Rototilling/Gardening Efforts AND Mud Icing


by Marlene Condon

With spring upon us, most gardeners will be thinking about rototilling their gardens. A rototiller is a great tool for someone creating a garden in a new yard where all or most of the topsoil has been scraped away. It’s also a great tool for someone starting a garden where only lawn grass was previously grown. These situations necessitate a great deal of force to break apart the rock-hard subsoil that’s left after a house has been built and a lawn put in.

Most people do not add compost to their lawns or allow clippings to remain where they fall. As a result, organisms cannot move in (from natural areas in the vicinities of our homes-an important reason for maintaining such areas) to feed upon this material and help produce topsoil. Consequently, subsoil un-derlying lawn will change little through the ensuing years and will require work if you want to create a garden in place of your lawn.

But you may do more harm than good by continuing to rototill if you have been gardening in the same location and have been adding lots of organic matter to the soil for many years.

By now your soil should be in good shape (dark-colored with a crumbly texture that is easy to work) and teeming with organisms. Rototilling will harm these creatures and their ability to keep your garden functioning as it should.

Therefore you should work each area by hand with a trowel or spade. This is easy to do in soil where lots of plant and animal matter has decayed and enriched the earth. Working in this way, you are less likely to grind up numerous earthworms, grubs, salamanders, and other critters that amend the soil and/or keep your plants growing well.

To improve soil in a garden, add as much organic matter as you can and as often as you can. You don’t need to make a compost pile; you can simply place your plant debris and leftover vegetable scraps directly into the garden hidden under leaves or dug into the soil a bit.

Snails and slugs will help recycle dead animal and plant matter on the soil surface and thus are very important organisms to welcome to your yard. These maligned critters are misunderstood by gardeners. Gastropods prefer to feed upon and thus recycle decaying or sickly plants. If they are feeding upon healthy plants, they are usually doing so because the yard is too “clean” and there is nothing else for them to eat; they are starving.

Earthworms incorporate dead plant and animal matter below the soil surface where grubs (the immature form of beetles) can feed upon it and thus break the material down even better for the benefit of growing plants.

Bone, meat scraps, and fat from your meals should also be recycled instead of being sent to the landfill. It’s misguided for people to be locking nutrients up instead of returning them to the natural world as is supposed to happen. And by keeping dead animal parts out of your trash cans, you can eliminate problems with wildlife trying to do their job of recycling such organic matter.

Simply place this type of material under a shrub where animals that serve as our natural sanitation workers, such as raccoons and opossums, can feed upon it. They will leave behind droppings that smaller organisms, such as dung beetles (during the warm months), will break down even further for the benefit of your plants.

When wildlife has recycled your plant and animal scraps and thus created a fine soil for your garden and yard, then other critters will move in to help your plants to grow well. Salamanders take shelter from the drying rays of the sun under plant debris, coming out at night to hunt. They will climb all over your plants looking for insects, assisting you as they obtain a meal that limits arthropod numbers.

All of these critters are vital to the proper functioning of your yard. Take good care of them and they will repay you with a wonderfully successful garden.

A garden with no problems makes for a very happy gardener, indeed (see author’s photo above!).

NOTE: If you would like to learn more about creating a nature-friendly landscape to make your gardening efforts easier and more successful, Marlene will be teaching three Saturday morning classes at PVCC this spring. For more information, contact her at [email protected].




Our winter has been extremely dry and it’s not looking good for spring rains. Perform a rain dance before relaxing with a piece of cake iced with “mud.” Easy “Mud” Icing is a convenient recipe to make when you haven’t got the energy to make a typical frosting. It tastes good and also has less fat than a typical frosting if you follow my recommendation to use nonfat sweetened condensed milk.

Recipe from Eagle Brand Sweetened Condensed Milk with recommendations by Marlene:

One 14-ounce can Eagle Brand Sweetened Condensed Milk (NOT evaporated milk)-I recommend the nonfat variety

Two 1-ounce squares semi-sweet or unsweetened chocolate-I recommend unsweetened as the condensed milk is already plenty sweet

Dash of salt (less than 1/8 teaspoon)
3 Tablespoons water
1 teaspoon vanilla extract (I recommend pure vanilla extract-the superior flavor of real vanilla is worth the extra cost and one bottle will keep well on the shelf for many years of use)

In medium (2-quart) saucepan, combine sweetened condensed milk, chocolate squares, and salt. Over medium heat, cook and stir rapidly and constantly until chocolate melts. Shut off heat and continue stirring for a minute or two more so that mixture thickens just a bit. Remove from heat and stir in water and vanilla.

Return to medium heat. Cook and stir rapidly until mixture just comes to a boil (takes about 4 minutes).

Remove from heat and cool in saucepan on counter for 10-15 minutes. This recipe can be used for one 13×9-inch cake, one 8- or 9-inch two-layer cake, or 2 dozen cupcakes.

NOTES: The icing thickens as it cools so it should be spread while still a bit warm. The iced cake/cupcakes can be frozen in a hard plastic container that protects the contents from being squished. For best quality, eat within a month if using a self-defrosting refrigerator freezer but you can wait up to 3 months if using a stand-alone freezer.