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Tiller. Tips from Professionals

Heavily compacted, rocky, and weedy soil is not favorable for planting. The soil needs to be softened and cleaned before seeding and fertilizing. Tilling is the process of breaking hard, compact soil and is mainly done with a machine tool called a tiller. Tilling can be very exhaustive if you have a big area to cover, but it dramatically improves soil quality and is ideal for making flower beds.


A tiller is a perfect tool for breaking hard soil into smaller chunks of loose, creating softer ground. It exposes fresh soil, which supports new plants. Tillers may be front or rear-tined. Front-tined tillers are suitable for smaller lawns, whereas rear-tined tillers are more heavy-duty and better for tilling bigger yards.

What Does a Tiller Do:

A lawn tiller is used for soil preparation before seeding and fertilizing. If the soil in your lawn has become very compacted, rocky, or weedy, just fertilizing will not do much good. Instead, you will need to soften and clean the soil before re-seeding and fertilizing.

The process of breaking soil to clean and reduce compaction is known as tilling. Tilling may well be termed the most exhaustive lawn maintenance, especially when done with a manual tiller.

The Working Mechanism of a Tiller:

A tiller is a straightforward machine. The most vital part of any lawn tiller is the tines. Tines are rotating metal blades that dig into the soil. Although the tines have very sharp edges, their shape does the magic.

Each tine has four sharp blades curved in opposing directions. The curvature of blades one and three is such that they point inward, whereas blades two and four point outward and do the heavy cutting job.

The inverted tines setting prevents material build-up on the blades. The tines work in unison to forcefully dig into the soil while moving it away to avoid accumulation on the blades. The tines are grouped in twos, and there are usually two to four sets of tines on most lawn tillers, while the handlebar can be used for steering.

Types of Tillers:

Although all types of tillers do the same job, some do it quicker and with less effort than others. Various tillers can be differentiated based on factors such as the position of tines, power source, and digging width:

● Tiler Tines position:

Based on the position of tines, tillers can be divided into two types:

  • Front-tined tillers: A front-tined tiller has its tines on the front side and wheels on the rear side. The wheels of a front-tined tiller do not propel the tiller and are only there to guide it. A front-tined tiller pulls itself forward due to the tines breaking the soil and pulling as they dig into it.
  • Rear-tined tillers: A rear-tined tiller has tines on the rear side and wheels on the front side. The wheels of a rear-tined tiller are mounted on an axle that can be turned, just like in a car. The wheels propel the rear-tined tiller, while the tines’ only job is to dig and break the soil.

● Tiller power source:

There are three main types of tiller power sources, a gas engine, an electric engine, and a battery-powered machine. Each with its pros and cons. Both corded and battery-powered tillers use an electric motor driven either by AC from an electric outlet through a power cord or DC from a battery.

– Gas Powered Tiller:

Gas-powered tillers use two- or four-stroke internal combustion engines as the source of mechanical work. Gas-powered tillers are generally more powerful than electric and battery-powered ones but are also more heavy, noisy and harder to maintain.

I recommend maintaining the engine correctly to keep your tiller in good condition. And if you store your tiller for the winter, I recommend removing the gas from the tank and adding a fuel stabilizer to the gas you store to keep it from going bad.

– Gas Tiller Horsepower

The amount of horsepower greatly defines the power of the tiller. The engine of a front-tined tiller is only responsible for powering the tines, whereas that of a rear-tined tiller also powers the wheels.

The smaller four-tined lawn tillers are generally equipped with 1-5 horsepower engines, while the bigger eight-tined tillers use bigger 5-12 horsepower engines.

– Electric Powered Corded Tiller:

Electric tillers are connected to the mains and use an electric motor as the power source. They are lighter, quieter, and more compact. They have fewer moving parts and require less maintenance than a gas model, but most are also less powerful.

Corded tillers have an associated limitation of an extension cord. You must stay close to an electric outlet or purchase a long extension cord to use them further from the house.

Electric tillers can be front or rear-tined and are categorized based on power and current ratings.

– Battery Powered Tiller:

Battery- battery-powered tillers are gaining popularity due to their flexibility, increasing battery capacity, and low maintenance. Battery-powered tillers can be moved around easily and, with the increased battery capacity, are better suited for bigger lawns.

Battery-powered tillers are usually equipped with lithium-ion batteries and are categorized by power, battery capacity, runtime, and voltage.

The choice of a battery-powered tiller should be based primarily on your required power rating and running time. More powerful tillers will move more soil than smaller ones but generally require more powerful batteries. A more powerful motor typically means a greater tilling depth.

Also, check the running time of the machine and the time it takes to charge the batteries. If you have a bigger yard, you don’t want to have to stop all the time to charge the batteries. An option is to purchase a second set of batteries, so you can charge those when using the other set. And swap when they are empty. But this only works well if you use a fast battery charger.

● Tiller Digging Width:

The digging depth of any tiller is adjustable. However, the digging width depends on the number of times. Smaller lawn tillers usually have four tines and can dig an 8 inches (20 cm) wide path. Eight-tined tillers can dig 3 feet (0.9 m) wide path.

What Size Tiller Do I Need for My Lawn:

The choice for a lawn tiller should be based on the lawn’s size, the soil compaction level, your budget, and how much energy you want to spend on the job. The three main tiller groups to choose from are mini tillers, mid-size front-tined tillers, and large-size rear-tined tillers:

A mini tiller is good enough for a small lawn or garden where the soil is not heavily compacted and rocky. However, a mini tiller will have significant problems on heavily compacted or rocky soil, even if it is a small lawn.

In this case, a four-horsepower front-tined tiller that falls in the mid-size group would be the better choice. A mid-size front-tined tiller is also easy to maneuver, making it suitable for smaller lawns.

A large-size rear-tined unit is best suited for larger yards. However, it is not as maneuverable and more suited to bigger areas. If the soil is heavily compacted and rocky, I recommend choosing a rear-tined tiller with counter-rotating tines.

A mini tiller will cost you anywhere between 250 and 400 dollars, a mid-size front-tined tiller around 500 to 800 dollars, and a large-size rear-tined one will cost you between 800 and 2000 dollars.

Tillers can also be rented at many locations. If you have a one-time tilling job, I recommend renting a tiller. A mid-size front-tined tiller will cost you 10 to 15 dollars per hour, whereas a large-size rear-tined tiller will cost you 20 to 25 dollars an hour.

What’s Better, Front or Rear Tiller:

In terms of ease of use and power, a rear-tined tiller is better than a front-tined one. Due to the front wheels, they are more maneuverable and generally have a more powerful engine. But they are more expensive than a front-tined one.

● Tiller maneuverability

To take a front-tined tiller from one area of the lawn to another, you will have to push down on the handle to lift the spinning tines on the front side and then push the tiller to the desired area.

Whereas the wheels of the rear-tined tiller are powered and make it easier to drive to the next area. Unlike the tines of a front-tined tiller, the tines of a rear-tined tiller spin only when you want them to by pulling a lever to start or stop them.

It is also unsafe and impractical to pull a front-tined tiller in the reverse direction, whereas a rear-tined tiller can easily do so with the help of a reverse gear.

● Tiller weight

However, front-tined tillers are smaller and lighter. And they are generally more maneuverable compared to a rear-tined tiller. Front-tined tillers also take up less storage space and are more budget-friendly than rear-tined tillers.

● Tiller target area and cost

Rear-tined tillers are best suited for tilling a large yard or one with highly compacted or rocky soil. Front-tined tillers are best suited for smaller lawns and tighter spaces and are also more budget-friendly.

When Should You Use a Tiller:

Lawn owners should till the soil when it has become hard, rocky, or weedy and is not supporting grass and flowers. The ideal time to till is just after rain because it is easier to till moist soil.

How to Till Your Lawn Yourself:

Tilling a lawn may be one of the most tiresome gardening chores, but it may well be one of the most important ones. Tilling your compacted lawn before re-seeding will give you the plantation and growth you desire.

To till your lawn, follow these steps:

● Step 1: Clean the Lawn

Cleaning the lawn surface before you start tilling is essential for ease and the best results. Start by picking up sticks, junk, rocks, etc., from the lawn surface.

Spot large weeds in the lawn and pull them out with the roots as much as possible. Ensure to remove rocks embedded in the ground and visible roots too.

If you do not intend on cutting sod, use topsoil as a filler or scrape dirt from higher areas in your lawn. Then rake over all the areas to evenly spread the soil.

● Step 2: Cut the Grass into Sod

Removing the top layer of the soil is called cutting sod. Cutting sod leaves the soil exposed. Therefore, it is ideal for making a clean lawn bed ready for tilling before planting.

– Cut sod

To cut sod, outline the area from which you wish to remove the top layer. Then push a spade about six inches (15 cm) deep along this outline, deep enough for the spade to cut under grass and weed roots.

– Damp soil

Damp soil is better for sod cutting but shouldn’t be puddling. I recommend waiting for a few days before cutting sod if it rains heavily. You can also use a sod cutter instead of a spade for ease.

– Divide the area

Once the perimeter has been marked, use a yardstick and a spade to divide the sod into one-foot (30 cm) wide stripes. Divide the stripes further by striping them perpendicular to the first stripes. This will divide the sod into small pieces to be carried easily.

– Roll up the sod

Roll up the sod, one stripe at a time. Use the spade to lift the sod stripes and sever any roots that are still intact.

– Compost the sod

Sod from a healthy lawn can be a great base. Compost your sod or lay it upside down over the cleared area before tilling.

● Step 3: Kill the Old Vegetation

Lawns overrun by weeds need complete clearing before they can be tilled. If you do not take care, weeds can spread faster after tilling. Killing the old vegetation (weeds and unhealthy grass) is the simplest and quickest way to get rid of it.

There are several methods to kill weeds and old grass, like using Glyphosate weed or a more environmental product. Keep your family and pets away when spraying, and also cover nearby plants with a plastic sheet.

If you don’t want to cut sod or use chemicals to get rid of old vegetation, you may kill the old vegetation by covering it with black poly film. This method is simple but takes longer than cutting sod or using chemicals.

Cover the old vegetation with black poly film, holding the film down with bricks. Wait a couple of weeks before the vegetation gradually turns brown and dies.  

Rake out the weeds and the dead grass. Make sure to remove the roots, or else the weeds will grow back after tilling.

● Step 4: Till the Lawn

Suppose your soil is too hard. Water it before tilling. Use a garden hose to spray water over the entire area to be tilled until the soil is moistened to about 2 inches (7.5 cm) deep.

Cover your lawn with fertilizers, compost, or topsoil, so they get evenly mixed in the soil during tilling. Depending on the size of your lawn, use a front or rear-tined rototiller to break up the soil.

Adjust the depth bar of your rototiller to 6-8 inches (15-20 cm). A lawn spade or shovel may also be used for tilling a very small lawn.

Till the lawn from right to left, then turn around and till from left to right. Avoid tilling near trees and any underground pipes. Finally, till from top to bottom to finish up. Use a rake to level the soil across the lawn.

What is the Difference between Tiller and Cultivator:

Contrary to the common misunderstanding, “tiller” and “cultivator” are not two different names for the same tool. A tiller’s job is to break hard, compact soil to make it soft and favorable for fertilizing and plantation.

A cultivator’s job is to mix soft soil with fertilizer or compost before plantation. Tillers are usually heavier and costlier than cultivators.

Should Rototiller Blades be Sharpened:

Rototiller blades become dull after a while, especially when used with rocky soil. Rototiller blades can be easily sharpened with a metal file.

The blades of a smaller front-tined tiller can be sharpened, generally without removing them. With heavier rear-tined tillers, the blades must be removed and held in a bench vise for sharpening with a metal file.

When Should I Replace Tiller Tines:

Tiller tines tend to become visibly shorter after repeated use, and I recommend inspecting them every 25-30 hours. When the tines get shorter, they are not as affected since they don’t dig deep enough, and I recommend replacing them. If you use them often and your soil is rocky, you might have to replace your tines every 2-3 years.