Extension Educator, Horticulture
Gardeners have not escaped society's love of gadgets. One of the most expensive garden gadget is the power tiller. Tillers can be an important tool in cultivating weeds, working in compost and starting new beds. Generally tillers are used when hand cultivation seems too formidable a task. Before your tiller ends up in the gadget graveyard with the treadmill and the pocket fishing pole, do some homework before your purchase. Tillers come in a variety of sizes, styles and gas or electric power. Some tiller models come with special attachments for edging, dethatching, snow removal, and trimming. But beware, companies can be over exuberant in their descriptions of what tillers can do.
Small electric models are sometimes referred to as power cultivators. Large tillers have four or more blades. The smallest tillers have only one or two blades. Tillers come with three basic kinds of tines (the blades that do the cultivating): bolo - basic design for deep tilling; slasher- for thick vegetation and roots in soft ground and horror movies; and pick and chisel for general use on hard, rocky ground. Front tined tillers are gas or electric powered. The motor is on top of the tined wheels and for best digging the engine should be almost directly over the tines. Some models have rubber wheels in back to help stabilize the machine. The tined wheels actually propel the machine through the soil.
Front tined tillers can come in sizes as small as 6 to 9 inches wide which is smaller than rear tined. Front tined tillers tend to be lighter weight than rear tined.
Rear tined tillers are the largest power tillers. The cultivating blades are located at the rear of the machine as the name implies. The gas powered motor is located above the front wheels which actually do the propelling through the soil. What does all this mean for the gardener? Electric and front tined tillers are better for soils that have already been cultivated at one time or another. Rear tined tillers are important in starting new beds that have never been tilled. The rear tined tillers will cultivate soil that the front tined tillers can only bounce across. In large models, the rear tined tillers are much easier to control than the front tined. For small people that translates into less muscle soreness the next day.
Rear tined tillers also do not compact the soil they just worked as front tined tillers do, since the wheels don't pass over the cultivated soil. Rear tined tillers can cost twice as much as front tined tillers. Before selecting a tiller, decide what you want the tiller to do. If you are just fluffing up existing beds and cultivating weeds then a small lightweight model may be all you need. If you use a tiller only once a year then consider renting a tiller, renting someone to till the area for you or find a good gardening neighbor who likes to share. Once you have decided to buy, find a dealer or gardening friend that will let you test the tiller. See how much noise and vibration the engine makes and see how easy the machine is to turn. Don't make a machine work harder than it was designed. Heavy rocky soils should be left to the workhorses - the rear tined gas tillers. If you do decide to buy a tiller, I would suggest also taking the small engines course through Urbana Adult Education. Remember tilling isn't always necessary. With proper soil management worms may be able to do your tilling. But that's another story.