Gardeners have been stirring the soil ahead of planting for as long as gardens have been around. In some cases, the tilling was little more than a scraping away of existing vegetation and loosening the soil with a rock or stick. In others, bone or rock hoes and antler-tine cultivators accomplished the same work. Still later, animals were employed to do the digging directly, or to provide the draft for pulling larger wooden and then iron and wood plows and cultivators through the ground. Fast forward to the 21st century, and you can still do all of the above, and you can also add purpose-built mechanized tillers to the mix. Read on for some hints at how to navigate the choices.
When many gardeners think about tilling, their minds turn first to the labor-saving rotary tiller — but you may not need that much power or investment. If your garden plot is less than a tenth of an acre, and your soils are well-developed and friable, you can easily spade-dig the plot in the course of an hour or two. Spade digging involves systematically turning the soil with the spade — or a shovel works too. Chop the clumps with a hoe and rake them out with a soil rake, and you are ready to plant.
When your garden grows larger, you can accomplish much of the same soil preparation and weeding tasks with a wheel hoe. This device allows you to cover more ground, with small moldboard plow, hoe and cultivator attachments. The wheel hoe isn’t the best tool for incorporating mulch or clumpy manure, but it is wonderful for loosening up a seed bed, cultivating and hilling. You can manage most of the early and in-season tillage work for a garden up to a half acre or more with a wheel hoe — but as your patch progresses ever larger, you may want to bring on the power tools.
Rotary tillers come in a number of sizes and capabilities. At the small end of the scale are the 2-cycle or 4-cycle mini tillers (sometimes called cultivators) that were put on the map by Mantis. A number of manufacturers sell them now — they all consist of a lightweight engine mounted above and coupled to a gear-driven transmission that turns a set of spring steel tines at relatively high speeds. These tillers are operated through a set of controls mounted to lightweight handlebars. Expect to pay anywhere from $200 to $600, depending on the make, model and accessories.
Mini tillers have tines that rotate away from the operator — the end result is that they pull the tiller forward. With a little experience, the mini tiller can be used to dig trenches, pulverize soil to good depth, cultivate weeds, incorporate amendments, and even till down cover crops, corn stalks and other garden debris. Corded electric mini tillers are also available, which pretty much do the same work of their fuel drinking cousins, but the cord is a tether. Rechargeable cordless electric units have also become available — these are great for cultivating small weeds and working in raised beds. Look for gas models from Mantis, DR Power, Troy-Bilt and Cub Cadet, corded electric models from Mantis, DR Power, Earthwise, Greenworks and Sun Joe, and cordless electric models from Troy-Bilt, Greenworks and Black & Decker.
If you need more capacity or simply wish for a machine that won’t be pulling on you so dramatically as you use it, you might want to consider something a little larger and heavier.
Useful for preparing the seed bed in a larger garden, front-tine tillers — the engine is located above and slightly behind the tines — really shine when the hard work of breaking new ground has been completed and when the amount of garden trash or cover crop residue is moderate and not particularly fibrous. Like the mini tillers, these units have forward-rotating tines and tend to need to be held back — by the operator as well as a depth stake. The harder the going, the tougher the workout for the operator. Front-tine tillers tend to be more expensive than mini tillers but less than rear-tine tillers, and most make use of chain or belt drives, or a combination of chains or belts and gears. The front-tine tiller excels where gardens are not too large and the soil structure is good. Most front-tine models are also equipped with a pair of transport wheels that can also improve maneuverability in the garden. Look for products from makers such as Husqvarna, Earthquake and Ariens, and expect to spend up to around $600 for a good model.
The heavy workhorses in the rotary tiller realm are designed with powerful petroleum-powered engines out front that are coupled with transmissions of various designs that send power to the drive wheels and then on back to the tines. These machines are among the most versatile of tillers and, because of their wheeled power units, many (such as the BCS models) are capable of accepting a number of additional attachments such as mowers or grader blades. Some can even be fitted with mini hay balers! Plan to pay anywhere from $400 to more than $2,000 for various models and sizes from makers such as DR Power, BCS, Husqvarna, Cub Cadet, Troy-Bilt, Earthquake and others.
Small rear-tine tillers like the Troy-Bilt Pony models make sense for smaller gardens where part of the program includes residue management or working in plenty of straw, leaves and/or other organic matter, or cover crops. Larger rear-tine tillers are great for larger-scale garden prep, but they can also be used to stir and condition large mulch piles or mix custom potting mixes in large batches, and they positively excel at breaking new ground and plowing down cover crops and crop residues. These machines can also be fitted with hilling and furrowing attachments to facilitate potato planting and corn cultivating.
Rear-tine tillers are available with tines that rotate forward (standard rotating tines), backward or reverse (counter rotating tines) or both — but not at the same time (dual rotating tines). The dual-rotating-tine models allow you to make a transmission selection to rotate the tines as required.
Forward-rotating tines will tend to push the rear-tine tiller along, however the drive wheels will tend to keep the tiller’s progress under control. These units, while ideal for preparing soil, plowing down green manures and working in amendments, do their best work at relatively shallow depths, since the action of the rotating tines has a tendency to lift them out of the ground. The operator needs to apply controlled downward pressure in tough soils, but too much downward pressure can cause the tines to dig in and literally force the drive wheels out of the ground, which will make the tiller lurch forward.
If your soils are tougher or you want to prepare a deep, fluffy seed bed in a single pass, you might choose the rear-tine tiller with counter-rotating tines. These machines tend to bite into the soil and the tine action pulls the tines deeper — pulling against the drive wheels, which generally win the tug of war. The result is that the tiller moves forward more slowly and the soil is pulverized nicely. Hard clay soils and breaking new ground are the forte of the counter-rotating-tine tiller, although it can also be used to handle crop residue, cover crop management and the like.
When you are faced with a mixture of soils and tasks, the dual-rotating-tine tiller is a great option. Use the standard setting for routine work and the counter setting for tougher going. Choosing this option will offer added versatility, but at a financial cost.
When you have that much more garden, food plot or corn patch to prepare, and you already own an ATV, UTV or small tractor, you might consider a self-powered pull-type tiller. They consist of a larger-width tiller (typically around 36 inches) than those discussed above, powered with a gasoline engine, all mounted to a carriage that you can hitch to your tow vehicle. Look for models from DR Power and Agrifab, and expect to pay from about $1,300 to more than $3,000 for a beautifully decked-out model with electric start, clutch and depth control. These tillers are typically equipped with standard-rotation tines.
Garden tractor mounted
Should you already own a small garden tractor, you might be able to mount a tiller on the rear hitch and take advantage of the machine’s PTO or hydraulic system to run it. Look for new tiller attachments from Sears and Bercomac, as well as used models from virtually any maker. Expect to pay around $2,000 for a new setup.
If your homestead’s equipment arsenal already includes a sub-compact, compact or utility tractor, and your tilling needs can be measured in acres (small tractors with mounted tillers are suitable for half-acre sized plots or less, assuming you have space to maneuver them), then you might invest in a 3-point hitch-mounted rotary tiller that will be motivated by and powered with the tractor through the wheels and the PTO.
Tractor-mounted tillers are highly versatile and powerful tools that will serve well in most situations — they excel at ground preparation, compost aeration, crop residue and green manure incorporation, breaking new ground, and more. Because of their width (4 feet or more), they may not be the best cultivating tools in the conventional sense. Three-point hitch tillers are available with either standard- or counter-rotating tines and can be had from makers such as Land Pride, Frontier, Woods and many others. Expect to pay from $1,500 to several thousand dollars depending on size, quality level and brand. For best results, check with your tractor dealer to find models that are suited to your specific tractor.
Read more: Do more with the right attachments.
To till or not to till
Many gardeners rely on mechanical tilling to prepare seed beds, work in soil amendments, and fight weeds. In very healthy soils with excellent structure, tilling may not be necessary at all and, enjoyable as it might be, in some soils you may want to limit mechanical tilling to a couple of times per year or less, and here’s why. Mechanical tilling tools such as moldboard plows and even rotary tillers have a tendency to compact the soil at the depth of their reach. So if you routinely till a soil on the clay side of loam, you can create a hardpan 6 to 8 inches deep, depending on your tiller and its settings.
The same is true with the plow. You can minimize these effects by tilling to different depths and by regularly breaking up that hardpan with deep aeration tools, such as the chisel or ripping plow in field-sized plots or the broadfork in smaller, garden-sized plots. Many folks with well-developed garden soils never need to do more than work the ground with a broadfork once a year – managing weeds and incorporation tasks with light-tine cultivators, wheel hoes, hand hoes and hand cultivators. Still others manage the works by applying compost to the surface and covering it with a heavy straw or seedless hay mulch. Judicious use of tilling equipment can help improve your plot no doubt, but watch for any signs of hardpan formation, and take remediation steps to ensure that your hard work will pay off in bountiful yields, year after year.
GRIT is teaming up with Troy-Bilt to award one lucky winner a Troy-Bilt Super Bronco CRT garden tiller. Small and compact, this rear-tine rototiller is great for small gardens while providing the power needed to tackle tough garden jobs from mixing and aerating the soil to breaking down remnants of previous crops. Enter to win. The deadline to enter is June 24.
Editor-in-Chief Hank Will uses a Hoss Tools wheel hoe as well as multiple other tilling machines to help coax a yield from his garden in rural Osage County, Kansas.