Choosing a Tiller

Find all of the information you need for choosing your next garden tiller.

  • This front-tine tiller works leaves and mulch into the soil prior to planting the garden.
    Photo courtesy Troy-Bilt
  • Hand tools like this small broadfork are great for hand turning small areas.
    Photo by Lori Fontanes
  • A pull-type tiller is a good option if you have a larger area of ground to work.
    Photo courtesy DR Power
  • With plenty of great compost mixed in, a freshly tilled strip is almost ready for sowing a cover crop.
    Photo courtesy MacKissic
  • A rear-tine tiller is ideal for preparing large areas of soil for cultivation.
    Photo courtesy BCS
  • Livestock are sometimes used for plowing purposes.
    Illustration by Brad Anderson
  • Smaller 2- and 4-cycle tillers have plenty of power for smaller garden beds.
    Photo courtesy Mantis
  • Small rear-tine tillers are best for small spaces.
    Photo courtesy Troy Built

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.

Hand tools

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.

Mini tillers

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.

9/6/2014 7:44:29 PM

I have 4 small raised beds each one is 3 x 8. I have 3 cultivators, 2 gas and 1 electric. I do not have the strength it takes to crank the gas powered so if there is no one around to help me I usually end up using the electric one. It does a fine job and is easy to maneuver in the small spaces. You get used to being tethered. I have only run over one cord:)

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