Spring is here again and it’s time to prepare the soil for whatever you intend to plant….Yesss!
Your goal as always, will be to have perfectly aerated, nutrient-rich and well-mixed soil.
This should be done with the intention of keeping your garden weed-free all season long once your plants are growing (good luck with that one!)
You can do both of these jobs – and more – with one of the most efficient multi-purpose gardening tools; whether you’re preparing the soil or maintaining it, the best tool for the job is a cultivator.
What is a cultivator
Ok, first things first, lets define what is a cultivator…..
A cultivator is a tool used by gardeners to mix and aerate soil, remove weeds, and in general create the perfect seedbed for many plants with less physical labour than using a manual tool like a spade.
In the broadest sense, a cultivator is a type of soil tiller. But while people often use the terms tiller and cultivator interchangeably, they are actually two different tools – each with their own features and purposes in the garden.
And it’s important to choose the right tool for the job. You wouldn’t use a chainsaw to deadhead your roses, or try to fell a tree with pruners. Knowing whether to use a tiller or cultivator will make gardening much easier for you.
While garden tillers provide the muscle, cultivators are all about finesse and fine-tuning. They are a less powerful tool, but they’re designed for light tasks that will keep your garden weed free, healthy and thriving throughout the growing season.
What is the difference between a tiller and a cultivator?
You can easily tell which machine is which, by looking for the following differences:
- The size and type of blades they have- a cultivator will have blades which are lightly made up and look like star wheels. A tiller has thick strong blades and are usually in an L shape.
- The positioning of the blades – A cultivator will almost always have its tines in front of a small pair of wheels which sit to the rear which are usually not wheel driven. A tiller can have its blades mounted in front of a pair of wheels or behind a pair of wheels – but the wheels will be much larger than a cultivators and may be driven by the engine.
- Size of the machine. A cultivator is a lightly made tool only really used for mixing non compacted soil or for using in raised beds or flower beds. A tiller is a heavy machine which is used in the garden to break up hard soil or grass.
- Type of power supply. A cultivator can be powered by battery, electric cord or gas. A tiller will usually never be powered by a battery or electric cord.
A cultivator (in terms of motor powered gardening tools) is the smallest size of a soil cultivating machine. The next size up is a front tine tiller and the largest is a rear tine tiller.
What is a tiller used for?
A garden tiller is a powerful machine. It’s designed for creating a planting bed in hard ground or cultivating rocky soil. A tiller is built for digging and mixing hard soil – for loosening it and forming a garden plot. It will come with one of three basic blades types:
- Bolo: for deep tilling
- Slasher: cuts thicker vegetation and roots in loosely packed soil
- Pick and Chisel: for hard and rocky ground
There are two main styles of tiller. The type of tiller you should choose depends on the projects you plan to accomplish with it.
Front tine tillers are usually the medium sized class. This tiller’s wheels are set behind the tines, making it easier to maneuver. Turning or reversing the front-tine tiller is much simpler than the larger rear-tine tillers.
These machines are ideal for the tasks that gardeners need to do year after year:
- Loosening firm soil in existing gardens
- Breaking moderately hard ground occasionally
- Digging some to medium-sized garden plots
Rear tine tillers are the largest size of hand operated machines. These are the workhorses – the larger, rear-tine tiller can be harder to push or steer, which is why they normally are wheel driven. But its weight can be helpful and even essential to provide the leverage needed to dig more powerfully.
If you’re planning to start a large, new garden, a rear-tine tiller is the machine for you. They are excellent at heavy-duty tasks such as:
- Breaking hard ground
- Loosening very hard or rocky soil
- Creating large garden beds or even small farm plots
What is a cultivator used for?
The cultivator is the smallest size of a motorized soil cultivation machine. You may see some brands calling it a mini tiller or a tiller /cultivator. Although their primary purpose is to prepare the soil for the plants that will grow there, they can also handle many other tasks in the garden, they are:
Improving and preparing the soil
The most common use for cultivators is mixing soil.
Over time, rainfall or foot traffic can cause the soil in your garden beds to compact. And compacted soil makes it difficult for plants to get the air and water they need to thrive; it can also limit drainage.
While heavier tillers may be need for heavily compacted gardens, a cultivator is strong enough to loosen most soils to prepare for spring planting. Using tines or disks, they break the clods of soil into smaller pieces. This allows air and water to penetrate into the soil and allows it to drain more effectively.
A cultivator is also ideal for mixing soils – incorporating fertilizer, manure, compost, or a potting mix to your regular soil.
Hand cultivators are especially effective at removing broad-leaf weeds. When their tines are applied to the soil at the base of the plant to loosen it, it becomes easier to pull out with its roots intact.
Using garden hoes or shovels can sometimes sever the roots, allowing the weed a chance to regrow. Also, the pressure applied on a shovel may compact a section of soil around the hole.
Larger, walk-behind cultivators are equipped with rotating tines designed to turn and aerate the soil. They are also especially good at burying weeds between planting rows, incorporating them – and the nutrients they contain – back into the soil. But be careful: cultivating more than a few inches into the soil or too close to your plants could damage their roots!
Ploughing and building rows
A cultivator designed for ploughing uses a wedge-shaped blade instead of tines or discs. The blade creates a furrow ready to accept seeds; when the seeding is complete, the shallow trench can be covered by the soil alongside it- sooo handy!
Choosing between a tiller and a cultivator
You might be wondering whether to purchase a tiller or a cultivator. While both tools are typically available for rent, depending on your project, it may be more cost-effective to buy one.
If you have a vegetable garden, which requires back breaking heavy digging- you should invest in a tiller – no question about it, think of the amount of time and effort it takes to dig your plots each year. If you have many raised beds or flower beds and will have annual and seasonal maintenance, a cultivator is the tool for you.
You will need a tiller to create new vegetable garden plots, but tillers are too strong to do the work of a cultivator. They will dig into your raised beds too much and end up tearing out everything.
Although the cultivator is excellent at mixing and turning loose soil, its tines are not strong enough to loosen and break up hard soil. A hand tiller is a great choice for weeding, but has a short handle so the gardener needs to bend or kneel at ground level to use it.
Tips for using a cultivator
Remember that cultivators work best on soil that is slightly moist – if the soil is too wet or too dry, it can be harder to cultivate. And cultivating wet clay soils can cause it to form clumps – this can restrict root development and should be avoided.
Cultivating between the plant rows is an excellent way to control weeds; however, regularly working clay-heavy soils can lead to compaction. Heavy soil should only be cultivated to mix organic matter or fertilizer into the soil or to prepare the seedbed for planting.
Typically, the higher the horsepower of your model, the more powerful and efficient the tiller or cultivator will be. The width of machines vary between 6” and 24” so you should measure where the machine will be used most often and then buy the correct width which will suit your garden best.