In the Garden:
Middle South
June, 2005
Regional Report

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My husband uses a rented backhoe to fill in behind a stone wall he built.

In Praise of Heavy Equipment

Last week we rented a tractor for a day. And what a day it was! We had a few landscape projects that we knew would be easier with a backhoe, and others that were simply impossible without a bucket loader. For about $300, including fuel and delivery, we were able to accomplish everything we set out to do.

This is the second time we rented this piece of equipment. Before this spring, I was not aware that renting a tractor was even an option. But we saw one parked at a rental business, we inquired, and next thing we knew we were behind the driver's seat. Now that I know it's possible, I look at our landscaping projects in a whole new light!

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
The good thing about heavy equipment, such as this backhoe and bucket loader-equipped tractor, is that you can do an amazing amount of work in a very short time. Whether it's moving huge rocks, scraping an area flat, or hauling gravel and topsoil, heavy work is undeniably easier with the help of hydraulics-driven machinery. If you've ever tried to dig out a tree stump by hand, you know that some tasks are almost impossible.

The bad thing about heavy equipment is that once you've used a tractor, it's difficult to go back to doing things by hand. As you shovel topsoil into a wheelbarrow, you think, "Gee, wouldn't it be nice to have that backhoe here?" As you rake the gravel flat in the driveway you think, "That bucket loader would make short work of this!" Sure, there's a nobility in doing heavy work by hand, but after a while, and perhaps more importantly, after a certain age, that nobility gives way to the reality of an aching back.

On the other hand, ugly things can happen when you make a mistake. Move the backhoe lever the wrong way, and, oops, the stone wall you built is just a pile of rocks. Load some topsoil into your pickup truck, drop the bucket a little too far, and now you have a permanent dent in the cab.

Safety First
Of course, the ugliest thing of all would be an accident in which someone gets hurt. I worked for years as a landscaper and used a bucket loader to transport loads of mulch and topsoil, and a backhoe to pull small stumps and clear brush. Even with this experience, I am extremely cautious. I've heard too many stories of tractors tipping over and people getting hurt by a backhoe to take any chances or work beyond my comfort zone. If a piece of equipment is powerful enough to pull a stump, it demands great respect. That means following all safety precautions (including seat belt use) and keeping children, pets, and coworkers very far away.

It's also imperative to refrain from digging in any area that might contain buried utilities, including electricity, sewer, septic, and water lines. The potential for injury or damage is too great. Operating equipment on a hillside is also a big no-no. (Perhaps the scariest part of renting the equipment was the fact that the rental company never asked us if we had any experience operating a tractor.)

Size Matters
Most homeowners would be better off hiring a contractor than renting equipment and doing it themselves. In an average-sized yard, there's too much at stake. But in our case, with 7 acres, much of which was damaged by last year's floods, we needed more "muscle" than we had with a pick and shovel. And my husband and I are experienced enough with heavy equipment to know what NOT to try.

In one day, we were able to backfill behind a new stone wall, haul away a huge log that had been "planted" in our field by the flood, remove an ugly stump in the middle of the lawn, scrape out an area overgrown with vines (including poison ivy and oak), and level some spots in our gravel driveway. All the work was in open areas far from our house, and our land is flat. Renting the equipment and doing it ourselves made sense.

Although I'm not suggesting you go out and rent a tractor, I have to say that, in addition to being a good way to get a lot of heavy work done quickly, it's fun, too! It's like being a kid in a big sandbox. In fact, I've been mulling over an idea for a business: Buy a big, abandoned gravel or sand pit, stock it with backhoes, dump trucks, excavators, and bulldozers, and charge people by the hour to "play" -- one at a time, of course! Picture a huge sandbox with adult-sized Tonka trucks. All you entrepreneurs out there, feel free to use my idea -- just give me a cut of the profits; I'm saving up for my own machine!


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