Garden Tiller Vs. Cultivator: What’s the Difference?


I have recently taken up an interest in gardening and was curious about the difference between garden tillers and cultivators. This prompted me to do some more reading to find out which of these tools I will need in my own garden.

What’s the difference between a garden tiller and a cultivator? Garden tillers are bigger tools that are generally used to rotate large areas of soil. Cultivators, on the other hand, are used for smaller tasks such as pulling weeds and providing upkeep on an existing garden.

The two are both essential tools that will most likely be needed at some point in order to grow a healthy garden. Although they are used for similar purposes, there are a few major differences between garden tillers and cultivators. When deciding which tool to use on a specific gardening project, it is important to know which one of these will work the best for the task you are trying to accomplish for the best outcome.

What Is a Garden Tiller?

A garden tiller is a mechanical gardening tool that carries out the functions of breaking up dirt and distributing them among all the plants in the garden. Soil naturally contains nutrients that help plants grow, but it can often thicken and group together in stiff clumps on the ground. The function of one of these is so important in this aspect because it opens up the clumps of soil to allow the nutrients to spread out and soak into the vegetation.

The appearance is similar to a large farm plow vehicle that is small enough to be pushed around by hand like a lawnmower. The blades are machine-powered and rotate themselves through the soil at rapid speeds to get the job done much quicker than if it were done by the gardener with a shovel. Depending on the specific type of tiller you purchase for your garden, you might be able to adjust how deep the blades will go into the ground in different areas of soil.

There are two main types that are most commonly used in gardens: front-tine and rear-tine tillers. Front-tine options are constructed with the blades, or tines, directly in front of the machine’s wheels. Just as the name suggests, the tool will move the soil in front of it in a forward direction. While using most types of front-tine products, you can apply pressure to a handle that will elevate the front end of the machine to avoid unnecessary friction between the blades and the ground as you guide it through the soil.

A rear-tine product is almost the exact opposite of a front-tine tiller. These types of machines are built with the wheels in front and the blades in the back directly behind them instead of the other way around. While operating a rear-tine, it is common for the blades to turn against the direction they are being pushed. As a result, this type of garden tiller will usually be able to reach deeper into the soil than the front-tine machines. They will also generally hold more power than their counterparts along with being able to dig further into the dirt.

Regardless of the location of the blades, they are usually placed in a certain formation in most garden tillers for the best results. The blades themselves are sharp and curved, with two pointing toward the back and the other two facing forward. This way, it is able to effectively cut through the soil and loosen it as much as possible. Even though many garden tillers will come equipped with these single-edge blades, they can also be replaced for additional functions.

Slasher tines, for example, are extremely sharp blades that can cut through almost anything in their path. This kind of blade would be perfect to use for clearing an area of soil with a lot of grass or existing plants that are deeply rooted in the ground. If you will be moving soil that is stiff or contains a lot of rocks, it would be most ideal to use pick and chisel tines.

These blades are thick and durable and have the ability to break up hard surfaces. Pick and chisel tines can also be used when the soil is hardened from heavy rain or the area contains a lot of gravel that needs to be removed in the preparation of your garden.

How Garden Tillers Are Used

There are several steps that must be taken before tilling your land to make room for your garden. Since the purpose of this tool is to rotate the soil in preparation for new plants, it is likely that you will need to remove existing vegetation in the desired plot of land. If you do not have the correct blades for this task or would like to make it easier on your tiller, this can be done by hand with a shovel.

To do this, you will dig the head of the shovel a few inches away from the plant and loosen it at a slight angle. Once this is done, it will be easier for you to pull the plant out with your hand. During this step, it is important that you wear gloves to avoid any kind of cuts or unnecessary scratches on your hands. Smaller plants that are already uprooted from the ground can be left in the path of the tiller to be chopped up by the blades and mixed into the soil.

 If there are any large rocks in the way, you will want to remove them from the rotating path as well. Although some may have durable blades, it is important to take away as many obstructions as possible to make sure that there is no external damage done to the machine.

Before any kind of tilling or planting begins in any plot of land, it is important to test the pH levels of the soil to ensure the plants will have everything they need to grow and thrive. These levels can be tested with a store-bought pH kit that can be completed very easily in just a few steps.

Next, you will need to understand what type of soil you will be growing your plants in. In order to find out this information, you can wet the soil with a garden hose and pick some of it up with your gloves. The soil type will be displayed when you form the handful into a ball and let it dry for the span of one day. When you come back, a loose ball of soil that slightly crumbles on the outside will indicate that the area is ideal for planting.

When you are certain that the soil is adequate and there are no obstructive objects in the way, you will finally be able to start your tiller. If there is an option for depth adjustment, this will be the time to set it accordingly. For the first time you move the tiller over your garden, the depth adjustor should be on the most shallow setting. You do not want to dig too deep and rotate the soil too heavily on the very first pass. After you have gone over the entire plot of land one time with it on the lowest depth level possible, you can move the lever up or down to suit the task.

It is vital that you wear safety glasses while operating a tiller to prevent sharp objects and debris from traveling into your eyes. You should also cover your body from head to toe and wear sturdy boots rather than open-toed footwear. Most will have a power switch that is placed on top of the engine. Before the machine is actually started, this lever must be switched on.

To start the engine, you will open the throttle piece to move the fuel toward the machine’s engine and follow up by engaging the choke. This will require moving a lever to the side that indicates the word “choke” and pulling the cord on the machine that will start the engine. The choke will no longer be needed after the engine has started, and can be disengaged once this occurs.

What Is a Cultivator?

A cultivator is an automatic gardening tool that serves the purpose of rotating and aerating the soil, stirring fertilizers into the ground, and removing weeds in an existing garden. Due to the significantly smaller size of cultivators, they are able to mix soil together more thoroughly. After the land has been cleared of any existing plants or hard objects and properly tilled, they will be able to run through the soil to prepare the garden for planting. Most run on gas or electricity, with both corded and cordless designs.

Cultivators are able to weave through existing plants in order to get rid of harmful weeds without destroying the desired vegetation. Depending on the size and type of the particular cultivator, it can be pushed by hand or attached to the back of a tractor. One that attaches to a tractor with two-wheels will usually be internally connected to draw power from the vehicle’s engine, whereas those for four-wheel tractors will simply be pulled along and rotate their blades accordingly.

How Cultivators Are Used?

Before starting up your garden cultivator, the first step will include checking the blades for any kind of damage or objects stuck in the tines. Since this step comes after the garden has been tilled, there should not be any large rocks or other obstructions in the path that your cultivator will follow along in the soil.

Most cultivators will also have depth adjustments, and this lever should be moved appropriately before you begin. To start the cultivator, make sure the blades are lifted above the ground and switch the machine on.

Just like any mechanical or electrical garden tool, it is important to protect your eyes, arms, legs, and feet with the correct gear. After you have successfully guided it through the area of your garden in one complete pass, you will want to turn off the machine in order to safely remove any debris or loose chunks of dirt or wood that might have gotten stuck throughout the blades. It is likely that you will have to perform several passes using the cultivator before the soil is sifted to your standards.

While moving the machine, always be sure to have a firm grip on the handles to guide it along the path without applying too much pressure onto the blades. Pushing the cultivator toward the soil can cause the tines to grind together and cause unnecessary damage to the hardware. For the best results, move your product in straight paths and slightly overlap the previous pass to make sure you have covered every inch of soil. Additionally, moving the machine over the same areas of the garden multiple times will grind the soil into a more fine texture that will be ideal for plotting seeds.

Do I Need a Cultivator or Tiller?

In comparison to garden tillers, these are much smaller and hold less power when moving soil. In fact, they are best used throughout smaller areas such as a planter rather than the span of an entire garden. Additionally, they will usually be powered by gas or electricity instead of running on mechanical functions.

When making the decision on whether to use a cultivator or a tiller in the garden, it will depend on the task that needs to be done. Due to their relatively low power levels, they will show the best results in an existing planter where most of the rearranging has already been done with a stronger tool. In addition, these can be used to pull weeds in existing gardens.

They can also serve the simple task of lightly sifting through the soil in order to keep a balanced distribution of air. In other words, they are essentially ideal for the maintenance of the soil and plants in a garden instead of the creation of one.

Tillers, on the other hand, are much more capable of the heavy-lifting tasks that come with moving around larger piles of dirt while plotting plants into the ground and constructing the actual garden.

While considering the difference between the two, think of kitchen tools as an example. Since tillers are powerful tools used to mutilate and lift the soil, they can be compared to an electric mixer. Cultivators, on the other hand, can be associated with a small whisk. Even though both of these items are used to mix ingredients together in a bowl, the results they provide are very specific.

To give a more detailed example, think of a bowl of cake ingredients with thick flour, eggs, and dry sugar. The task of mixing them together would require the power of the electric mixer because the whisk would likely get stuck along the way. However, the task of mixing together a bowl of scrambled eggs could be done by the whisk and wouldn’t require the intense power of the mixer.

While it is true that the power levels are different between cultivators and tillers, it does not necessarily mean that one is superior to the other. The two tools simply serve separate purposes and work together to make the task of gardening quicker and more convenient.

In conclusion, garden tillers and cultivators are both equally important when preparing for and properly maintaining a healthy garden. Despite the differences between the two machines, they will most likely be needed to serve their unique purposes at various stages of your gardening journey.

Related Questions

What is the price difference between garden tillers and cultivators?

Depending on the size and quality of each tiller and cultivator, the average purchase price can be anywhere from $200 to $500. Alternatively, you can rent one of these machines for approximately $20 to $60 per day if you would prefer not to make the investment. This option is ideal for those who will not frequently use one or both of the tools on a regular basis.

Do I need both a tiller and cultivator for my garden?

Although it is not necessary to purchase both a tiller and cultivator in order to have a healthy garden, the functions that the machines carry out will be necessary for the process of planting and maintaining a garden. More specifically, the rotation and sifting of soil will have to be done regardless of what tool is being used to do it. So, if you choose not to purchase either one of these machines or use one in the absence of the other, some of the digging and aeration will have to be done with manual tools by hand. Tillers and cultivators simply make the task of gardening faster than it would be with just one person doing everything by themselves.

Eyerly Family

The Eyerly Family is a family of 8 that loves gardening. Over the past several years we have been applying what we learn about gardening to our own 16x16 raised back yard garden. Our garden is very prolific and we grow a wide variety of vegetables which we love to eat! Click here to learn more about the Eyerly Family.

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