Cultivator vs Tiller: what are the differences?

A cultivator is a small tiller designed to be used in raised beds and already tilled soil. A tiller is much larger than a cultivator has stronger tines and a more powerful engine. A tiller is a large machine designed to be used on the ground in lawn areas such as vegetable gardens or creating larger tilled beds from compacted untilled ground.

One of the most useful tools for any gardener is a cultivator. Though the name can be applied to any tool that “cultivates” the soil – preparing it for planting – there are actually two distinct categories of these tools: cultivators and tillers. Each one has a very different job so it’s important to choose the right tool to suit your needs. In this article i will show you the differences between a cultivator vs tiller.

You shouldn’t choose just any tiller or cultivator – you need to consider the job you are doing, the size of your garden, the type of soil you have and how you’ll be using the tool. 

While a cultivator is designed to mix loose soil, a tiller is designed to break up harder ground- like lawn areas you want to plant into.

Similarly you wouldn’t want to lift a 200lb/ 100kg rototiller into a 6ft x 4ft raised bed to till the soil before planting – you would choose a 24lb powered cultivator.

The right tool will save you a lot of effort and energy to help keep your garden in optimal condition.

Cultivators

Powered cultivators are typically lightweight and affordable. They’re designed to stir soil that’s already been broken but aren’t terribly effective at cutting through grass or sod and breaking new ground.

Most manual tillers (without an engine) are actually cultivators and are best used for garden maintenance – they’re ideal for incorporation soil improvements like fertilizers or organic matter. They also let you mix potting soil into regular soil, or break up small grasses and weeds. They’re designed to be used in an already well-established planting area.

Power sources

Cultivators are either manually operated, or powered by a small electric or gas engine. This makes them lightweight and low-maintenance as well as easy to use. There are several types of cultivator:

Manual cultivators

The least expensive options are hand-held cultivators, long-handled claws, and manual rotary tillers. These are best used for weeding and aerating around the base of your plants. Manual tillers are just a shaft with a claw attached to the end which you turn round with your hands.

Some are also useful for breaking up loose soil and mixing in compost or other additives. Most are small and have short handles, forcing the gardener to kneel or bend to get at the soil, but some are ergonomically-designed which have longer handles for upright use.

Even the larger manual tillers are typically small and lightweight, making them easy to use – but not as useful for larger jobs.

Powered cultivators

Electric powered cultivators are a little larger and typically require a lot less muscle than manual tools. While still lightweight, these cultivators are powerful enough to handle small to medium-sized gardens.

They are still meant to be used on loose soil only, though some have variable speeds and adjustable tilling depths that allow them to handle very small areas of well-packed soil or unbroken ground.

These electric tools don’t produce any harmful emissions – but the trade-off is that they’re dependent on a power source. The battery-powered cultivators need to be recharged periodically. The corded types must be plugged in – and you have to navigate around the cord while tilling!

If your gardening needs aren’t extensive – and you’re planning to maintain an established plot – a cultivator could be the best, most affordable tool for the job.

Rototillers

A garden rototiller or tiller as they are also known is quite a bit larger and more powerful than a cultivator. They’re used for breaking up harder ground, but can also stir and plow the soil.

While some front tine tillers can be electric, they’re typically not powerful enough for handling larger jobs. Most full size tillers are gas-powered.

There are three different types of tiller, which are defined by the placement of the tines. You can find a fairly wide range of sizes, power levels and costs.

Front-tine tiller

While these tillers are larger and more powerful than cultivators, they can’t compare to their larger cousins (the rear tine tillers). They’re designed for manoeuvrability and ease of use – with the tines located underneath the engine in front of non powered wheels.

Their slightly smaller size than a rear tine tiller is supposed to make them more ideal for tight spaces and gardens with narrow rows. In practice they are much more labour intensive for the operator to use and hold onto than a rear tine tiller.

Because a front tine tiller is not wheel driven you are relying on the tines to pull the machine forward. The trouble is this- if the tines are not in softish soil the machine will just pull you around the garden.

Realising this problem – manufacturers put a spike at the rear of the tiller to hold it back – but using one is so exhausting compared to a rear tine tiller. With a rear tine tiller the machine is driven by powered wheels and you let the rear tines dig as shallow or deep as you want, effortlessly.

Smaller front tine tillers can sometimes be electric – either battery-powered or corded models – but larger, more powerful ones mostly still use gas.

Rear-tine tiller

These big, gasoline-powered tillers have powered gearbox driven wheels with forward and reverse drive systems, independant from the tiller drive system.

This allows you to set your forward speed as fast or as slow as you like making it a dream to use. Although a rear tine tiller is slightly bigger than a front tine tiller, they are actually 100 times easier to use and maneuver.

These powerful tools are designed for hard soil or for tilling in tough, stony conditions and are excellent for breaking new ground. They are larger than front-tine tillers and they have large powered wheels in front of the tines (rear tine tiller).

Tiller rotation

Some rear tine tillers have tines that rotate forward, some are counter-rotating, and some offer both options. Counter-rotating tines move in the opposite direction of the wheels, allowing them to handle heavier or clay-based soil. Dual-rotating tines combine both styles for the best of both worlds.

Tiller depth

A standard rotating tine moves in the same direction of the wheels and are best for reaching up to 5” deep into the soil.

Rear-tine tillers typically handle deeper soil depths – up to 8” – and can have a wider tiller rotor for tackling large jobs. Many tillers have adjustable depths and widths.

Vertical-tine tillers

These newer tillers are far less common than the other types; they have tines which cut vertically through the soil, rather than downward like other cultivators and tillers. This supposedly makes them more efficient and typically quieter than those other machines. I don’t see how they would be quieter, but i haven’t used one so can’t comment.

Cultivator vs tiller

Manual Cultivators -The most basic cultivators are manually powered, these modified spikes with a handle, typically require a lot of effort on the part of the user.

Powered Cultivators are often powered electrically, though some use a small gas engine. Electric models don’t require fuel or give off any harmful emissions.

In my opinion, gas cultivators are best for people who have a lot of cultivating to do in any one day. Battery cultivators are best for smaller areas required in one day, and electric corded i wouldn’t be interested in as they are annoying to use with a lead trailing around the place.

Cultivators typically don’t need to be powerful to complete their tasks.

Tillers are noticeably larger than cultivators, they have thicker L shaped blades and have more powerful engines, and they need to be to complete their work.

They are the largest, which could mean they are harder to maneuver in tight spaces- but this shouldn’t really be an issue as they shouldn’t be in a small place to begin with.

Tillers come as front tine or rear tine versions – although in my opinion a rear tine tiller is the only option worth having. Front tine tillers are a bad idea, both to use and operate. Use a rear tine tiller to make compacted untilled ground ready and then maintain it with a powered cultivator- either a battery or gas powered one.

They come with either 2-cycle or 4-cycle engines;  if you choose a 2-cycle motor, you’ll need to use the proper mix of gas and oil.

If you have a very large area to till and you own a lawn tractor or ATV, a tow-behind tiller are a great option – they can handle a wide and deep path, making quick work of large gardens.

Recommended Cultivators and Rear tine tillers:

Schiller Grounds Care Mantis 7940 4-Cycle Tiller Cultivator Powered by Honda – Lightweight, Powerful and Compact - No Fuel Mix, Sure-Grip Handles – Built to Be Durable and Dependable

$399.95
$364.16  in stock
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5 used from $ 245.06
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Features

  • Powerful Honda 4-cycle (gas only, no fuel mix required) 25cc engine spins the tines twice as fast as other tillers
  • Weighs just 24 pounds. Tine speed up to 240 rpm
  • Finger controlled throttle for infinite speed control and ease of operation
  • The compact 9 inch width allows the tiller to get into tight spaces around your yard that larger tillers cannot get to.
  • The unique, curvy tines can be used to till down 10 inches deep. Or, simply turn the tines around to shallow cultivate the top 2 to 3 inches of soil.

Greenworks 10-Inch 40V Cordless Cultivator with Extra Tines, 4Ah Battery and Charger Included 27062

$299.00
$230.46  in stock
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2 used from $ 214.33
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Features

  • High performance G-MAX 40V Lithium-Ion Battery delivers fade-free power with no Memory loss after charging
  • 4 adjustable 8-inch forward rotating tines for highest performance when digging into earth
  • Adjustable tilling width of 8.25-Inch to 10-inch for quick reliable tilling
  • Tilling depth of up to 5-inch delivers fast results for your needs to promote a healthy garden
  • Compatible only with G-MAX 40V Battery models 29462 and 29472

YARDMAX YT4565 Dual Rotating Rear Tine Tiller, 208Cc, Briggs & Stratton

$678.98  out of stock
14 new from $678.98
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Features

  • Briggs & Stratton engine delivers 9.50 ft-lbs gross torque and 190 rpm rotational speed
  • 18" wide rear tine design with 7 depth adjustments and a 6.5" working depth to cover more ground quickly
  • Single hand operation allows user to stand and steer from either side of the tiller
  • 13" self-sharpening tines easily cultivate any soil type
  • Front counterweight on 13" pneumatic wheels.

Husqvarna TR317C, 17 in. 208cc Rear-Tine Tiller, CARB

$699.95  out of stock
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Features

  • Counter rotating rear tines offer 6.5-inch tilling depth
  • Forward and reverse gears make unit maneuverable
  • Easy start engine reduces start up frustration
  • Wide 17-inch tilling width
  • Engineered tire treads deliver superior traction

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