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Power Garden Tillers

Reasons for tilling the garden, and options among power tillers.

In the spring, I load up a garden cart with well-composted manure and set out to start working the soil in the garden, getting it ready for the first planting of the year. After forking compost into the winter-hardened ground for an hour and enjoying just the first 15 minutes (the last 45 minutes create fireworks of shooting pains in my lower back from my sedentary winter in front of the fireplace), I realize that I am a woman in need of a tiller.

Why till? First of all, it's the best way to work amendments such as compost, sand, peat moss, leaves, and other organic material into the soil. Tilling our garden also breaks up the crust formed on top of the soil from a hard winter of frost, ice, and snow. A tilled garden is easier to plant—and absorbs water better—because the soil has been aerated.

In the large, flat areas of our garden, I require the battleship of tillers—something wide and powerful that chews up soil, mixes in compost, and spits it out ready for planting. We happen to own just the tiller. It's heavy and a struggle to move into the garden, but once it's there, it does the job. When I first power it up, the spinning tines always bring to mind the cartoon character the Tasmanian Devil.

Steering is the hard part, because our rear-tine rotary tiller seems to want to gallop out of my hands and run amok through the fence. The five-horsepower engine (some larger tillers offer even more power) does indeed feel like I've harnessed five frisky workhorses. But after some initial wobbling, I get my tiller legs and all goes well. A run through with this machine transforms the ground from a crusty, dirtclod-pocked surface to a bouncy trampoline of soft soil. The tiller folds in the compost, mixes it with the topsoil, and leaves a clean wake of fresh soil ready for planting.

Big tillers are best for long stretches of open ground—big vegetable gardens, row crops of cut flowers, and truck gardens. But using this tiller in our raised beds around established perennials would be like unleashing the proverbial bull in a china shop. It's too big to control in a small space. We needed a tiller with more finesse. It was clear that we would end up being a two-tiller family.

Get ready to make some big power decisions when you shop for a tiller. Full-size tillers come in several tine-placement options: front-, mid-, and rear-tine models. But I was in the market for a small, lightweight version, and there were plenty of choices here as well. Minitillers are manufactured in both electric (120 volt) and gas-powered (two- and four-cycle) options.

Electric-powered tillers have the advantage of being quiet and not emitting gas fumes. They are perfect for gardeners who live in condominiums, townhouses, or small urban properties with garden beds nearby. Although the model I looked at had a 50-foot extension kit you could purchase separately, the distance of our garden from a power outlet meant that gas powered was the way to go for us.

Shopping for a gas-powered tiller took me into the baffling world of two- and fourcycle engines. Two-cycle engines require a gas/oil mixture that was, frankly, intimidating. I'd need to get over my fear of mixing flammable liquids.

After weighing my options, I selected a gas-powered hand-held tiller that I can carry to the garden slung over my shoulder. My new lightweight minitiller weighs a little more than my heaviest cat—about 20 pounds—and allows precision without sacrificing power. It has a nine-inch tilling head that works compost into the soil around the base of my perennials while allowing me to control the tine depth so I don't damage root systems. Since I now have a two-cycle engine in my toolshed, I've carefully marked the regular gas (for the lawn mower and full-size tiller) and the gas/oil mixture (for the chainsaw, string trimmer, and minitiller) so that I don't mix them up.

Although my experience using both sizes of tiller was a relatively happy and productive one, I must admit that the soil in my garden is very tillable—no rocks, no clay, no need for a chemistry set of amendments to get it in balance. My friends who till in other areas of the country tell horror stories of rock-encrusted, hardpan ground, of bucking bronco rides across their garden in the wake of a bouncing tiller, and of broken and gnarled tiller tines. I secretly smile at these stories, knowing that although I have nearly picture-perfect soil, I brave icy winters, blazing hot summers, and plagues of mosquitoes and grasshoppers. No gardener gets offscot-free, I guess.

One caveat about tilling. A tiller is a lean, mean, soil-eating machine—no doubt about it. But it is not a weed panacea. If you till dead weeds into your garden, you are actually planting weed seeds, not ridding the garden of them. And a tiller is not a sod buster. Although most large tillers will chomp through sod, you still need to remove the biggest chunks of turf after you till or you'll end up fighting the tenacious grass roots. Still, using a tiller to start a new garden is more efficient than doing it by hand or hiring a team of horses and a plow.