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March 10, 2013

Mantis TillerAfter some heart-breaking years in which a huge amount of effort has come to nought, my allotment buddy and I have decided that this year we will take every shortcut going, even if it feels like cheating. We need to win this year, and we’ll cheat like mad if that’s what it takes.

Enter the Mantis.

We’ve invested in (sounds better when you say “invested”) a Mantis tiller / cultivator which we are hoping will make the whole horrible digging business just a bit less awful.

I picked a Mantis because it seemed to have rave reviews from most quarters, and my only concern was whether it would be bastard enough to get through our cold, damp clay soil, especially when it’s totally matted with the dreaded couch. I couldn’t find any reviews online describing experience of using a Mantis with soil like ours. In the end I didn’t think that anything else I could afford (and/or would be strong enough to actually use) was likely to be up to it if the Mantis wasn’t, so I decided to take a chance. Also, they give you your money back if you’re not completely satisfied after you’ve had it for a year.

So today was Day 1 of Mantis vs Cold Damp Couch-Ridden Clay. This is probably the toughest thing you could ask it to tackle, except perhaps for Cold Damp Couch-Ridden Clay With Rocks In. At least we don’t have rocks any more.

Consider this a Mantis product review, if you like, although it’s fairer to call it an account of how we got along with it on our first day. And it took us a while to figure out the best way to use it, and which way round the tines worked best for the job, and that sort of thing.

At first, the tines kept on getting clogged with dead grass and couch roots and mud. After a bit of experimenting, we found that if we held the machine fairly upright, that helped because it gave the machine extra clearance at the back to let the soil escape. And we also found that if you keep it in one spot that’s already tilled and then draw it backwards to nibble at a spot that hasn’t yet been done, it copes much better than if, say, you just ram the thing into the soil and hope for the best.

Even so, we found we had to stop fairly often and remove the tines to clear out roots and soil.

What clay and couch does to the tines

What clay and couch does to the tines



The verdict so far?


  • It’s just as much hard work as digging, actually. We were just as ready to collapse in a heap after doing battle with a Mantis than we would have been if we’d used a fork and spade (even taking into account first-dig-of-the-season feebleness).
  • And the job is less thorough than digging by hand because we didn’t remove the couch roots, and they are still there ready to sprout again.
  • And we probably killed some worms.
  • And maybe some slugs survived that we might otherwise have found and squashed.
  • And we didn’t quite manage to finish this patch because the rotovator refused to start again after the umpteenth time we tipped it on its side to clear the tines. We think it probably just needed a break – but then so did we, so we went home for a cup of tea. Hopefully it’ll start alright next time!

Pros – We wanted a shortcut, and we found one. Yes, it’s harder work than I thought – but that may be because I sort of half-expected to just wave the thing vaguely in the direction of the soil and it would magically produce the perfect tilth. But we did almost a whole patch in the space of a single allotment session. Last year this same patch took about four sessions. So, especially bearing in mind that we were still learning the ropes this time, I reckon that we’re going to cut our digging time by at least 75%. Easily. And (even if that means a bit more hoeing through the rest of the season because the weeds are less thoroughly removed) I call that a win.

Our first tilled patch, with (so far) two rows each of broad beans and onions.

Our first tilled patch, with (so far) two rows each of broad beans and onions.

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