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Best tillers: Rototillers to break new ground in your garden

The best tillers will help you prepare your soil into seed beds that will help you cultivate a vibrant, colorful garden. It is often hard to know what tiller is best for your soil type, and even if a tiller will improve your growing season, or even if it is the best method of aerating and mixing organic material into your soil. 

Some people will use the term rototillers. Rototillers are just motorized tillers that have been designed as easy, labour saving devices to make cultivating the garden easier. We'll be focusing on gas powered or electric rototillers, with the guide breaking down when, and if a rototiller is the best way to aerate your garden. It will also look at the best rototillers on the market, discussing their design features, and how they’ll be advantageous or disadvantageous for your soil type. 

If you are in a hurry to break new ground in the garden, we highly recommend the Craftsman 208 cc Dual Rotating Rear Tine Tiller. This  powerful tiller is good at churning through hard, compacted soil, with a lot of novel features that make tilling super easy. The heavy weight of this tiller might make it difficult for some people to use.

Best Overall

Craftsman 208 cc Dual Rotating Rear Tine Tiller

Craftsman 208 cc Dual Rotating Rear Tine Tiller

This can take on all types of soil.
Your feet and legs are protected by a guard.
This tiller is powerful.
The machine's weight makes it a bit hard to maneuver.
The tilling width is set at 18 inches.
It burns through gas.

The powerful Craftsman 208 cc Dual Rotating Rear Tine Tiller will break up ground that has never been tilled, as well as, dense and compacted soil. It comes with dual rotating tines in the rear part of the machine, which creates great results in hard ground.

You get a potent 208 cc OHV engine that gives you plenty of power for the sturdy13-inch steel tines. This tiller is started by pulling cord, which means it requires a bit more effort than tillers have an electric start button to push .

This tiller weighs 262 pounds, so it is not easy for everyone to handle. This machine's extra weight is useful, however, when you are tilling heavy, stony or compacted soil because it minimizes vibration. It uses 16-inch agricultural tires that give you great traction, even when working on wet soil, but the weight and size of the tires help reduce vibration and make the rototiller more maneuverable. There is also a front counterweight that adds even more stability and balance. A rear shield protects your feet and legs from the machine's tines as well as any soil or debris that might get churned back your way.

Best Value

Earthquake MC43 Mini Cultivator

Earthquake MC43 Mini Cultivator

This does many garden-maintenance tasks.
The engine is strong.
You don't need an extension cord.
Assembly is required.
It has a pull cord starter.
You must mix gas and oil for the fuel.

The Earthquake MC43 Mini Cultivator is a helpful device that can assist you in getting and keeping your soil in fine condition. This gas-powered tiller frees you from having to use an extension cord for an electrical hookup, and it slices 6 inches deep and 10 inches wide, which is reasonably good for a tiller at this price.

This isn't as deep or wide a cut as those delivered by some other tillers on the market, but this powerful machine does the job, especially if you have a relatively small garden. This is designed with a two-cycle Viper engine with substantial power for a garden tiller. Besides tilling the ground, this machine also helps you weed your garden, aerate the soil, and work in fertilizer or compost into the dirt. This results in loose, fresh earth that will cultivate seeds and seedlings, and make it easier for water to reach the plant’s roots.

The Earthquake Mini Cultivator has a recoil starting system rather than an electric starter, which means you need to pull a cord to turn it on. This is not a big problem for most people, but it is more challenging than just pushing a button on an electric tiller. The cultivator does not come fully assembled, but the assembly isn’t difficult. You'll also need to mix gas and oil for the fuel according to the directions in the manual.

Best Small Garden Tiller

Remington Homestead Garden Cultivator (RM4625)

Remington Homestead Garden Cultivator (RM4625)

Lightweight and easily portable.
Folding handle makes it easy to store.
Good for weeding as well as tilling soil.
You need to assemble this machine before use.
It tills a depth of 5 inches.
You'll need to mix oil and gas to create the fuel.

The Remington Homestead Garden Cultivator (RM4625) is a lightweight and helpful garden tool that can help you immensely when it comes to getting the soil ready for your garden planting. This gas-powered tiller also is useful for weeding your garden. This tiller features four 8-inch steel tines that can cut into 5 inches into the soil.

You'll need to assemble this machine before you can start working in the garden. However, it's easy enough to put together that it should take you only a few minutes. You simply assemble the handlebar and shaft, then affix those items and the wheel assembly to the main tiller. Among its other convenient features, the Remington is easy to clean, and its folding handle makes it easier to store compared to other tillers.

This tiller weighs only 23 pounds, which is very light in the world of garden tillers. As it is lightweight, it is very easy to maneuver, and as it is gas-powered there is no cord to avoid or to limit the reach of the machine. You do have to mix gasoline and oil in proper amounts described in your user manual to fuel it. The tiller's maximum tilling depth is 5 inches, this is less than the other models we reviewed, although 5 inches will work reasonably well in small gardens.

Best Electric Tiller

Earthwise TC 70001

If you’re eco-conscious and want an electric tiller, we recommend the Earthwise TC70001.
This tiller is well suited to small gardens and flower beds. It can till up to 8 inches deep, but you need to start with relatively loose soil – it can’t really cut through hard ground, so you may need to loosen the soil first.

The TC70001 doesn’t require gas, but you need a long extension cord. However, the tiller is constructed in such a way that you don’t have to worry about the cord getting in the way. This is a lightweight, easy-to-assemble tiller that can make quick work of small spaces. At $86, it is one of the more affordable options we looked at.

Best for Heavy Soils

Powermate PFTT140BE

If you moved into a new home or have hard-to-break soil, Powermate tillers are some of the best options.

It has front-facing tines, which generally aren’t as powerful as rear-facing tines. However, the engine is strong enough that they give a good till up to a depth of 8 inches. You can adjust the width of the tines to till smaller rows or cover more territory. The tines are self-sharpening, which reduces maintenance.

This is a gas-powered tiller, and its tank has only a 0.265-gallon capacity. It is a very fuel-efficient tiller, though, so that should be sufficient for most small to medium garden spaces. This model costs $350, which is toward the middle of the price range for the tillers we looked at.

Why trust us?

Tillers have been used in agriculture for centuries as they enhance the properties of a soil in many ways. The benefits of a tiller include breaking dense, compact ground into loose soil that is easy to plant in, they help to mix organic compost into the soil, and they also remove weeds. Tilling the soil also has some disadvantages, such as promoting soil erosion and increasing the need for pesticides. So, you will have to judge if it is beneficial for your purpose.

Tillers are best for large areas of land that you are looking to cultivate into a growing space for the first time - to help de-compact the soil and introduce nutrients. The smaller models, often called cultivators, are handy for weeding between seed beds and mixing in compost in an empty bed, but typically won’t plow through the hard, compact soil and something more dedicated for weeding a garden may be better.

We invested 60 hours learning as much as possible about tillers so we could identify and describe the best on the market for various uses and properties. Among other things, we wanted a range of models from name brand manufacturers that have reputations for producing quality merchandise, offer good customer service and give you reasonably long warranties if anything should go wrong.

We wanted to give you a wide enough assortment so you could find what you need, for both gardens big and small. We also looked for models that can handle different tasks, sought out tillers than come fully assembled as well as those you assemble yourself and tried to find a mix of sizes since that will affect your storage needs as well as what you need in terms of performance.

How we researched

We researched rototillers that could undertake heavy work, such as breaking through soil that had never been tilled before along with extremely dense and heavily compacted soil. We also looked for machines that could break up regular soil that was relatively loosely packed, but still needed to be turned and broken up to prepare the dirt for planting. In addition, we looked for rototillers that could help you aerate soil, work in fertilizer and other additives and generally loosen the dirt so that seeds or bedding plants can take root easily.

We read manufacturer websites, watched user videos to see how people handle these devices and looked at user manuals including the fine print in warranties. We also read user reviews carefully to see how people who have bought tillers feel about the models they have, any problems they encountered and what they liked and disliked about their machine.

We also read blogs and various articles, compared competing machines to see which had the most useful features and chose a mix of gas-powered and electric tillers to provide a wide selection for you. We also choose models that reflect an expansive price range so you can find something that will work for your pocketbook as well as your property.

How much do tillers cost?

A tiller can run you as much as $800 or as little as less than $100. A lot depends on the size of the space you plan on tilling, how heavy your soil is, and if you want a gas or an electric tiller. Heavy-duty tillers tend to be more expensive, costing between $350 and $800, but if you have hard soil or a large space, they may be a better investment. If you have a small garden, you can find a tiller for less than $100.

Are tillers and cultivators the same thing?

Cultivators and tillers are designed for different tasks. Cultivators are designed for mixing up loose soil and a tiller breaks up solid ground. Tillers can dig much deeper into the ground than a cultivator. You generally use a tiller at the beginning and end of growing seasons. At the beginning of a growing season it will break up hard-packed dirt so it’s the right consistency for plants to take root in. At the end of the planting season it will till all the leftover growth into the soil so it can decompose naturally. It is also fantastic for mixing in compost into the soil. 

Cultivators, while they look similar to some tillers, are generally smaller. They are good for mixing up the soil, especially if you’re planting in a field with a lot of grass and weeds. You can use a cultivator to stir in compost and fertilizer and blend the soil before planting. Cultivators help you keep weeds in check so they don’t overtake your garden. You can regularly break up weeds between rows of plants in your garden with a cultivator, saving your back and the extra work of getting down on your hands and knees.

Tiller maintenance

The work tillers do is dirty, so it’s no wonder they get strewn with rocks and debris. To maintain your tiller, it’s important to thoroughly hose off the tines and carefully inspect them to make sure all the debris is removed after each use. 

You’ll know it’s time to sharpen the tines when they stop slicing through the dirt efficiently. Before you sharpen them, thoroughly clean the tines by scrubbing them with mild detergent. Grime and debris can scratch the tines if they aren’t properly cleaned before they’re sharpened. Once the tines are clean, use a mill file to sharpen each one individually. If the tiller is small, you can simply turn it over and sharpen the tines attached to the machine. For bigger tillers, you’ll want to remove the tines and fasten them into a vice while you sharpen them. 

Be sure to change the oil and air filter at least once a year, preferably at the beginning of the gardening season, so you know you are starting out the season with clean fuel. Consult the owner’s manual for the appropriate grade and amount of oil. Also, either use up all the gas in the tank at the end of each season or add fuel stabilizer to whatever gas remains in the tank. Store the tiller indoors, in a garage or shed, to keep it away from the elements.

Tillers with rear tines vs. tillers with front tines

The key component of a garden tiller is the tine design.  Tines are the metal prongs that work and loosen the soil. Their length and position determines how the machine operates, how far the machine can cut into the soil and what kind of soil it works best in. In some cases, short tines are sufficient, but for other jobs, you need tines that dig deep. Here are some differences between tillers with rear tines and those with front tines:

Rear tines:

Machines with their tines in the back typically do a better job of breaking up soil that has never been tilled and cutting deeply into dense, thickly packed dirt.

They have large wheels with deep treads and adjustable depth regulators, so you can till to different depths.

Some rear tines are counter-rotating. Because they move counter-clockwise, they give you even more control to handle the toughest dirt. These tillers create the least amount of vibration when cutting through clay and rocky dirt, and they are great for creating new garden beds where they didn’t exist before.

Mid tines: 

Generally, tillers that have tines located in the middle are the easiest to control and move while the machine is operating. 

The rototiller’s engine is usually located above the tines with gives it better weight distribution. 

They are not as powerful as rear tines, and are more suited to light maintenance work, over creating new seed beds. 

Front tines:

These tines sit in front of the wheels and rotate forward. Front tillers don’t cut as far into the soil and aren’t as effective at breaking up tough, clumpy dirt.

Front-tine tillers generally cost less than rear tillers of comparable size and power.

They are much easier to maneuver over dirt that is already loose and doesn’t require quite as much work.

Electric or gas tillers

Another consideration is the way a tiller is powered. For many people, the convenience of an electric-powered tiller is obvious. They are simple to start, they will run indefinitely since your electricity is always available and they are handy for smaller-sized gardens. However, the drawback is you will need an extension cord if your garden is farther away from the house and without a power source, you’ll be out of luck. 

Gas-powered tillers are potent machines that can muscle through tough soil. However, with many of these models, you must mix oil and gas to fuel the machine, and occasionally stop to refuel, which is a chore not everyone likes. Gas powered machines tend to be heavier and harder to push, which could be a problem for some consumers.

As with all tools, electric are generally less expensive than gas-powered. There are a number of economically-priced gas tillers in our lineup, such as the Earthquake MC43 Mini Cultivator.

If you prefer electric to gas you will find good, affordable models, like the Earthwise TC70001, but you won’t get the same power gas tillers provide. 

Functions of tillers

Some tillers are great at breaking in soil that has never been tilled before, which calls for a robust machine and strong tines. Others are better at loosening dirt that has been tilled before so you can plant your garden. Different tillers may work better than others at helping you weed and aerate your garden, as well as work in compost and fertilizers. It's important to pick a tiller that will do the work you need done on your property.

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