Clear the way: Don't let that overgrown garden get the better of you

Channel your inner Tom Good and get down and dirty with a rotovator

By Emma Townshend
Sunday 23 October 2011 03:38

I'm off to see Alex from the Shedworking blog. The last time he featured on this page, he was showing off his neat little garden office (aka shed) tucked down at the end of a Hertfordshire garden. I'm back this morning because a month ago he moved to a slightly bigger house, and while he has identified where he wants his new, bigger garden office to sit, at the moment it's occupied by about a ton of ivy and brambles. So he's got in a rotovator (known these days as a "tiller") for two weeks, and I've come to watch him, and possibly laugh, while he tries to clear a nice space for his next HQ.

But photographer Teena and I arrive to find a somewhat downcast atmosphere. Alex has managed to clear and rotovate only a tiny patch of earth, about the size of a picnic blanket, which has taken him a good 40 minutes. "It's much harder work than it looks," he sighs, with a faint air of Eeyore. "I had to dig the soil before I could get the rotovator blades in to work the earth." Teena is practically crying with laughter at the position Alex has to crunch himself down into in order to push the rotovator along. "You look like a Buddha," she says, in between giggles. This can't be what's meant to happen, can it?

"God it's hard work, isn't it?' says Teena, after she has a go. But she spots something we haven't, which is the handle adjustment lever. In about 10 seconds, she has the handles flying high, and the rotovator suddenly looks a bit more low-slung and Easy Rider. Now the balance of body weight works with the movement of the blades. "It's still not easy, though. But at least now I don't have to look like a complete arse," comments Alex.

The rotovator is now positively churning through the soil, and Teena is smiling as she points out: "The problem with garden equipment, it's like photography equipment, it's all built for men. And the rotovator, you have to be a bit rough with it, which is a bit of a man thing." But Alex is at least smiling now too. I find myself singing "Three men went to ro-, ro-tovate a meadow..."

"The secret, I reckon," says Alex, "is to dig it in at the back to hold it still, and have the handles as high as possible to avoid getting a hernia from standing in a weird position."

About 10sq m are now cleared, which is about 20 per cent of the total "wild" area, and it's taken an hour. "After that fannying about at the beginning, I'm really pleased," says Alex. "It's the Tom Good aspect – it's my garden, and I'm clearing it. My friend has got a gang in to clear his, for £350 a day, so if I can save anything like that, I'll be delighted."

The Honda FG315 tiller is £607 including VAT from Honda dealers. For more from Alex's blog, visit

The big tidy: Emma's rotovating tips

At this time of year, abandoned allotments and overgrown gardens alike often call for rotovation. Remember that rotovating where there are perennial weeds such as couch grass or thistles may break them up into smaller pieces, all of which can regrow into new plants. To save weeding time later, pick through the soil after your first rotovator pass, taking out any visible roots before they are chopped to pieces.

You can rent a cultivator from your local tool-hire specialists – Travis Perkins will rent one for two days for £108.80, or a week for £136. Keep an eye on the weather forecast before booking it out – you will need to avoid rain so that your soil doesn't turn into a mushy cake. If you think you are going to be using a tiller over and over again, consider buying, especially if you can share with a friend.

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