Tillers: the power to turn the earth – garden mini-tillers

Tillers: the power to turn the earth – garden mini-tillers – includes related articles on lettuce gardening and on Soil Scoop digging tool

Turning soil ranks as horticulture’s dirtiest but most essential task. The act itself – the clod-breaking, soil-loosening clash of earth and steel – an be satisfying, but it doesn’t need to be backbreaking. It all depends on the tool.

For gardeners with more than a small area of earth to work, a mechanical tiller can make the job almost worth looking forward to: in two to three hours, you and a machine can transform a lawn or fallow ground into a garden bed. Then, after plants are growing, bring back the tiller every few weeks to eliminate weeds and make the earth more receptive to rainfall and irrigation.

These machines fall into one of three classes: mini-tillers, front- or mid-tined tillers, and rear-tined tillers. You can rent most kinds of tillers, although minis are scarce. For a list of manufacturers, see page 119.


Mini-tillers are the newest and fastest-growing class of tillers/cultivators. Think of them primarily as cultivators that can also handle light tilling. You can use one to blend manure into a vegetable plot, for example, but if you plan to break up lawn or virgin ground, a bigger unit is a better choice.

Most minis till about 8 inches deep and have a tilling width of 6 to 12 inches – about half that of full-size tillers. Because they’re small and have front tines, these machines are easy to control: you can get in close to fences, walls, and plants, and simply pick the tiller up and move it when you come to the end of a dead-end row (none have reverse gears). However, since minis are lightweight – most weigh in at 19 to 25 pounds – they tend to bounce when they hit hard soil.

Minis cost about $170 to $350; they are seldom available as rentals. The two-cycle engines run on a mix of gasoline and oil. They have enough horsepower to allow them to convert into other garden machines; with attachments, minis can become edgers, hedge trimmers, lawn dethatchers, and more.


Far heavier and more powerful than minis are the front- or mid-tined tillers. They offer a tilling path at least 8 to 12 inches deep, 10 to 36 inches wide, and can work right up to obstacles. On the downside, they take more muscle to operate than other kinds of tillers. Experience and good soil, however, make them easier to operate.

These tillers sell for about $250 to $1,050, with rentals running about $40 to $60 a day. Some models have a reverse gear, which is useful for backing out of tight spots; most have only one forward gear, with speed controlled by the throttle. Some front-tined units have attachments: aerators, finger tines for seedbed cultivation, and even furrowers.


When it’s time for such heavy jobs as breaking up sod, use rear-tined tillers, which propel themselves through the garden with the aplomb of small tractors. The biggest and best of these practically drive themselves, requiring little extra muscle from the user. Most have a maximum tilling depth of about 8 inches and a width of 14 to 34 inches. Because rear-tined tillers have wheels and motor in front of the tines, they can’t till right up to obstacles.

Rear-tined tillers are priced from about $650 to $2,000 (expect to pay at least $1,000 for a good one), rentals cost about $50 to $90 per day. Be sure to get one with multiple forward gears and a reverse gear, since these large units are not easy to push under your own power.

Good-bye lawn, hello lettuce

Pressed for space to start a vegetable plot, Donna and Ken Erickson of Port Orchard, Washington, cast a covetous eye at the lawn growing on the south side of their house. Basking in full sun all day long, the site was perfect.

Using a spade, Ken stripped the sod off the 9- by 30-foot plot, then tilled the underlying soil thoroughly. The existing soil was rocky and poor, so the Ericksons overlaid the area with a mix of equal parts of peat moss, sand, and manure, then blended in a complete fertilizer. Donna raked the soil into mounds about 1 foot tall and spaced about 2 1/2 feet apart. The mounds warm up quickly in spring, and the soil drains fast.

Donna sows vegetable seeds directly into the raised mounds. For cool-season crops, she plants broccoli, cabbage, lettuce, peas, and spinach. Next come beets, carrots, and onions, and finally, a late-spring planting of heat-loving beans, squash, and tomatoes.

Seedlings are hand-watered at first. Then, after plants are growing well, they’re watered with a hose-end sprinkler. Liquid fertilizer is applied about once a month.

TOOL TIP: Get the scoop on soil

The Soil Scoop makes you nearly as efficient at digging as a gopher. The general-purpose digging tool has a deep bowl-shaped head with a sharply pointed tip and serrated edges. You clasp it bowl side down for digging – just the opposite of the way you’d hold a trowel. It feels awkward for all of 10 seconds, then begins to feel like a natural extension of your hand. It’s versatile – use it to dig holes, create seed furrows, weed in tight spaces, and saw through rootbound soil. The Soil Scoop is made of stainless steel with a solid birch handle. Call Garden Works at (425) 455-0568 to order. The scoop costs $15, plus $3 shipping.

COPYRIGHT 1998 Sunset Publishing Corp.

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group