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Tillers and Cultivators

Why Do I Need a Tiller or Cultivator?

Tillers and cultivators are perfect tools for mixing soil before planting, aerating soil once plants begin to grow, and removing weeds and cultivating between garden rows during the height of the gardening season. They also require less physical effort to use than a shovel or hoe, which is a benefit when prepping and maintaining large areas. But if you don't want your new garden gadget to gather dust in the garage, read on to make sure you make the most out of your purchase.

Tillers & Cultivators: Planning Considerations

As with any lawn and garden tool, purchasing the right tiller and cultivator depends on what type of projects you plan to undertake. A tiller or cultivator is a major investment as garden tools go, so ask yourself the following questions before you buy:

Do I Need a Tiller or a Cultivator?

If you plan on maintaining a small garden bed, a cultivator is an ideal choice. If you plan to break new ground over a larger area, then a tiller is a more practical option.

Is the Soil Soft or Hard?

Soft soil is loosely-packed together and crumbles easily in your hand; a cultivator works best on this type of soil. Rocky or clay surfaces are considered to be hard soils, and a tiller would be ideal for tackling this type of soil.

What Kind of Blades Do I Need?

There are blades for basic tilling, blades that work better on clay surfaces, and those for cutting vegetation and roots. Consider the work ahead of you and then decide what blades might work best.

Soil Type Area in Square Feet
Less than 1,000 Up to 5,000 Over 5,000
Loosely-packed (soft) Cultivator Front-Tine Tiller Rear-Tine Tiller
Rocky or clay (hard) Rear-Tine Tiller Rear-Tine Tiller Rear-Tine Tiller


A tiller is a powerful piece of garden equipment. It breaks up soil with deep-cutting metal blades, called tines, which dig deep into the ground. Tillers are larger than the average lawn mower, and work best on rocky or clay surfaces. Cultivators, on the other hand, are smaller and lighter weight, and are better suited for gardens with softer loosely-packed soil or smaller beds.

Front-Tine Tillers

Front-tine tillers have front-mounted tines that rotate in a forward direction and pull the tiller through the dirt. These tillers are ideal for small gardens with loosely-packed soil, and may not be the best choice for breaking new ground on harder surfaces because the forward motion of the tines may cause the machine to skip over parts of the ground.

These tillers carry less weight than rear-tine tillers, but a well-placed engine over the tines will provide the extra weight you'll need to help the unit dig into the earth. A front-tine tiller with transport wheels will also help you move the tiller as you work.

Standard and Counter Rotating Tines

Rear-tine tillers come with either standard rotating tines (SRT) that rotate in the same direction as the wheels, or counter rotating tines (CRT) that move in the opposite direction. If you plan on tilling hard-packed or rocky soil over a large area, then a rear-tine tiller with CRT is your best choice. This is because the counter rotation of the tines combined with the forward pull of the tiller wheels will break up the ground more effectively.

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Rear-Tine Tillers

Rear-tine tillers have the power to break up rocky, clay surfaces that some front-tine tillers will only bounce across. Rear-tine tillers have tines behind large wheels that are located at the front of the machine, which pull the tiller through the dirt. Because of the larger engines on these machines, they tend to be more effective on rocky, clay surfaces, or for starting new beds that have never been tilled before.


Cultivators and mini-cultivators are smaller versions of front-tine tillers that are ideal for cultivating beds and gardens at or less than 1,000 sq. ft. Because of their compact size, these machines are easier to control than front or rear-tine tillers and work best in confined spaces due to their smaller wheel-base. Because of their smaller size, storing them in a home garage will also be easier.

An electric cultivator (or electric tiller) is a practical option for small home gardens. Not every electric cultivator or tiller will provide the same power and digging capacity as gas-powered models, but they are quieter to operate and generally more economical to own. Although more light weight, some may have containers that can be filled with sand to provide the extra weight and stability needed for the tines to dig deeper into the ground.

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Horsepower and Blades

It always pays to compare horsepower between models. But as a general rule, remember that the higher the horsepower, the more power you'll have in your hands and the more efficient your tiller or cultivator will be in the long run. Tillers and cultivators can be used on any surface type, but when you match the right tool for the job, and take into account soil type, it will make your gardening experience easier for you.

Till width also ranges in size from about 6" to 9" on smaller tillers and cultivators, and up to 24" on larger models. Tillers also come with three basic kinds of blades: Bolo, a basic design for deep tilling; Slasher, to cut thicker vegetation and roots in loosely-packed soil; and Pick and Chisel, for use on harder, rocky ground. Consider the task at hand and soil type you plan on tilling and then choose accordingly.

Tillers and Cultivators: Features to Look For

Special Attachments

Some gas-powered tillers have attachments for edging, trimming or snow removal, helping to convert your tiller into an effective all-season tool.

Adjustable Tilling Depth

An adjustable till depth offers choice between tilling deep to prep soil, or shallow tilling for weeding.

Collapsible Handle

A collapsible handle will turn your tiller or cultivator into a more compact unit, making it easier to store in your garage when not in use.

Reversible Tine Direction

A tiller with reversible tine direction offers the best of both worlds, giving you the freedom to choose between standard or counter rotating tines.