What should I look for in a tiller?
The most important factors to look for when choosing or renting a tiller are the engine type, power, tine position and build quality. Gas, electric and cordless battery powered tillers each have their own advantages to consider when buying a garden tiller, as do the differences between front and rear tine tillers.
Those on a small budget should place build quality as top priority, this could lead to seeking a replacement after a few uses – buying cheap usually means buying twice. Purchasing a low-cost but inferior tiller can represent false economy, the physical stresses and strains that a tiller is subjected to over time might cause it to break if the build quality isn’t up to standard.
- 1 What should I look for in a tiller?
- 2 Engine type
- 3 Engine power
- 4 Tine position
- 5 Depth
- 6 Direction of tines
- 7 Tine coverage width
- 8 Variable width tines
- 9 Spare tines
- 10 Tiller weight
- 11 Drag bar
- 12 Tyres
- 13 Adjustable control handle
- 14 Storage size
- 15 Folding handles
- 16 Build quality
- 17 What should I look for in a gas-powered tiller?
- 18 What should I look for in an electric tiller?
What should I look for in a cordless battery powered tiller?
- 19.1 Battery and motor strength
- 19.2 Battery capacity
- 19.3 Battery recharge time
- 19.4 Spare batteries
- 19.5 How much power should the tiller have?
- 19.6 Can you attach a tiller to an ATV, UTV or ride on mower?
- 19.7 How do I measure tiller tine width?
- 19.8 How wide is a tiller?
- 19.9 What type of tiller is best to use on clay dirt?
- 19.10 Should I rent a tiller?
- 20 Sources
The type of soil, size of garden, budget and how much time you can spare affect the type of engine you should look for.
Gas powered tillers
Gas powered tillers are the most powerful of all engine types but also the most complicated which make them harder to use. Being powered by gasoline means they are portable so are not restricted by needing to be within range of a power outlet. The increased maintenance associated with a high number of moving parts along with a much higher cost can put a gas-powered tiller out of reach of many domestic users. Overhead valve engines (or OHV engines) are considered the most environmentally friendly of gas-powered tillers due to increased fuel efficiency leading to less pollution.
Electric powered tillers
Electric powered tillers are more popular and affordable for small to medium sized home gardens, electric tillers are powered by plugging into a mains power outlet and offer an easy one button start-stop operation. The low number of moving parts means these units require less maintenance, are not as prone to breaking down and will be lighter than their gas-powered alternatives. As well as the electric motor being better for the environment the motor does not produce anywhere near as much noise as a gas-powered tiller.
Cordless battery powered tillers
Cordless battery powered tillers offer similar advantages to electric powered tillers without needing to be tethered to a power outlet. The batteries typically operate for between 30 to 45 minutes which is reliant on the strain that soil conditions place on the motor and could take up to 3 hours to fully recharge unless using additional expensive spare batteries. The weaker but quieter motors make cordless electric tillers more suited for light maintenance such as removing weeds between rows of vegetables quickly without the need to untangle and stretch a cable across the garden.
Hand powered tillers
Hand powered tillers are comparable in price to electric powered alternatives, but do not have any type of engine so you’ll be doing all the hard work. Prior to affordable gas-powered tillers, domestic tillers were typically hand powered which involved the back-breaking task of pushing these heavy tools through areas of soil. Although hand rotary tillers can still be purchased these aren’t suitable for thick and rocky soil or clay, unless you have sufficient time these will only useful in small areas of pre-existing beds.
The stronger the engine or motor on a tiller, the faster and easier it will be able to turn thick soil – a small engine could slow down or jam thereby requiring multiple passes on the same patch of soil. Compare this to a large strong powerful engine which should be able to tear through damp, clay like soil, rocky ground, or tall thick weeds like a knife through butter.
When evaluating potential tillers engine power should be the most important figure to look for, with different metrics are used to determine engine power for each type of engine.
Some tiller manufacturers might quote engine power using horsepower which could be useful comparing gas-powered engines to electric ones, in which case aim for at least half a horsepower or greater. Gas powered tiller engine power is measured in cc’s and number of cycles or strokes, electric powered motors are measured in watts or amp and the battery power on cordless powered tillers is measured in volts and Ahs.
There are two main types of tiller – front tine tillers and rear tine tillers; these indicate the location of the tines at either the front under the engine or protected at the rear of the machine near to the users feet.
Front tine tillers
Front tine tillers offer greater manoeuvrability due to their lighter construction, placement of the tines and ability to operate around obstacles and in tight corners. Coupled with their affordable price and small storage size this makes them ideal for small to medium gardens maintaining established beds in-between rows of plants.
Rear tine tillers
Rear tine tillers are wider with longer tines and a more powerful engine, making them capable of creating large beds in the toughest of soil conditions quickly and easily. These expensive heavy-duty tillers with strong engines are typically aimed at professional gardeners and landscapers who need a reliable workhorse to use on a regular basis.
The length of a tine on a tiller refers to the size of the rotating blades on the tiller and indicates the maximum depth that the tiller is capable of digging.
- Front tine tillers are typically capable of digging up to 8 inches deep.
- Rear tine tillers should have tine lengths of between 6 to 12 inches and are more likely to have the ability to adjust the depth.
Adjustable tine depth
Versatile brands of tillers allow the depth to be altered, meaning they can not only be used on a deep setting to create new beds thoroughly but also used on a shallow setting to remove surface weeds, mix fertiliser and aerate soil without disturbing the established roots of surrounding plants. The depth that the tiller digs can be altered by using a drag bar, changing an adjustable control handle or removing a lock pin.
Direction of tines
Forward, counter, dual and vertical dual rotating tines are the four different types of tines used on tillers which refer to the direction that each set of tines rotates.
Forward rotating tines
Forward rotating tines or standard rotating tines will all rotate in the same direction as the wheels, embedding themselves into the soil and dragging the tiller forward as it goes. The simple design of a tiller with forward rotating tines reduces the need from complex gears and powered wheels, although this keeps the costs down it won’t turn the soil as thoroughly compared to other types of tines.
Counter rotating tines
Counter rotating tines all rotate in the opposite direction to the powered wheels, making them perfect for thick compressed soil.
Dual rotating tines
Dual rotating tines perform the most thorough job of rigorously churning thick soil because each set of tines turns in opposite directions, this makes them ideal for mixing in manure and fertiliser. Due to the complexity of the engine required to counter rotate each set of blades this feature is only found on more expensive heavy-duty rear tine tillers, however it makes them the most versatile type of tiller available.
Vertical dual rotating tines
Vertical dual rotating tines are the least common design found in tillers, resembling a pair of large kitchen whisks they provide a smooth, easy and vibration free way to till an area of land but do not cope well with larger obstructions in rocky soil.
Tine coverage width
Tine coverage width is measured from one side of the tines to the other, tine width of between 15 to 24 inches will mean being able to cover larger areas faster whereas narrow tine widths or under 15 inches have a tighter turning circle giving them greater manoeuvrability and ideal for maintaining soil in between rows of plants.
- The tine coverage width on front tine tillers ranges from between 8 to 16 inches wide.
- The tine coverage width on rear tine tillers can range from 8 to 36 inches wide.
Variable width tines
Tillers which feature variable width tines allow you conveniently adjust the width according to the task you need to accomplish. Simply by removing some bolts, expanding or contracting the axle, then tightening the bolts can modify the width by 6 inches. This flexibility lets you cover a larger area quickly on the tillers widest setting, then shrink the tines to fit into tight spaces between rows of plants. Changing the width to its narrowest setting can be useful for those with limited storage capacity who might otherwise struggle to squeeze a full sized tiller into a tight space.
Tillers are prone to hitting rocks and other hidden obstacles underground which can potentially bend or break a tine, this could leave you with the problem of finding spare parts for your tiller or having to replace the entire unit. Providing that they are available to purchase, tines should be easy enough to replace. Therefore, we advise checking that the tiller manufacturer sells replacement tines or includes a set of spares prior to choosing a specific model.
Heavy tillers with powerful engines and counterweights will force the tines deep into the ground effortlessly, making them ideal for the tough job of digging thick soil to create new beds. Heavy tillers do suffer the disadvantage that they are harder to manoeuvre so a lightweight alternative is more suited for tight spaces – but these might struggle with thick soil. Tillers with gas powered engines are typically a lot heavier than their electric and battery powered counterparts.
A removable drag bar prevents the tiller from running away and provides stability to dampen the vibrations and bouncing originating from the rotating tines, this improves performance and reduces arm strain. Drag bars are height adjustable and use a simple locking pin to slide the bar up and down to allow quick changes to the depth. Typically a height bar should be set so that the tiller is angled with it’s nose up slightly, it can be lowered for maximum depth, raised for softer soil or removed completely when distributing compost, fertilisers, and manure into the surface.
Tyres are used to smoothly manoeuvre the tiller through the soil during operation and also transport the unit around when not in use. Tyres should also be able to be fully raised during operation when attempting to reach maximum depth. Models with powered wheels will require chunky inflatable tyres with thick treads, these provide better traction in damp soil however will be prone to punctures.
Adjustable control handle
An adjustable control handle on a tiller allows you to adjust the depth of the tines or move the tines from side to side, this provides a more convenient way to make simple adjustments during operation than stopping the tiller and removing adjustment bolts to change the tines position.
A tiller is likely be one of the largest items in your tool-shed or garage, so plan ahead and check if you have enough storage space before buying one. The collapse size dimensions from the tiller manufacturer should give you an indication of how much space a tiller will occupy when stored, look for features such as variable width tines and folding handles which should reduce the overall storage footprint too.
Models with a number of collapsible components will add to the time it takes to prepare and store the tiller each time, whilst adding more moving parts adds more points of weakness which could potentially go wrong.
Most front tine tillers aimed at domestic gardeners will have folding handles, this makes them convenient to store and transport. Be aware that the strong forces and constant vibrations coming from the rotating tines will put a constant strain on the folding handle joints during operation, therefore ensure the mechanism used to lock the folding handles is durable and robust enough to withstand harsh treatment.
The powerful rotating tines bounce a tiller around unpredictability, exposing the parts to constant shocks and vibrations. Therefore, build quality is one of the most important considerations when choosing a tiller that will not shake itself apart, a sturdy metal construction is obviously more robust than a tiller using predominantly plastic parts.
Always check online reviews prior to buying your own tiller, with prices typically reflecting build quality we have noticed several reviewers of cheaper tillers complaining their machines have broken after regular use. Ultimately it is false economy to buy a cheap flimsy unknown brand tiller since it might need replacing after only a handful of uses due to breakages and lack of replacement parts.
What should I look for in a gas-powered tiller?
Gas powered tiller strength is measured in cc’s with higher numbers indicating a more powerful engine. A 150cc engine or higher should be able to manage most tasks whilst 200cc is preferable for rocky soil, compared to a small 25cc engine which will not be able to cope with much beyond maintaining pre-existing beds.
Gas powered tillers come in 2 or 4 cycle engine varieties (also referred to as 2-stroke or 4-stroke engines).
- 2-stroke engines are smaller and lighter but might struggle with thick soil.
- 4-stroke engines are more powerful, suited to creating new beds with greater fuel efficiency.
Gas tank size
Generally, 3 gallons is considered enough fuel capacity to keep a gas-powered tiller running for a reasonable length of time without having to refuel, although smaller sized tanks are acceptable for those with small to medium sized gardens.
The manual recoil starts on a gas powered tiller involves pulling a cord multiple times until the engine turns on, however an electric starter motor allows you to start the engine with a single button press and makes it useful in colder climates. This convenience does mean that the tiller requires a battery and electric motor which adds to complexity, weight, cost, and maintenance of the tiller.
Gas powered rear tine tillers with counter or dual rotating tines will use the engine to power the wheels to drive the heavy tiller forward without relying on the operator to push on the handles. Powered wheels are useful if planning to use a heavy-duty tiller on a regular basis to work on large areas quickly, however the additional gears and mechanics required will add to the cost and potential maintenance required.
Power take off
Power take off (or PTO) is an option found on more expensive gas powered rear tine tillers, this utilises the tiller engine to power an external driveshaft attached to unpowered spreaders, pumps, chippers, log splitters, air compressors, saws and cement mixers. Power take off systems are a cost-effective way to utilise a single powerful engine to power multiple cheaper machines, turning the tiller into the central workhorse for those with small farm or large gardens.
A counterweight is typically found on heavy duty rear tine tillers to provide stability and balance, these prevent the tiller from jerking when encountering obstacles in the soil which make operating the tiller more manoeuvrable and comfortable to use.
What should I look for in an electric tiller?
Electric powered tiller motors measure the power of their motors using watts or amps, with higher numbers indicating a more powerful engine. If the tiller manufacturer refers to their engine size in amps then look for anything greater than 8 amps, and if wattage is cited then aim for 500 watts or greater.
Longer power cords on electric powered tillers give greater freedom to reach further into corners of the garden without the need for extension cables. Should an extension cable be necessary then only use one, and this should not exceed a maximum of 100 feet in length.
Tillers with thermal protectors prevent electric motor damage by overheating, if the motor is undergoing severe strain in thick soil it might switch itself off for several minutes to cool down.
What should I look for in a cordless battery powered tiller?
Battery and motor strength
Cordless battery powered tillers measure power in voltage and Ah (or amp hour), batteries range from around 36-48 volts and give an indication of the engine strength and the Ah figure refers to battery efficiency. Better battery efficiency means you will be able to use a cordless tiller for a longer period, with some tiller manufacturers also giving an average battery use time – expect 30 minutes to 45 minutes of use.
The battery found in a typical cordless electric tiller lasts between 30 to 45 minutes and this may vary by the load placed on the motor by the toughness of the soil along with the climate temperature, manufacturers might refer to the efficiency using amp hours (or Ah) – aim for a battery with at least 4 Ah. Ensure that the battery has adequate capacity to till the area within a single charge otherwise you will be waiting to top up the battery before you can finish the job.
Battery recharge time
A recharge cycle could take up to 3 hours which adds considerable waiting time to using a tiller around the garden, so the faster it take takes to recharge the battery the sooner you will be able to resume using the cordless tiller.
Cordless electric tillers offer the convenience of operating in remote areas without being tethered to a power outlet, however they do suffer from the potential problem of the battery running out during tilling. A model which includes a spare battery solves this issue by enabling you to use one battery in the tiller whilst the other battery is being recharged.
Manufacturers of cordless power tools rarely tend to continue to produce compatible replacement batteries for longer than a couple of years so it is worth purchasing a secondary battery with your tiller as a replacement should the original battery permanently fail.
How much power should the tiller have?
A reasonably sized engine for a gas powered tiller would be around 150cc’s or greater, a heavier 4 stroke engine will improve power and efficiency. An electric powered tiller should have at least a 500 watts or 8 amp motor, expect cordless battery powered tillers to use 36-48 volt batteries with a minimum capacity of 4 Ah.
Can you attach a tiller to an ATV, UTV or ride on mower?
Self-powered tiller attachments are available for All-Terrain Vehicles, UTV’s and ride-on mowers, due to their slow operating speeds are more suited to small and medium sizes gardens.
How do I measure tiller tine width?
The width of a tiller is measured from the left-most tine to the tine on the far right of the axle.
How wide is a tiller?
A garden tiller typically ranges from between 8 to 36 inches in width with simple tractor mounted rotary tillers averaging around 6 feet in length. The main benefit of a wider tiller is that it will be much quicker to cover a large area of ground compared to a narrow tiller. Wide tillers do have the disadvantage that they aren’t as manoeuvrable when operating between narrow rows of plants and have a much wider turning circle.
What type of tiller is best to use on clay dirt?
A gas-powered rear tine tiller with longer tines will have sufficient power to turn clay soil, an electric front tine tiller might not have enough strength to turn rich clay soil unless the ground has the right balance of moisture.
Should I rent a tiller?
Creating a garden bed, tearing up thick weeds and reseeding lawns are all typically one-off jobs for a tiller, so renting a tiller could be a more cost-effective way to save time, effort, and storage without investing in your own unit. However, if you wish to use a tiller for regular garden maintenance such as weeding between rows of vegetables or are planning on working on multiple projects then buying a tiller will be more cost effective.
The cost of renting a tiller for a single day is roughly half the price of buying a brand-new no-frills tiller, also take into account that a tiller is a large bulky item that might not fit into the trunk of a car so consider the cost of delivery and returns to the hire company too.
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- motherearthnews.com – Choosing the Right Tiller – How to find the right tiller for the job, including tiller types and brands for 10 true tillers and 10 tiny tillers. 20th July 2020.
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- angieslist.com – What Is a Garden Tiller? – Wondering what a garden tiller is, and if you need one for your garden? Learn how a rototiller improves growing conditions by turning over and aerating soil. 23rd May 2017.
- gardenguides.com – Homemade Garden Tillers – When you look at high-powered tillers for sale at garden stores, a homemade option might seem optimistic. 20th July 2020.
- gardinator.com – What Is a Garden Tiller and How to Use It? – ? What Is a Garden Tiller and How to Use It?. 17th May 2018.
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