Best Garden Tillers for 2017: Tilling When Needed and Suiting the Tiller to the Job

Garden tillers are not recommended for all types of gardens. Modern gardening methods cite disturbance of soil layers, destruction of earthworm nests and opening the soil to potential erosion as good reasons not to till the soil. With that said, sometimes tilling is essential to remove the sod, destroy the weeds and disturb earth layers to plant a good garden. When this need arises, the gardener has the choice of getting out those hand tools and putting in some sweat equity or investing in a garden tiller or plow. Garden tillers work well for small, backyard gardens and for periodic touch-ups for larger gardens. They come in various types: gas powered, battery powered, or corded electric. They can have the tines in front or in back. Some are large, heavy duty machines while others are lighter machines that are well suited to small jobs.

Photo credit: USDAgov via Foter.com / CC BY-ND

When it comes to garden tillers, “best” is somewhat dependent upon the job. Garden tillers come in a variety of styles and sizes. They can be powered in different ways. When selecting a tiller for use in your garden, consider the ways in which you will use it, and consider who will start and run it. Many farm youngsters will be happy to explain that it might look easy to run a tiller but they can be far more difficult to manage than a lawn mower – and a much bigger disaster if they get out of hand! More than one young gardener has surveyed the damage to growing plants caused by a run-away tiller!

**Below, you will find more detailed reviews, but you can also click the links above to see current prices and read customer reviews on Amazon.

Tillers can be difficult to Operate

Tillers dig into the earth, and that takes some power to manage. They must have reasonably sharp tines in order to bite into hard ground and turn it up. Therefore, it takes a little skill to operate a garden rototiller. The key is, of course, to press down on the handles and to then let the rotating tines slowly dig into the earth. The user must then avoid letting the machine dig in too deep, allowing it to move forward by taking slow bites of the earth.

Tillers Are Not Always the Complete Answer

Tillers are a handy tool when you have a lot of area where the soil needs broken up. They are handy for turning under green manure crops, mixing in compost or improving the tilth of hard baked clay soils. However, they do not till as deeply as a standard plow, nor are they designed to act as a breaking plow on new soil. Tillers are problematical in soil that has a lot of rocks or tree roots. In such soils, you can expect to do a lot of stopping and starting while you pick the obstructions out of the tines. They do not corner cleanly. If you want a nice, tidy corner, there is a very good chance that you will need to finish up the job with a mattock and shovel.

Tillers Do Reduce Labor

Photo credit: USDAgov via Foter.com / CC BY-ND

With that said, a good tiller can reduce the labor of getting a garden ready to plant and keeping the weeds out from between traditional rows. Heavy duty tillers can dig down in the earth, breaking it up and improving friability. Smaller tillers can be used in flower beds or even between formal rows of crops to reduce weeds and to allow moisture penetration. The tiller that is best for you and your garden will depend, in part, on the size and type of garden.

Different Types of Garden Tillers

Gas Powered Tillers

Gas powered tillers are typically larger, heavier models that are suited to gardens that are too large to make hand-digging practical but not sufficiently large enough to make purchasing or renting a tractor a good economic choice. The gasoline motors can be difficult to start, although some come with electric or windup starter features. Some models have attachments for marking rows or similar specialized applications.

Battery Powered Tillers

Battery powered tillers are easier to start and run more quietly than the gas-powered tillers. However, they share some characteristics with battery powered lawn mowers, which includes a short run time and reduced power. In spite of improvements in power storage vs. battery size, having enough battery power is still a trade-off between longevity and battery weight.

Corded Electric Tillers

Photo credit: David Goose / MSI via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

You will have little or no power restriction with a corded electric tiller, and it will be easy to start. However, you do have that electrical power cord umbilical with which to cope. Corded tillers are nice, however, for work in flower beds, around patios or in small gardens that are near the house. You just need to be very careful not to catch the cord in the tines.

Selecting the Best Brand of Tiller

There are many excellent brands from which to select your tiller. The one you choose might be based on a brand that you know, or you might consider reviews – such as the ones that follow.

1. BCS Tiller Rear Tine Tiller GX340 Honda 26" #732GX-11-K

Via Amazon.com

The BCS rear tine tiller GX340 from Honda is a monster machine that is a real work horse. The rear tine placement makes it easier to steer than tillers with a front tine placement. The tines spin at 20 rotation per wheel revolution. The Honda motor delivers excellent power. The tines can be put into neutral for transporting the machine, or for putting it into reverse. There is a break-up device that keeps the machine from leaving a strip of untilled soil, and it can be set to variable tillage depths. Replacement tines are available.

On the other hand, the BCS Tiller comes with “some assembly required.” That can be a challenge. It weighs in at 275 pounds, and it corners like a lumber wagon. The clutch and the safety switch are both located on the left handle, creating a need for a large, strong hand to operate them correctly.

Pros

  • Excellent tilling power
  • Rear placed tines make forward motion easier
  • Break-up device for maximum tillage
  • Variable tillage depth

Cons

  • Some assembly required
  • Weighs 275 pounds
  • Doesn’t corner well
  • Clutch and safety require a strong left hand

2. Husqvarna FT900-CA Adjustable Width Front Tine Tiller

Via Amazon.com

The Husqvarna FT900 is a classic front-tined tiller. It is gas powered, with a 208cc Briggs and Stratton Engine. The original package includes a drag bar and counterweight for easier tilling. The motor is carb compliant. It is pull started, but has a reputation for starting up on the first or second pull. It weighs in at 100 pounds, and has rear wheels for easy handling. It can be adjusted for different till depths, and works well on a variety of soil types.

While it isn’t a light weight – it is a real tiller – it is reasonably easy to handle. Some users expressed concern about the center bar, so watch out for those rocks and roots. Otherwise, this seems to be pretty much the little tiller that could – and does.

Pros

  • Easy start up
  • Works well in a variety of soils
  • Adjustable till depth
  • Reduced speed reverse for safety

Cons

  • Need both hands to operate
  • Forward Throttle on right handle, Reverse on left handle

3. Troy-Bilt TB146 EC 29cc 4-Cycle Cultivator with JumpStart Technology

Via Amazon.com

The Troy-Bilt TB 146 cultivator is a smaller version of their large tillers. It has a 4-Cycle engine, and the jumpstart technology makes it easy to start. While not as tough or rugged as some of the larger tillers, it is light enough for gardeners who are too small or fragile to wrestle the big ones. It weighs 37 pounds, making it easy to lift and to store. The rear wheels create added mobility.

It tills to a depth of five inches, which is not really deep enough for good bed preparation, but it is fine for weeding, and aeration. It doesn’t have the power of a corded electric cultivator, but it has the advantage of not trailing that electrical umbilical around. If you have a small garden or need an easy way to till under a green manure crop or mix compost, you might find that this cultivator will to the job.

Pros

  • Sturdy imitation of larger Troy-Bilt tillers
  • Light weight for maneuverability
  • Jumpstart technology
  • No mixing gas and oil

Cons

  • Not as durable as larger models
  • Shallow till depth
  • Tends to be a one-season wonder

4. Sun Joe TJ603E 16-Inch 12-Amp Electric Tiller and Cultivator

Via Amazon.com

The Sun Joe TJ603E tiller is a corded electric tiller. It is reported to work well – even on hard soil. A small word of warning comes from some users: if you are tilling an area with a lot of grass, the grass will wrap up around the tines and could cause the motor to burn out. Therefore, it is a good idea to use a sod stripper or at the very least, mow that grass off short before tilling.

This little tiller weighs a whopping 27.1 pounds, which makes it a good choice if you don’t want to wrestle a monster around those tight corners in your garden or flower bed. Since it is electric, you don’t have to mess with gas or oil; but you do need to watch out for that power cord trailing behind you. Something to keep in mind is that this little guy is still powerful enough to damage buried sprinkler lines.

Pros

  • Light weight for easy handling
  • Corded electric means excellent power
  • Reported to work in all types of soil

Cons

  • No reverse.
  • Grass binding on tines can cause motor burnout

5. SCOTTS S20710 20V SYNC Lithium-Ion Cordless Cultivator

Via Amazon.com

The Scotts cultivator is to the big cultivators what a weed eater is to a lawn mower. This little guy is more like have a powered hoe than a powered plow. With that said, you might enjoy having one for those tight corners and hard-to-cultivate areas – particularly in the latter part of the season when it is difficult to use anything mechanical around sprawling plants such as pumpkin, squash and water melons. It is also a superb choice just for loosening compacted soil and aerating.

You might even find that this small cultivator is handy for small beds – the ones where you often find yourself breaking out the small hand tools and the knee mat. It has a four-inch tine depth and an adjustable shaft so it can be adapted to people of different heights. It uses a 20 Volt lithium-ion battery.

Pros

  • Exceptionally lightweight
  • Perfect for small beds and tight corners
  • Good for weeding between densely grown plants
  • No cord umbilical
  • Quick recharge – 45 minutes

Cons

  • Not suitable for large jobs
  • Shallow cultivation depth

Choosing the Best Garden Tiller for Your Job

Which tiller is the best? That really depends upon the job. The BCS Tiller is a good choice for those big jobs. For dainty little flower beds, you might like the Sun Joe or Scotts. Our personal favorite pick is the Husqvarna FT900 front-tine, gas powered tiller. It isn’t as much of a workhorse as the BCS, but it isn’t as heavy either. It doesn’t corner as nice as the smaller cultivators, but it can get in there and take care of spring or fall bed preparation. It is more sturdy than the smaller models, as well and can till deeper. All of them are good tillers. But each has merits for different jobs.

James G. Craig
 

James G. Craig is a gardening enthusiast who splits his spare time between growing vegetables, preening his flower gardens, and blogging about his experiences at the Gardener Corner.

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