A tiller is simply a name given to any garden tool which breaks up the soil into smaller pieces to make planting into easier. When soil is untilled it is usually more compacted and dense, this makes it difficult for the new plant to establish a good root structure and thrive. Tilling can be carried out using a powered rototiller or by using a hand tiller The purpose of this article is to take a look at how to use and choose a hand tiller for the garden and what features make the tiller more effective.
How to use a hand tiller
Although hand tillers come in all shapes and sizes, the way they operate is essentially the same. A hand tiller consists of several long metal spikes which you push deep into the uncultivated soil, then using the power of your body/arms you dig or twist the soil until it becomes loose and broken up enough for you to plant into.
What types of hand tillers are there?
There are lots of different implements which call themselves hand tillers, lets look at the main groups of hand tillers which are used today.
Single-hand sized tillers
As the name suggests, these hand tillers are designed to be used with just one hand. They are the smallest and usually most basic type of hand tiller you can buy. They usually have handles that are less than 12″ long.
These hand tillers are variations of the three-pronged hand trowel implement, which is often sold in sets along with a standard garden trowel. The three-pronged claw-type tiller is put to use by digging it in and pulling it through the soil repeatedly until the soil is well cultivated.
Other hand tillers look like they are made of small star-shaped wheels, these are rolled over the soil to break up the clods and lumps. The soil would need to be dug up with a spade or a trowel beforehand though.
There are many different types of one-hand cultivators, but the thing to remember is that these tillers work best in already loosened soil. For soil that has been compacted a lot, you would be better off using a two-hand tiller which you can help to push into the soil with your body weight or foot.
Full-size two-hand tillers
The other size of hand tiller you can buy are full size and these are used with two hands and sometimes your feet. They are around 3 feet or more in length and are used to dig into much more compacted soil.
Again there are different variations for the full-size hand tillers, twisted spikes, straight spikes, star-shaped wheels, and pronged claws. Any hand tillers which consist of rigid prongs are great at digging into the soil, those with star wheels are designed to break up rather than dig.
The hand tiller which is most common is the type that has several twisted spikes- usually four- at the bottom of a long straight shaft, and at the other end is a straight handlebar to hold in both hands.
The spikes are pushed into the soil with the user’s foot and then the straight handlebar is twisted around 90 degrees. This twisting motion breaks up the soil directly under the tiller. The user then lifts the hand tiller out of the soil and pushes it into another piece of compacted soil next to the area they have just tilled.
This process is repeated until all the soil has been broken up and made ready.
Other types of hand tillers
Although the term hand tiller most often refers to the claw, spiked, digging hand tools, there are other hand tools that till the soil but are not usually known as hand tillers.
Hand hoes are excellent at disturbing the upper layers of soil – especially for weeding. There are flat hoes, spade hoes, pointed spade hoes, and loop hoes, and they all do a great job of tilling the soil. Have a look at this great video of hand hoes in action.
Benefits of hand tillers vs powered tillers
The main benefit of a hand tiller vs a powered tiller is access- the hand tiller can be used in the smallest spaces and in a much more delicate way.
Powered tillers are great – I love them- but they are not easy to use in tight spaces – they usually end up digging too aggressively no matter how gently I try to work with them.
Powered tillers work better in open spaces – even powered cultivators which are the smallest type of powered tiller- dig up too much soil too fast for intricate work like weeding in a bed.
The main function of hand tillers – weeding
There are lots of articles about hand tillers in which the focus is on well they dig up the soil, but in reality, the main function of hand tillers in any garden is weeding.
A hand tiller is not a big, strong, sturdy digging implement like a spade or a garden fork, it is designed to disturb the uppermost surface of the soil – usually not more than 3 to 4 inches deep. Anytime I have reached for a hand tiller it is not because I want to get the soil ready for planting potatoes – it is usually because I want to disturb the weeds somewhere.
Hand tillers are great for getting in around an already planted bed or row to agitate the surface of the soil – this helps to prevent weeds from establishing, without having to don a plethora of PPE or buy expensive sprays/chemicals.
How to choose a hand tiller for the garden
When it comes to deciding which type of hand tiller to buy – you should ask yourself the following questions
Do I need the hand tiller to dig up hard soil or is the soil well broken up? – if the soil is more compacted then you should look towards getting a full-size tiller to make your work slightly easier. If the soil is already nicely broken up perhaps a single-handed tiller will suffice.
Do I like to kneel to work or do you prefer to stand? – in this case, a single hand tiller is suited for kneeling and the full size is better suited for standing.
Do you need a hand tiller to disturb the soil on long rows – for example in vegetable rows or do you work around flower beds? For long rows, it is better to use full-size tillers such as star wheels, a flat hoe, or a loop hoe. If you tend to work mainly in the confined space of a planted bed, a smaller single-handed tiller will provide more maneuverability.
Choosing the type of tilling end on your hand tiller is a personal preference, but the single-handed claw is the most popular for small tillers.
For full-size hand tillers, the loop hoe is best for open-space weeding and the flat or pointed spade is better for working in and around growing plants quite accurately.
Hopefully, you now have a better idea of the type of hand tiller you need for your garden, all you need to do now is get to work!