are retained, passed down from generation to generation and share world-wide acceptance.

    Even so, it seems to me, there are subtle cultural differences. The Chinese hand tools that have found their way into our collection , for example, all seem to use a slightly different curve from the European designs. (Perhaps some reader can tell us why/how.)

    And there is something deeply familiar about those cutural shapes that run in our own families, qualities that resonate quite deeply and speak to our personal heritage.

    I notice that my Grandad’s hoe has a curved edge but the newer ones I see are almost always square. This may have occurred due to decades of wear under use, and if so that has to be the influence of the forces of nature upon the form due to the function, the laws of physics improving upon a human design. But for whatever the reason, my personal preferance is for the curved design. I see the arc of my own families legacy reflected on its surface, and my heart melts with that rememberance.

    Bill

  • Leigh Williams Said,

    Ah, Bill, I see there is a tool that I need, but which I didn’t even know I needed before reading this piece.

    One of the organic nurseries here in town has a nice large selection of tools. I hope I’ll be able to find my very own Italian rototiller there.

    Thank you for the information!

  • Gary Said,

    Bill,

    Great article. I too use old tools inherited from by grandfather. Many of them are a superior solution to the modern way. One of my favorites is grandpa’s hand sickle instead of a string-line trimmer. One day my trimmer ran out of string. To finish up the trim, I decided to try the hand sickle. It worked great! It’s been at least 10 years now and I’ve not used a string-line trimmer since.

    You note that your Granddad’s hoe has a curved cutting edge and modern ones have a flat one. Try both on the same work and you’ll find the curved blade will cut through roots and tough clods with less jarring by concentrating the force closer to the center of the blade. Hit a rock with the corner of a straight blade and the tool will try to twist in your hands. Hit the same rock in the same way with the “corner” of your curved cutting edge and it just glances off the rock and bits into the surrounding soil. This is perfect. Less jarring, and loosening the surrounding soil will make the rock easier to extract.

    The blade’s gentle curve back toward you also reduces handle shock. When you hit something hard and the blade wants to stop sharply, the curve places the point of impact just enough closer to you that the angular momentum of the tool becomes balanced over the point of impact. Modern tools will likely not curve properly, probably because it makes for more stress on the tool and therefore needs more material and cost. But use the modern version for a couple hours and the advantages of the old one become clear.

    Old tools are a treasure. They were made by people who used the tools they produced. Modern tools seem to be designed to be cheaper to make, faster to assemble, or easier to ship. The goals of quality, durability, and ease of use just don’t seem to be represented in today’s modern tools.

  • Bill Said,

    Hi Gary,

    Your description and analysis of the curved tool in action is darn near perfect. As I read your comments my muscle memory kept saying, Yes, Yes, Yes.

    The reason for the poor quality of some modern tools, I think, is that they are designed to be replaced often, creating a need to periodically purchase a new one thus contributing to a steady stream of income for the corporate entities involved. ‘Planned obsolesence’ is another variation on this theme. Oh My, Sounds like we are getting into politics here, and I seem to recall that dirt farmers with their hand tools were no match for the corporate police…

    Hmmm, perhaps we ought to change the subject.

    On a back street in New York’s China Town I once found a black iron sickle forged from a backyard foundry. It is ‘J’ shaped, 14″ from stem to stern, with only a subtle curve at the gracefully tapered end. The blade has a thin serrated cutting edge flowing from a slightly thicker fluted shaft. The tang slips through a palm sized wooden handle and is secured by a simple crimp at the end. Stamped into the metal near the handle are two chinese characters and the cryptic, “MADE BY” and “ANIHC”. (CHINA backwards) It is clearly a hand made tool of proven design. It cost a dollar some thirty years ago and instantly became my favorite sickle.

    Although it can be used with the wrist flick motion, I love to use it for coarse vegitation like the spent peony in autumn. By grasping the plant material with my left hand and pulling the sickle through the stems at ground level the stronger muscle groups of my back and arm work with ease and with this beauty I can do a row of peony quicker than my neighbor can start up his weed wacker.

    I often wish I could personally thank the maker for providing me with his design. The balance, the heft, the sweep is poetry of museum proportion. To see it is to want to hold it, and to hold it is to want to use it. With tools like these, who needs toys?

    Bill

  • Anna Said,

    Mine arrived from Easy Digging last week and I love it! Thanks for the recommendation.

  • Anne Said,

    Anglo types? Your hoe is indeed admirable, but I happen to be Anglo (and the real thing, not just a type). We, too, have a history of agriculture and a tradition of making the best garden tools in the world. Not sure I like the inference in your post here. Are we less because we are not Italian?

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