Deus ex machina



Elisabeth Henry comes to terms with big machines


The spring was already there, bubbling over rocks to a small vernal pool below. Why not build a pond?

How simple life was, when we did not know just how much we did not know. So we hired a man with a big yellow machine, and went back to the work week in the city.

Coincidentally, the man went to Disneyworld, leaving behind helpers to run the big machine.


An impressive crater gaped at us when we returned that weekend, a gouge at least 40 feet deep and 200 feet in diameter. The machine was still digging. As it growled and groaned on its terrible steel treads, most of the town’s people gathered at the edge of the abyss. They seemed stunned, fearful and angry. It’s one thing for someone to make home improvements, quite another to attempt to fix the face of Mother Earth in the same manner as our beloved Joan Rivers wished to fix herself.

We made amends to the earth and to the town, and now enjoy a sweet, watery deliverance brimming with life, sized to meet the code. One-half acre in size, twelve feet deep. We learned a valuable lesson. Know when and how to bring in the big machines, and mind the building regulations.

There are machines that are very nice for personal use. The riding mower, for instance. Driving it down the straightaway, you feel free and very much alive. If you face a mortgage, that may be all the risk you need.

The riding mower is perfect for the dreaded downhill drop. It chugs along at much the same rate Tiger Woods is golfing these days. All in all, it is much more pleasant than the motorized push mower, and let’s not even talk about that thing with no motor at all. I think it’s been banned by the Food and Drug Administration.

Consider next the weed whacker. Not much fun, but sometimes things get a little too verdant. The danger of hiring someone to whack for you is this. Inevitably they whack things you want to keep in the garden (the PeeGee Hydrangea that doesn’t bloom until August, for instance.)

Next is that most delightful garden asset, the utility vehicle. It looks very much like a sporty four-wheeler, but you can attach to it a snow plow. It also has the wondrous dump body. Until you use a dump, you cannot know its value.

All those things you thought you had to do no longer matter. It’s like graduating from a particularly demanding Catholic military school.

You may still wonder about those mammoth yellow beasts, and you may have a legitimate need for one. You need a trench dug, a row of field-grown trees planted, yards and yards of topsoil and mulch brought in. Well, machines aren’t all alike, you know.

The bulldozer pushes the earth around. Say you want to shape all that topsoil for your new lawn so that there is proper drainage. A lot depends on the operator. We hired a man who was an absolute artist. His work had nuance and style. Very little collateral damage.

But there are those without that sensibility. So watch out. It’s a great force.

The excavator does what its name says. It digs.

The backhoe digs and loads. You might wish to donate or sell the material you dig up. The backhoe will dig it up, and load it into a dump truck.

A tractor boasts many attachments. Post-hole digger. (Note to new residents: No one has dug a hole by hand since laws against indentured servants were enacted. I’ve been told that digging holes in the region is rumored to mark the beginning of the social justice movement.)

Log splitter. Mulcher. Tiller. Trencher.

Horror movies aside, chippers are very useful. And all these things can be attached to what becomes a tricked-out tractor.

Mechanical engineering is a wonderful thing, but there are costs involved. The skid steer (ours is named BobCat) is useful because you can put attachments on it and it has tires, not treads. According to Blue Line Rental ( in Kingston, it will cost you $260 a day, $790 for the week. A mini-excavator is $290 daily, $870 weekly.

And these are not the big boys. The big ones cost much, much more and require skilled hands at the helm. Don’t try them yourself.

There is a Cinderella Clause that applies to timing. When to bring in machinery? The best time is at the beginning of your new house construction, or the installation of your garden.

The machines require lots of room in which to move and turn. There can be damage to existing structures and plantings. And to you. The operators cannot hear you, and oftentimes cannot see you. My children were forbidden from leaving the house when machines were working. Don’t forget the underground pipes and wires. Rolling heavy equipment over pipes — irrigation, septic lines, electric lines, etc. — goes one way: remorse.

There is more to know. As flour, egg and sugar are to KitchenAid stand mixer, so is soil to backhoe and tiller. The difference is that once the mixture leaves the Kitchen Aid for the oven we get cake. Everyone loves cake. It’s a creation.

Once the soil is subjected to the big machines, it is both ripped up and compacted down. The big machines not only make things raw and ugly, they actually hurt the soil. The soil is not just that stuff you get out with Tide. Soil is alive.

Joan Kutcher, executive director of The Mountain Top Arboretum, gives a for-instance. They might use a backhoe to prepare a new home for a field-grown tree. “If you wish to plant a tree, have the hole dug a third wider than the circumference of the root ball, and the same depth as the root ball. Tree roots grow laterally,” she advises. “Add no special supplements, no rich additives. If you do, the roots will not adjust to the native soil, its new home. Instead, I recommend adding mycorrhizal fungi.”


Mycorrhizal fungi, which form a close symbiotic relationship with plant roots, have been in our soil for millions of years. They colonize and increase the plant roots’ capacity to absorb water and nutrients, thus reducing watering needs and to the detriment of blue-green algae. And the network of mycorrhizal fungi connect trees to each other. Holy Avatar, Batman.

Once the soil gets turned around, even with a personal-use rototiller, there is damage. Mrs. Kutcher is of the school that eschews the tiller because of the damage to the soil. Others claim that the aeration that comes with tilling is good. The decision is yours. But one thing is true. Soils that have been disturbed by residential construction, or intensive cropping practices, such as the applications of fertilizers containing pesticides and other chemical products, have considerably diminished mycorrhizal fungi and might have become insufficient to significantly enhance plant growth.

Considerable thought must go into the decision to push dirt around.

The notable Dean Riddle (of recommends thinking about the overall environment first. Trust that more about your environment will be revealed to you as time goes by, he says. Gardens take years to perfect, and the inherent beauty of any environment unfolds with our ability to recognize it. As our awareness grows, so unfolds the possibilities of what is already there.

“When people are new to gardening, they think about plants first,” Riddle explains. “But that may create notions that make no sense. The task of the landscape designer is to make the most of what is there, and to educate the client. This sort of symbiosis can lead to relationships — client to garden, client to designer — for many fruitful, rewarding years.”

While combustion engines and horsepower make for light work, the same result might be better won with many hands. Hands will be required at some point. And you will get on your knees. It is the cardinal rule of gardening. You get dirty. And maybe after getting dirty time after time, mychorrizal fungi magically connect you to all the roots and bulbs and tubers in your land, and the land begins to talk to you. It tells you what and where to plant, like what happens at the miraculous Garden of Findhorn, where an abundance of big, beautiful vegetables and flowers grow on what is stark, sandy, barren land in northern Scotland.

There is help from devas, of course. But, after all this, if you still simply must have a big machine, I know where there’s a sweet douce and a half that you can drive right off the lot.