How to Use a Garden Tiller

Man tilling garden

Garden tilling or cultivating is a method used by farmers and gardeners to increase soil fertility. The soil becomes more fertile after tilling because the tiller turns up the earth and effectively aerates the soil, allowing water, oxygen, and other nutrients to more efficiently reach plant roots. In addition, tilled soil helps prevent weeds and insects from damaging and hindering your plant growth. Garden tilling and cultivating produces many benefits, so we’ve provided information to help you effectively prepare and till your garden.

When is the best time to till my garden?

Planting tomato

It’s best to till a garden in the spring when the soil is dry and the temperature is around 60°F. Depending upon your location and climate, this typically falls in early March to early June. Be sure not to till when the soil is wet; this is likely to compact the soil and actually cause it to excessively dry out. You can test proper moisture level by taking a handful of dirt and squeezing it into a ball. Then press your finger slightly against the ball. If the ball falls apart, the soil is ready for tilling.

Cultivators vs Tillers

The terms cultivator and tiller are often used interchangeably, but there are major differences between the two pieces of equipment. Cultivators are smaller than tillers and easier to maneuver. They're designed to loosen soil in an existing garden area and mix compost and soil conditioners into soil. Tillers, on the other hand, are built with the horsepower, size, and weight needed to till a brand new garden.

Which type of garden tiller do I need?

Front-tine tillers

Tiller side view

Front-tine tillers get their name because - you guessed it - the tines are located on the front the machine. These tillers have the wheels located on the rear, making it easier to maneuver. Front-tine tillers are designed for individuals with smaller gardens, as they’re more affordable and are better used for breaking smaller areas of new ground.

While it’s possible to break new ground with front-tine tillers, that job is better left to rear-tine tillers. When breaking new ground, front-tine tillers have a tendency to jump over the ground instead of digging into the soil. If you break ground with a front-tine tiller, prepare yourself for a lurching motion and bumpy ride.

Rear-tine tillers

rear tine tiller

Rear-tine tillers have tines located on the rear of the machine, and are typically more expensive, have larger engines, and are designed for larger jobs. Advantages of rear-tine tillers include drive wheels that propel the unit forward (making it easy for the user to control the tilling speed), and controllable tilling depths.

These tillers have counter rotating tines (CTR) and standard rotating tines (STR) which can be adjusted depending on the job. Standard rotation is best for mixing in soil, but counter-rotation is best for breaking new ground. Since rear-tine tillers are heavier, they’ll jump around less when tilling. These tillers are perfect for those with larger gardens or when you’re going to break new ground.

Tilling using front-tine and rear-tine tillers

Before using any tiller, make sure you have the proper safety gear. This should include durable work boots, safety glasses to protect your eyes from debris, and hearing protection to protect you from the sound of the engine. Wear pants, a long sleeve shirt, and work gloves as well.

Front-tine tilling techniques

tilled garden

Many front-tine tillers are equipped with rear wheels that make it easier to maneuver into the desired location. Front-tine tillers use the tines to propel the unit forward as the tines grab the soil. This means you'll need to use physical force to plunge the tines into the soil while holding back on the machine. This prevents the tiller from moving forward without your control. Hold the tiller in place until desired tilling depth is reached.

Rear-tine tilling techniques


Because of their considerable weight, rear-tine tillers are difficult to maneuver if the unit is not running. You will probably need to start the unit and lift the back to move it to the desired tilling location.

Be sure not to engage the tines while moving the unit. Then set your tilling depth - some have a height adjustment handle while others have a pin that is removed and reinserted. Once you start the unit, firmly hold onto the handles, lift the back of the unit, and engage the tines. Then slowly drop the tines into the soil and engage the drive control.

We recommend tilling in long straight lines, like when you mow the yard. If your garden needs additional tilling after the first pass, till perpendicular to your original passes. Do not overwork soil as this can cause soil compaction rather than aeration.

Properly preparing your garden for the summer months is important for a fruitful year of planting. At, we have a large selection of tillers, including trusted brands like Troy-Bilt. If you don’t need to purchase a tiller or don’t have a place to store it, many of our locally owned Do it Best stores have a large selection of rental equipment at your disposal.