Photo by Sandra van der Steen/

My brother decided to take the plunge into gardening this year. The plot he used was once a vegetable garden, but had been reclaimed by the lawn. Lacking a means of easily dealing with sod removal, he went to our dad for help. That’s how he came to inherit a rototiller that belonged to our grandfather.

This is a very antique piece of machinery. It looks like it should be in a museum. My dad never gets rid of anything. This sometimes comes in very handy, as was the case with the rototiller, but most frequently it means that you should not venture into his attic, barn or garage unless you want to go home with your car full of stuff he’s giving away. I’m still trying to figure out what to do with all the miscellaneous items from the last carload.

I was skeptical that the rototiller would even work, but my brother, being mechanically inclined, managed to get it running. People could probably hear it in the next county, and it belched out black smoke – but it got the job done. He told me I should have a go, but that seemed like a bad idea given how much effort it took him to maneuver it. I’m not quite as burly as he is. Plus, I’m clumsy as all get-out, and I just know I would have tripped and rototilled myself into the soil somehow.

It was a lot of work, but my brother got that plot of land all tilled and ready for planting. So far, his veggies and fruit are not rewarding all his labor very well. His sunflowers are off to an impressive start, but other things are looking straggly or have not sprouted at all.

It’s not just him. My own garden is a bit iffy. Out of the two rows of carrots my head gardener planted, I think we’ve got maybe seven or eight plants. The beets are in the same state. Something’s munching on the bean plants – and I wish it would go eat the pepper plants instead. It certainly wouldn’t break my heart if we didn’t get any peppers. One of the tomato plants looks quite depressed, despite a couple of bitty tomatoes that have appeared (maybe it knows the odious hornworms are coming back and it’s giving up on life). The broccoli seems to be doing well, but we’ve only got one lonely, puny cucumber plant.

My dad, besides having some slight hoarding tendencies, is also adept at gardening. His vegetables are all growing like crazy and look beautiful. He’s got potato bugs, but I’d be surprised if they actually dared to nibble on his potato plants. I told my dad he’s making us look bad. He did make the excellent point that he’s been growing vegetables for a very long time, and the soil in his garden plots has been worked for years.

It’s going to take us a while to get to my dad’s level. Since the soil seems to be reluctant when it comes to growing vegetables (though it’s excellent at producing fine crops of weeds), maybe it’s time to consider going soilless. There’s a variety of options when it comes to hydroponic growing – could one of them work for your operation? Check out our cover story to learn more.

Stephanie Peake