a Honda rototiller sitting in soil in a garden

What Does A Rototiller Do?

A rototiller is used to loosen the soil to prepare it for gardening. A rototiller uses metal blades, called tines, to dig into the soil and break it up. Rototillers are free-standing machines and can be either gas or electric powered. Rototillers can be either rear, mid or front tined.

What is a rototiller?

A rototiller is a gas or electric-powered walk-behind garden machine designed to break up and loosen the soil. Rototillers can be either rear, mid or front tined. While either can be used to till your garden, they function in different ways.

  • Front Tined Rototiller: A front tined rototiller has a set of forward rotating tines at the front of the rototiller. It requires you to apply pressure to dig the tines into the soil, and it must be held back to control the depth of tines while tilling. Front tined rototillers require more strength to operate and can sometimes bounce or veer to the side when they encounter rocks or hard surfaces. Front tined tillers are usually smaller and easier to navigate in small spaces.
  • Mid-Tined Rototiller: These tillers are slightly larger than front tined tillers but not quite as big as rear tined tillers. The tiller blades are positioned in the middle section of the machine to make it more maneuverable than a front tined tiller.
  • Rear Tined Rototiller: The tines on a rear tined rototiller are located at the back of the machine. You can set both the speed and depth of a rear tine tiller so that it will be propelled forward at a set speed. You do not need to hold back the tiller and can even set it to stop forward motion if you encounter an area that needs more digging. Most have variable speeds making them easier to operate.
rototiller tines
Rototiller tines

What does a rototiller do?

A rototiller breaks up and loosens soil via the use of metal tines. These tines dig into the soil as the rototiller moves in a forward motion. It will dig up weeds and roots and break apart clods of soil. It will also loosen small rocks that have risen to the soil’s surface during the winter due to freezing and thawing. This prepares the soil for planting.

Rototillers are also commonly used to ‘till in’ fertilizers and soil amendments as it works to distribute them evenly over the garden space.

Do you need a rototiller to prepare garden soil?

A rototiller makes preparing the soil for your garden easier, but there are other options that work well for small gardens. You can turn the soil with a garden fork or spade or use a hand tiller. The object is to loosen the soil and remove any roots, rocks, and weeds from the soil. Use a garden rake to smooth the soil and remove any weeds or roots you have dug up.

Can you rent a rototiller?

Rototillers are typically rented by the day. The cost depends on the size of the rototiller and the going rates in your area. Expect to pay between $40 and $60 a day to rent a small rototiller. Renting a large rototiller may cost $100 or more a day.


What are the benefits of using a rototiller?

A rototiller can be an indispensable piece of garden machinery, especially if you have a small garden.

  • Improves the Soil: Tilling your soil with a rototiller loosens the soil so that water can penetrate it, helps create air pockets in the soil necessary for good root growth, and makes removing weeds, debris, and old roots easier. The rototiller prepares the soil for planting.
  • Convenient Size: Rototillers can typically be used in small spaces where it may be difficult to use a garden tractor.
  • Easy to Use: Rototillers are relatively easy to use and don’t require a lot of experience to master. While they do require some strength to operate (especially front tined tillers), the average gardener can typically operate a rototiller without difficulty.
  • Inexpensive: Rototillers are relatively inexpensive to buy. A small electric powered rototiller ranges in price from $100 to $150. Gas-powered front tine rototillers range from $300 to $600, while large rear tine tillers range from $600 to over $1000.
  • Easy to Store: Rototillers take up less space than garden tractors and can easily be stored in the shed or garage.

Can you damage your soil with a rototiller?

Rototilling wet soil can be damaging to the soil as it may cause it to become compacted. Compacted soil may form large clumps or develop a hard crust over the top. Water cannot penetrate compacted soil and will typically run off after rain leaving your plants starving for water.

Additionally, compacted soil is dense and tightly packed and does not allow room for plant roots to grow. Seeds planted in compacted soil may not germinate or may germinate and then die due to the lack of moisture and oxygen in the soil.


When should you use a rototiller?

Rototilling is typically performed in the spring as soon as the soil has dried sufficiently. This prepares the soil for spring planting. Many prefer to rototill the soil again in the fall after harvest to loosen the soil and get rid of any weeds.

rototiller in a vegetable garden
Rototilling is usually carried out in spring before planting

Rototillers are also an effective way to add soil amendments to the soil. This can be accomplished in either the spring or the fall.

Some gardeners use a rototiller throughout the summer to keep the soil loose and control weeds between the rows of vegetables. If you intend to till between the rows of your vegetables during the summer, use care to allow sufficient room between the rows. Otherwise, your efforts to till between the rows may damage the roots of your plants.

Important tiller safety precautions should be noted before operating a tiller as they are powerful machines that can be dangerous.


When should you not use a rototiller?

Rototillers should not be used when the soil is wet or immediately after heavy rains. To determine if the soil is dry enough to till, squeeze a sample of the soil in your hand. Poke the ball of soil with your finger. If it crumbles easily (or fails to make a solid ball), the soil is dry enough to till. If the ball of soil is tightly compressed and did not fall apart when you poked it, the soil is too wet to till.

Likewise, if walking on the soil leaves a deep print, the soil is too wet to till.

Summary

A rototiller is a very useful multi-purpose tool that can be used to prepare the soil in your garden for planting or to incorporate amendments into the soil. It loosens the soil, removes weeds, and makes it easy to remove rocks that have surfaced during the winter. These easy-to-use machines make gardening easier and make it easier for plants to grow.