Garden Tillers and Rototilling

What is a rototiller?

A rototiller is a gas or electric-powered lawn tool that uses blades called tines to churn and break soil. Rototillers come in many sizes and can be pushed, pulled or driven. The most common type is the push rototiller, which is similar in size to a lawn mower.

Most push rototillers have a set of large tires in the front so they can be pushed over soil while the tines revolve around the back axle. The tines can be set to till at specific depths ranging from a few inches to up to a foot.

A rototiller endures a great deal of stress as it cuts through the ground, which can make it physically exhausting to operate, and result in unpredictable movements at times. A protective shield guards the user from the tines to prevent sudden injury.

The simplest alternative to a rototiller is shoveling or spading the ground and turning it by hand. This, of course, is a labor intensive process that can be impractical in very hard ground or when a large area must be covered.

Since it may be impossible to get a farm tractor or even a smaller garden tractor into a city yard, rototilling is often the only choice for mechanically turning the ground. Rototillers are also much less expensive than any kind of tractor.

Although the term rototiller was once a trademark, that protection expired decades ago. The terms rototiller and rotary cultivator are used interchangeably for machines that cultivate land, no matter what company makes them.

When to use a rototiller?

Rototillers are ideal for prepping gardens and starting new plots for cultivation because they can turn large areas of soil in a short period of time, without the need for shovels or spades.

A rototiller turns the ground as it’s pushed exposing nutrient-rich soil below the surface. The churning helps to aerate the soil, break up large deposits and kill weeds at the surface.

Spring rototilling

Most people rototill in the early spring about two weeks before they begin planting. It’s important to give the soil time to heal after the initial tilling because many beneficial microorganisms get disturbed during the process. Waiting two weeks allows the soil to re-establish itself, but if you wait too long, it can become compacted and may require additional tilling.

A good tip is to add topsoil, compost or manure to the soil as you rototill to provide additional nutrients. For the best results, till the entire area before adding the topsoil, and then till it again to ensure it gets distributed throughout.

Fall rototilling

Fall is a good time for adding yard compost like leaves and small sticks to a garden or flowerbed. If you compost your leaves throughout the summer and fall, you can add the mixture to your garden and rototill it in to help ensure a more nutrient-rich soil come spring. Make sure you to do it while the ground is still warm to prevent damaging the rototiller.

Tips for rototilling

The first time you rototill a plot of land can be extremely difficult because the tines have to break up undisturbed soil, but areas that are tilled on a seasonal or annual basis will provide less resistance.

Read the owner’s manual. A rototiller is a big and powerful machine and failure to perform safe operation can lead to serious injury.

Check the ground. Ideally, the ground should be moist. Dry ground is difficult to plow through, while extremely wet soil will create a swampy mess. The soil should be moist but still crumble in your hands. You should also look for rocks, yard stakes or other items that could damage the rototiller.

Check tilling depth. Till to a depth of 4-6 inches for leafy plants and 6-8 inches for deep root plants. Tilling too deep can put strain on the rototiller and damage the tines.

Use a soil additive. After you make your first pass with the rototiller, consider adding nutrient-rich topsoil or yard compost to the mix, and run the tiller again.

Renting a rototiller

Unless you’re seasoned at gardening or landscaping, a rototiller is not a tool that you will use on a daily basis, so many people choose to rent one or hire a professional to do the work. Rototillers are big and bulky and are subject to repair due to infrequent use.

If you plan to rent a rototiller, check your local tool rental shop. Some companies offer discount rates for half-day rentals. You'll need a truck or a trailer to transport it to your home.

Many companies that offer rototilling also offer additional landscaping services so you might be able to have it included with mulching, landscaping or lawn care work.

Clearly mark the area you want tilled and explain to the service provider if you have any concerns about damaging plants or shrubs.

If you want topsoil or compost brought in, schedule it in advance so it can be applied during the initial tilling.

As with any other service provider, get at least three estimates before making a hiring decision. You should also ask for references from prior customers, and check reviews on Angie’s List.

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