If you’ve ever spent a spring afternoon turning over a vegetable garden with a spade (followed by a spring evening with a bottle of ibuprofen for your back), you’ve probably fantasized about those monster tillers that plow through the soil with the ease of a heated knife through butter.
It’s tempting to think that a machine might solve all your garden-labor woes—from taming a weed-dominated patch to working in a cover crop to creating a new bed. And it’s true that the right marriage of tiller and gardener can create a state of newfound horticultural bliss. But just as with mismatched couples, the failure to think about abilities and goals can make for a bad relationship.
The first step toward tiller compatibility is deciding which type of tiller is right for you: a rear-tine tiller (the tines are the metal blades that do the digging); a front-tine tiller; or a mini-tiller, also called a cultivator.
Love That Horsepower
Like most machines, tillers cost proportionately more for greater horsepower (hp). Large gardens with more than 5,000 square feet call for a large tiller with at least a 6-hp engine, which costs about $800 to $2,000. Smaller gardens can get by with a 4- to 6-hp machine, costing about $500 to $900. And mini-tillers, or cultivators, generally offer 4 hp or less for about $200 to $400.
Gas engines tend to be more powerful but trickier to start. Look for electric-start engines if you don’t have that “magic touch.” Some mini-tillers are entirely electric, so they’re quiet and lightweight—but you have to deal with a cord.
Many safety features are available. Look for safety-switch starting systems, self-cleaning tines, anti-kickback features, protective engine and tine guards, and noise reduction.
Also check out the accessories and bells and whistles. There are power edgers, furrowers, lawn dethatchers, crevice cleaners, and more. Very large tillers have powerful accessories such as log splitters.
To Buy or Not to Buy
Are you sure you need to purchase your own tiller? After reviewing prices and power, you may decide to rent a machine once a year or hire someone to do the work. Large machines rent for about $40 or $50 a day. Renting is a good way to try out a tiller or two before deciding which one to buy—or whether to buy one at all.
Hiring out your tilling may make financial sense, and is a good option if you’re not the world’s strongest, fittest person. Landscaping companies often do it based on hours or area. In the spring, look in the classified ads—you may find people who have purchased tillers for their own large gardens and pay them off by doing tilling for a fee.
There’s some argument about whether you should till with a machine or by hand. By-hand types say tillers can ruin the fragile texture of certain soils and that hardpan problems may develop when a plot is repeatedly tilled at the same depth. (Most tillers have adjustable depths, but few go deeper than 12 or so inches.) And no tiller can double-dig, putting the less-quality subsoil on top and working topsoil down as much as two feet. However, power advocates argue that a good tiller can beautifully incorporate soil amendments into clumpy clay soils, turning them into something remarkable.
Tips for Happy Tilling
To stay safe and keep your tiller happy while improving your soil, follow these simple tips:
• Avoid working soil when it’s very dry or wet, or you can ruin the soil texture. Wait until it is lightly moist. If necessary, water first.
• Mow tall vegetation and rake leaves and debris. This prevents plants from getting tangled in the tines.
• Check the oil in your gas-powered tiller regularly. Change it every 15 hours of running or every two years.
• On slopes, proceed with caution. Large tillers can tip; use a smaller tiller or avoid tilling altogether.
• Be careful what you till. Some weeds and invasive plants like nothing better than a good tilling because it chops them up and distributes them throughout the garden. Avoid tilling purslane, bindweed, nutgrass, crabgrass, and johnsongrass.
• Don’t overwork yourself or the tiller. It’s better on you and the machine to make several passes over an area than to work it all at once.
• Wear heavy shoes or boots when tilling. If you have a gas-powered engine, use ear plugs. Wear heavy gloves to help absorb shock from the machine.
Description: A novelty 20 years ago, rear-tine tillers have become highly popular. These powerful machines have tines located at the rear. The motor powers the wheels in front, which pull the tiller forward. These machines tend to be heavier (200 pounds or more) and larger than front-tine tillers.
Good choice for large gardens more than 5,000 square feet or hard or stony soils. Tilling width is considerable, often as much as 36 inches. But they tend to be big and difficult to maneuver, making them less suited for gardens where space is tight and you need to turn the machine a lot.
Look for either standard-rotating tines (also known as SRT or forward-rotating), where the tines rotate in the same direction as the wheels, or counter-rotating tines (also known as CRT or rotating toward the rear), where the tines rotate counter to the forward pull of the wheels. This allows for easier tilling of hard soils, including new ground. Some models are available with reversible tine direction, which is the best of both worlds.
Description: These have forward-rotating tines located in the front of the machine. Rear-mounted wheels allow you to push the machine from one location to another. The tines pull the machine forward, which is fine in loose soils but problematic in hard or previously untilled soil. And front-tine tillers are usually smaller and lighter than rear-tine tillers, so tines tend to skip over difficult soils rather than digging into them.
Good choice for gardens with less than 5,000 square feet to till and reasonably soft soil.
Look for a balance of weight and maneuverability. Heavy front-tine tillers are less likely to skip over the ground, but they’re also less mobile. If possible, give one a trial run before purchasing to make sure it’s right for you and your garden.
Mini-Tiller or Cultivator
Description: These small tillers are light enough to carry to the site, eliminating the need for wheels on most models. Their tilling width may be as little as 6 inches.
Good choice for gardens of less than 1,000 square feet with soft soils. Mini-tillers are not going to turn a vast stretch of sod into a fluffily perfect vegetable garden, but they’re great if you want to till lightly in areas such as raised beds. You can also use them to keep down weeds in long rows of vegetable gardens. Their light weight makes them a good choice for gardeners without a lot of upper-body strength. In comparison, large tillers can give you a real workout, and some have a tendency to run away with you, making tilling something of a wrestling match.
Look for optional accessories that make furrows for planting.