Rotary Tillers

A rotary tiller eliminates much of the gardening drudgery for homeowners with a quarter-acre or more. It does in minutes what normally takes hours with a shovel or hand cultivator. And it can be used year-round: in early spring, use it to turn under a crop of soil-enriching rye grass, then use it to prepare the garden seedbed. Throughout the summer, use it as a cultivator. In the late fall, use it to mulch all crop residue. In the winter, use it with a snowplow or snow-blower attachment to clear your driveway and walks.

There are two basic types of rotary tillers: those with the tines in front of the wheels and those with the tines behind the wheels. Both can perform a variety of functions, depending on what attachments are available with each model.

Front-tine tillers are cheaper than rear-tine tillers. However, they are chiefly for light to medium-duty garden tilling. They are used primarily in vegetable and flower beds that have been tilled before and have soft, smooth, and well-prepared soil.

Front-tine tillers are very difficult to use if the ground is hard, rocky, or full of weeds. Since the tiller blades are linked to the engine by chains or drive belts and the machine is pulled forward by the action of the blades, when the tines hit hard ground, the tiller may go out of control and leap about. Further, to maintain control of the tiller, you must walk behind it; therefore the freshly turned ground will be compacted again—by the wheels and by your feet. Nevertheless, front-tine tillers are the most widely sold type and will work beautifully if your task is to rework soil that already has been tilled.

Rear-tine tillers, on the other hand, are heavier and are used for breaking ground that has been compacted by walking since the previous cultivation, that contains rocks and sticks, or that has other similar problems. Rear-mounted tines tend to dig down, literally pulling themselves into the soil; front-tine tillers may crawl up and out of hard ground.

As a general rule, the heavier the tiller is, the less effort it requires of the operator and the better job it does.

To operate this tiller, keep the wheels on similar-textured soil (i.e., cultivated or uncultivated). Don’t make the first pass across the soil too deep. Follow it with a second pass that’s near but not right next to the first pass. This ensures that both wheels are on firm ground at all times. Make a third pass between and overlapping the first two, keeping both wheels on softened soil. This will make it easy for you to steer. Be sure to disengage the tiller when turning.

How to Select a Tiller

Before buying a tiller, first consider whether your garden is large enough to justify the expense. If it is, then think about which type to choose. If your garden is less than a quarter-acre, a small power cultivator may do (see Power Cultivators).

If your garden is a quarter-acre to a half-acre, you may need only a front-tine tiller. If you’re tilling for the first time, you may want to rent a more powerful, rear-tine tiller to do the initial groundbreaking. Then, for future use, you can purchase the front-tine tiller. If you can afford it, however, consider buying a rear-tine tiller; it is heavier and more stable.

Borrow a neighbor’s tiller, or rent several and experiment with them. Especially if cost is an important factor, you may decide that renting makes more sense than buying, and it is always a good way to familiarize yourself with equipment. Next, decide which attachments you need. If you live in heavy-snow country, a snow-blower or at least a dozer blade could be worth every penny you spend. Make sure the tillers you evaluate offer the options you need.


Three types of tines are available for tillers.

Bolo tines normally come with the tiller. They have broad, heavy-duty blades that both dig and mulch. They are designed for a minimum of clogging.

Pick and chisel tines have medium-length, slightly curved blades that are designed primarily for working up hard, rocky ground. They tend to clog easily in vegetation.

Slasher tines have short, sharp points and are made to cut through thick vegetation and into soft ground. They need to be kept sharp to work efficiently

Operating the Tiller

When you’re tilling, the moisture of the ground can be extremely important, especially if the soil is compacted or if it has never been tilled before. Although sandy soil can be worked any time, clay in soil responds strongly to moisture. The more clay in your soil, the more important the moisture level is. When clay soil gets dry, it gets very hard; if it’s too hard, the tiller may not be able to do more than scrape away at the first couple of inches. If the soil is too wet, the tiller will form clods. Later, the sun dries these clods and they become like rocks, which can ruin the soil until the next winter’s weather softens them again.

If your soil is compacted or has never been tilled before, water it for several hours three or four days before tilling. Then check to see whether the soil has drained enough to be tilled: Turn a clod over with a shovel, pick up a handful of moist soil from the bottom of the shovel hole, and squeeze the soil into a ball. It should be easy to break apart the ball with one finger. If it dents rather than breaks, the soil is still too moist to till.

Before tilling new ground, cut the weeds. If you try tilling through high or freshly cut weeds, they will wrap around the tines and tangle. If the weather is warm and dry, cut the weeds with a lawn mower or swing blade two or three days before tilling. If the weather is overcast or rainy, cut the weeds a couple of weeks before tilling. This gives the cut weeds time to dry and to soften via decomposition. Then the tiller can break the weeds apart rather than winding them up around itself.

Rotary tillers are dangerous—it’s very important to keep your feet away from the tines and to stay in control of the machine at all times. This means: (1) having a tiller big enough for the job you’re doing and (2) not going too fast.

Rear-tine tillers are safer to use in the lower gears. Front-tine tillers are safer to use if you weigh down the depth bar by pushing down on the handlebars. The more you let go of the weight on the tines, the more the tiller has a tendency to run away from you.

Despite their size and weight, even large tillers can be operated by the average adult. Both front and rear-tine tillers may buck and gyrate while tilling. If you try using physical strength to control either type, you will soon exhaust yourself. Instead, stay relaxed and let the tiller jump when it hits something hard; then guide it back on track.

Gyrating occurs most commonly when new ground is first tilled. Don’t try to dig more than two or three inches deep the first time over the soil or sod. Make two or three passes, at right angles to each other if possible, and set the machine to dig deeper on each pass. Pushing down on the handlebars allows you to control how big a bite the tiller takes.

All tillers tend to walk forward. The self-driven, rear-end types drive themselves forward by the action of the tines, but even those that have motor drive to the wheels will move forward on their own. To keep them from running away, bear down hard on the handlebars, quickly reduce power by closing the throttle, or depress the clutch. Many rear-tine tillers have a reverse gear. In small gardens, these tillers can be operated in reverse on every other row; thus you go forward on one row, move over a little bit, and move in reverse in the next row. This saves you from having to make turns, which—with the large tillers—are difficult to do, especially if you’re working next to a garage or fence.


To clean tillers, wipe the motor down thoroughly with a dry rag after each use, and clean carefully around the openings for gas and oil. Clear any debris away from the cooling fins on the engine. You don’t have to clean the digging tines after each use unless they have a build-up of wet soil. However, a tiller’s digging tines do need frequent attention if they are cultivating tall growth.

Both during operation and before storage, check periodically to make sure that vegetation is not wrapped around the tines and that soil has not built up. If you find either of these situations, first shut down the engine. Then remove the spark plug wire from the plug, making sure that it can’t snap back and touch the plug. Remove all dirt and any debris that is wrapped around the axle of the tines or the tines themselves.

If the tines need sharpening, remove them according to instructions in the owner’s manual, and touch the blades up with a small or medium-size (6- to 10-inch) bastard mill file. The tines will probably be too worn for you to see the original sharpening bevel. File each tine’s blade at a steep angle (70 to 80 degrees); keeping lots of metal behind the edge gives the blade more strength. Don’t make it actually sharp or it will be nicked by the first rock you hit. If the blades are severely worn, they will not cut as deeply or efficiently as they should. Replace them.

As with all gas-powered machines, the tilter’s engine needs to be regularly maintained and tuned (see Caring for Power Equipment). Before putting your tiller away for the winter, follow the steps outlined in Storing Tools for the Winter.