You don’t always have to turn the earth to grow on your farm, but an indispensable tool such as a rototiller has the power to break up thick clumps of soil and turn it into workable, growable space. Rototillers aerate and work organic matter into topsoil so plants thrive, and they loosen the grip of weeds so a garden is ready to grow for another year.
Not all rototillers are created equal, and there are many varieties. From small, manual and inexpensive to 40-inch tow-behinds that attach to a tractor, tillers offer many ways to turn soil around.
Let’s Talk Tines
Tines—the sharp blades that dig into dirt—dislodge weeds and other plant roots and break up soil. Three main kinds of tines exist on cultivators or rototillers.
Bolo tines are the most common and are best used for tilling garden beds and soil that’s already been worked. If the area you’re tilling has a lot of rocks or roots, consider another type.
You’ll also find that long grasses may wrap themselves around a bolo tine. You’ll need to stop and remove these on occasion.
Slasher tines are great for cutting through dense areas, and roots are generally no problem for these sharp blades. Unlike the standard L-shape of a bolo tine, slasher tines are sharp and jagged to stop plant life from wrapping around the tines.
Pick & Chisel Tines
Pick and chisel tines are curved tines used to break up sections of extremely hard and rocky ground.
The direction your tines move in will also affect how your tiller works. Forward rotating tines move in the same direction as the cultivator or rototiller. Counter-rotating tines move in the opposite direction.
Forward rotating tines work well in gardens or plots of land that have already been tilled. Counter-rotating tines can break up thick clumps of dirt in areas that have never been worked.
Read more: Get the real dirt on tillage tools.
Handheld Manual Cultivators
If you’d like a tool that lets you put your back into it, a hand cultivator is for you. With a shovel-style handle and long, sharp tines, all you need to do is twist the tool into the dirt to loosen it.
You can also find electric handheld cultivators. This tool looks like a handheld cultivator, but it plugs into a power source and has motorized tines to loosen your dirt.
The best part of a handheld cultivator is that it’s as quick to use as your rake or shovel and just as inexpensive. How deep you till will depend on how much effort you put in.
You’ll just want to keep in mind that, when using in a large area, hand tilling can give you a strenuous workout. Using a tool such as this means you have many hours of manual labor ahead of you, and they aren’t the best choice for hard, rocky soil.
Mini-tillers are small, light, motorized garden cultivators with cutting tines. They’re small enough to fit between garden rows, light enough to easily lift and store, and inexpensive when compared to full-sized rototillers. They also can blend in compost without disturbing the roots of your existing plants.
The tines on a cultivator are adjustable and should be able to reach anywhere between 4 to 10 inches depth and till rows of land with a width range of 6 to 18 inches. Available as gas or electric-powered, cultivators have a drivetrain that propels the tines forward. What it lacks in size it makes up for in strength.
Electric models are lighter, but they’re powerful enough to remove weeds and loosen soil for planting. Heavier gas-powered models can till the soil in larger spaces or dig into denser weedy areas.
A cultivator is a great addition to a farm where storage is at a premium, as they take up less space than a full-size rototiller. This tool is good for small spaces of around 500 square feet or less.
If you need a tool for tiling hard clay or extremely rocky fields, take a look at a rototiller.
While a cultivator can loosen your soil, a rototiller has the power to dig deep and break up chunks and clumps. They are larger in scale, have more powerful engines than a mini-tiller and can tackle larger spaces.
They range in size from small to large. Depending on the size, they can be one of the pricier pieces of farm equipment you own.
However, if you have a garden or field size ranging from 5,000 to 10,000 square feet, you’ll be grateful to have one.
Front-tine rototillers are the most common type you’ll find in big-box stores. They’re the most affordable option for someone who would like a light-duty rototiller to turn hard chunks of earth. They can reach a tilling depth up to 8 inches and till rows up to 24 inches depending on the model.
This type of tiller is considered light-duty. When you run one for the first time, you’ll realize why.
Guiding a front-tine tiller over hard or rocky dirt can feel a lot like you just did an arm day at your local gym. It can take a lot of energy and strength to run one for a long period of time.
Mid-tine rototillers are similar to front-tine rototillers. But with this type, your tines are placed in the middle of the machine.
With the tines placed under the engine, you’ll have a distribution of weight that makes digging into impacted soil easier on your back and arms. A mid-tine rototiller can till depths up to 8 inches in hard soil and can work through rows up to 24 inches wide.
Rear-tine rototillers have blades in the back, and the set of front wheels are propelled by the engine. They are large and heavy, and guiding them will still give you a good workout. But they’re easier to run than front-tine tillers.
The tines on a rear-tine rototiller can reach depths up to 10 inches. Some models can work through swaths of land up to 36 inches wide at one pass. If you’re tilling through areas with deep roots, hard clay or rocky ground, a rear-tine tiller is a good choice.
Choose a garden-sized rototiller if you have a small to mid-size area you’d like to till. While front-tine and mid-tine rototillers are great for a large garden or to till up thick, heavy soil, they can be tiring to use. A rear-tine rototiller is often the implement of choice for someone who doesn’t quite need a tractor but needs a machine that can handle rocky or hard soil in a larger space.
A rototiller is heavy and can be tiring to operate. To offset the toll of running one for long periods, look for rototillers that have features like one-hand operation to stabilize the machine while it runs or easy electric starters so you don’t have to struggle to start it.
If you own a tractor and have several acres you’d like to till, a rotary tiller is your best choice for aerating your land, turning the soil before planting crops, or tilling unused areas and turning them into usable space. Rotary tillers attach to the back of your tractor, and how you choose one depends on a few factors.
Rotary tillers can work via forward-rotation or reverse rotation. If the majority of your soil has already been worked or is aerated, a forward-rotation tiller is a good choice. This type of rotary tiller will till in the same direction as your tractor.
A reverse-rotation tiller tills in the opposite direction of the tractor, digging deep into the soil. It can work better on hard, impacted soil or very dry soil.
Just like cultivators and rototillers, tines are one of the most important features of a rotary tiller. You can choose from four-tine and six-tine rotary tillers.
While it’s tempting to get the largest rotary tiller available, you’ll want to keep in mind that the more tines you have, the more horsepower your tractor will need to pull it effectively.
Other considerations you’ll need to make before purchasing a rotary tiller include:
- whether or not you’d like a chain- or gear-driven tiller
- whether you are trying to work extremely rocky soil
- how wide a path you are tilling
- how fast your tiller can work when you’re pulling it
Your local implement dealer should be able to make an appropriate recommendation on which rotary tiller is right for you and your farm.
If you have a tractor and several acres you need to till every year, a rotary tiller is a time-saver. You can hitch one up to your tractor and pull it without much effort on your part. And they work in wider sections than a rototiller or cultivator.
While this type of tiller will quickly work your soil, a breakdown can be costly. You’ll want to explore what your warranty will cover and keep up with any maintenance issues.
Aerate the soil. Easily remove weeds.Turn unused land into a bountiful area where grass, plants or vegetables grow. A rototiller, whether you choose big or small, will be one of your most-used tools on the farm.
Sidebar: What about Walk-Behinds?
If you feel you need more than a mid-size rototiller but don’t want to commit to the purchase of a full-size tractor, a walk-behind tractor with a rotary tiller attachment could be right for your farm. The main difference between a walk-behind and a wheeled tractor is that the walk-behind has handlebars instead of a steering wheel.
While it’s smaller, a walk-behind tractor can pull a rotary tiller in much the same way a four-wheel tractor does. With a power takeoff flange, integrated driveshaft and quick-coupling system, implements such as tillers, mulchers and mowers can be switched out in less than a minute.
This article originally appeared in the March/April 2021 issue of Hobby Farms magazine.