What is a Small Garden Tiller?

J.S. Metzker Erdemir

A small garden tiller is a mechanical garden cultivator. Also called mini-tillers or lawn tillers, small tillers can be used to prepare soil for planting, to mix in soil amendments like lime or compost, and to weed around plants and shrubs. Small tillers can be gas- or electric-powered, with two or four sets of tines.

A small garden tiller can be used to prepare the soil for planting.
A small garden tiller can be used to prepare the soil for planting.

Most small tillers are front-tine, which means the blades are set under the engine towards the front. It is the tines that propel the machine forward while the gardener pushes down to keep it from moving ahead too quickly. There are tillers with wheels and those without. On some models, the wheels do not actually propel the tiller but instead are there to stabilize it and make it a little easier to push. On other models the wheels are on an axle that is turned by the engine, reducing the amount of work for the gardener.

Garden tillers can help slow the spread of weeds like crabgrass.
Garden tillers can help slow the spread of weeds like crabgrass.

Small garden tiller tines work by slicing the soil into chunks then cutting the chunks into smaller pieces. The tines are on wheels, with four blades on each wheel. The blades are L-shaped, with two blades pointing outwards and two pointing inwards. The wheels are in sets of two, with the blades pointing opposite each other. These tear into the soil as the wheels turn.

Mini tillers are most appropriate for small spaces, with soil that has been worked in the past. Most have two- or four-horsepower engines, so they are not strong enough to break up turf. Using a small garden tiller on rocky soil can damage the blades, which can also get stuck in heavy clay soil. The tines of smaller tillers can become easily tangled with weeds, so most gardener pull weeds by hand before spring or fall tilling. This also slows the spread of rhizome-propagating weeds like crabgrass, because a cut rhizome will eventually sprout a new weed.

Gardeners generally till in the spring and fall. In the fall, soil amendments can be added and worked in. Root clumps and remaining vegetation from spent annuals should be cut up in the fall so they can decompose more quickly over the winter. In the spring, the soil needs to be worked again to break up the hardened top layer and mix in mulch, fertilizer and other soil amendments. During the growing season, many gardeners prefer to pull weeds with a small garden tiller, which is usually maneuverable enough to get into narrow passages and under hedges and trees.

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