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Choosing a Rototiller or Cultivator

So, you’ve decided to get a rototiller! Or is it a cultivator? You’re tired of the shovel and hoe routine, or maybe you want to expand your garden enough that doing the work manually is no longer feasible. Whatever your reasons, the first step is to be clear about what you expect from your new tool. That’s because there is a variety of products that fall into this category and not all of them do the same things well.

Rototillers vs. Cultivators

... Cultivators (left) and Rototillers (right) are similar but different.

Cultivators (sometimes called “mini tillers”) are usually lightweight implements designed to turn over the soil in established garden beds. They can also be used for integrating compost or other soil amendments into a garden bed. The key point is that cultivators are designed to work with relatively loose soil, and not with earth that is hard and compacted.

Cultivators are narrow enough (6-16”) to be used between planted rows throughout the gardening season to keep weeds down. Most gas-powered cultivators feature smaller 2- or 4-stroke engines. For a small plot with loose soil (such as a raised bed garden), a cultivator may provide all the soil preparation required.

... Cultivators are great for working between rows during growing season.

Rototillers are heavier, wider (16-22” for walk-behind tillers) and have larger 4-stroke engines. The term “rototiller” usually refers to walk-behind tillers. Depending on the type, walk-behind tillers (see xxx below) are designed for preparing garden seedbeds and/or breaking ground for new gardens or lawn expansions. These more demanding tasks require more power, so true rototillers are a more significant investment.

A cultivator is the logical choice for those with smaller and/or raised bed gardens. Raised bed gardens do not ordinarily become very compacted from season to season. In-ground gardens are more likely to harden up (especially in areas with a lot of clay) as the topsoil becomes integrated with the lower layers. But if your garden is small enough, you can manage the occasional tough spot without a tiller.

... For larger gardens or breaking ground, step up to a rototiller.

A rototiller is the right choice if you expect to deal with a lot of compacted soil and/or if you need to break ground. For these tasks you will need a rototillers extra weight, width and power to get the job done effectively.

Finally, it is quite common for gardeners to own both a cultivator and a tiller. While there is some overlap in their functions (and some may choose to get by with just one of the two), the more time and energy you put into your garden, the more likely you are to want both!

Types of Walk-Behind Rototillers

Walk-behind tillers with forward rotating tines (FRT) are suitable for use in established gardens in soils that do not become overly compacted. The forward tine rotation turns the soil and propels the machine forward. The operator can make the FRT tilling action more aggressive by holding it back, resisting the tiller’s tendency to “walk” across the surface. Functionally, a FRT tiller is close to a cultivator with added weight and width.

Tillers with counter rotating tines (CRT) have the additional power needed for sod-busting or breaking up very compacted soil. They feature powered wheels to propel the tiller forward and work in opposition to the reverse tine rotation. Engines on CRT machines, because they power both the wheels and the tines, tend to be more powerful than those on FRT tillers.

Finally, a walk-behind tiller with dual rotating tines (DRT) can function as either an FRT or CRT tiller depending on the task.

Functionally, FRT tillers tend to be easier to use than CRT tillers, but they are also more limited in what they can accomplish. CRT Tillers, because of the “fight” between the forward-rotating wheels and the counter rotating tines, tend to jounce around during operation and can, at times, be a challenge to hold onto. But that “fight” is precisely what gives them the ability to break ground. A DRT tiller has the benefit of transitioning easily between the two modes.

Tow-Behind or Tractor-Mounted (PTO) Rototillers

If you have very large gardens, or food plots, you may prefer the convenience of a more agricultural style rototiller. Tow-Behind rototillers are CRT tillers with their own engines that are towed behind an ATV, UTV, or a garden tractor. They are typically wider than walk-behind tillers (~36”). If you own a tractor, a PTO rototiller attachment is another option.

... Rototiller attachments for off-road vehicles are twice the width of most walk-behind rototillers.

These agricultural style tillers offer several advantages for those who have gardens large enough to benefit from them (and the equipment to use them with):

  1. They are 2-3 times wider than walk-behind tillers so you can get the work done faster.
  2. Because you are seated, there is nothing to hold onto and no “work” to do beyond driving the tow vehicle.
  3. These units are significantly heavier than walk-behinds and, combined with the weight of the tow vehicle, it is easier to till smoothly and get a consistently deeper churn than with a walk-behind tiller.

Whatever type of rototiller (or cultivator) you decide on, you are all but certain to see a marked improvement in productivity. And your arms and back will appreciate the investment!

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