What Does A Rototiller Do? (Plus When You Should Use One)


If you are planning to start a garden, you may have come across the idea of using a rototiller to help you get started.  If so, you are probably wondering about the specifics of how a rototiller can help or hurt your garden.

So, what does a rototiller do?  A rototiller is a gas or electric powered machine that uses turning blades (tines) to break up and loosen soil.  This helps to prepare ground for a new garden.  A rototiller will also pull up grass, weeds, or small roots to make it easier to dig and plant in the soil.  A rototiller can even be used to till cover crops (green manure) into the soil to replace nutrients.

Of course, you may not want or need to rototill your garden every single year.  When you do rototill, you might want to hire someone to help you.  That way, you will not need to buy, own, maintain, and store a machine (not to mention buying and storing the fuel for a gasoline powered rototiller).

Let’s take a closer look at what a rototiller does for gardens.  Then, we’ll take some time to answer the common questions about rototillers.

What Does A Rototiller Do?

The primary purpose of a rototiller is to break up and loosen soil.  A rototiller breaks up soil with metal blades (called tines) that are turned by a motor.  This motor is powered by gas or electricity.

front tine tiller
The metal blades of a tiller, called tines, break up compact soil.

A rototiller is useful for loosening up compacted soil.  Your soil could be compacted due to flooding, matted roots, or a lack of planting and gardening over many years.

No matter what the cause of compacted soil, a rototiller can break up the soil.  This makes it much easier to dig and plant in your garden.  It also makes it easier to add soil amendments, such as compost.

Some rototillers are pushed from behind.  Others are mounted behind a tractor and pulled along.  Either way, they can save gardeners and farmers a lot of effort by eliminating the need to dig and turn up soil by hand with a shovel.

tiller behind tractor
Some tillers are pulled behind a tractor – these are wider and can till more ground per pass.

Rototillers come in front tine, mid tine, and rear tine varieties.  Each type of rototiller has its own strengths and weaknesses.

For example, front tine rototillers tend to be lighter.  However, they do not have as much power as front tine rototillers, which are heavier.

Still, many rototillers are quite heavy, and the bigger ones can be difficult to manage if you are not used to the work.  For example, some heavy-duty rototillers can weigh 200 pounds!

For more information, check out my article on how much a rototiller weighs.

You may also want to consider hiring someone who owns a rototiller to till your garden for you.  This will save you the time and effort of digging and loosening soil by hand.  It also means that you do not have to buy, own, store, and maintain a rototiller.

For more information, check out my article on how much rototilling costs.

Besides loosening soil, rototillers have several other beneficial uses.  Rototillers can:

  • Till “green manure” crops (such as alfalfa) under the soil, to help restore nutrients to your garden, including nitrogen.  For more information, check out my article on green manure.
  • Pull up nutrient-rich soil from below the surface, so that it is available for shallow-rooted plants.
  • Remove matted roots, such as those left over from a previous gardening season or from weeds that were cut off above ground.

One thing to remember is that rocks can damage your rototiller.  If possible, remove the larger rocks from your soil before rototilling.

For more information, check out my article on removing rocks from your soil.

A Rototiller Can Break Up Compacted Soil for a New Garden

One of the most important purposes of a rototiller is for breaking up soil for a new garden.  Most plants prefer loose soil, especially root crops like carrots that will grow deformed if they run into rocks, soil clumps, or roots underground.

deformed carrot
Carrots that grow in compacted soil can end up deformed.

Loosening compacted soil also makes it easier to dig.  This means that you will have an easier time digging rows or mounding soil, depending on what you are planting.

Finally, it is easier to work compost, manure, or other fertilizers into loosened soil.  This makes it easier to maintain the health of your garden soil in the coming years.

Soil can become compacted after many years of lying unplanted.  Soil can also become compacted if people walk over it, or if there is flooding.  Rototilling will help to loosen up this soil.

Another benefit of rototillers is that they can remove some roots from the soil.  As long as the roots are not too big and tough, a rototiller can cut through them – all you have to do then is haul them away.

Can You Use A Rototiller to Remove Grass?

Yes, you can use a rototiller to remove grass.  This is helpful if you need to tear up some of your lawn to make room for a new garden, or to expand an existing garden.

grass
A rototiller makes it much easier to remove grass, since you don’t need to dig so much.

A rototiller will help to save you a lot of work by ripping through matted grass roots and breaking the grass into clumps.  These clumps can then be picked up and removed with a wheelbarrow.

An added benefit is that you are loosening the soil at the same time that you are pulling up the grass.

If you want, you can also use the grass in your compost pile to give you something to add to your soil later on.  For more information, check out my article on how to make compost.

Without a rototiller, removing a large area of grass can be a real chore, since it requires time-consuming and difficult labor with a shovel to dig out small spaces of grass at a time.

Will Tilling Kill Weeds?

Yes, tilling will kill weeds.  This can be useful if you have a large unplanted area of your yard that is choked with weeds.

weeds
Till weeds under the ground before they form seeds, or you could end up with a bigger problem with weeds in the near future.

At the same time that you are killing the weeds, you are adding nutrients back to the soil, since the weeds themselves contain nutrients that they pulled out of the ground.

However, there is one potential disadvantage of tilling to kill weeds.  Although the parent weeds may die, their children (seeds) may live on.

By tilling, you may be causing a bigger problem with weeds later on.  Try to till weeds under the soil before they develop seeds.

Otherwise, you may be better off pulling them up and disposing of them elsewhere.

Can You Plant Immediately After Tilling?

No, you should not plant immediately after tilling.  You should wait at least a couple of weeks after tilling to plant your garden.

One reason to wait is that nutrients from plants tilled under the soil will not be immediately available to plants.  Many plants will take weeks or months to release their nutrients.

alfalfa
Alfalfa (Lucerne) is usually tilled into the soil to add nutrients back to your garden.

For this reason, you may want to rototill in the late fall, before the ground freezes.  This will leave the entire winter and part of spring for the plant material do break down and release nutrients into the soil.

Another reason to wait is that tilling can disturb worms and microorganisms in the soil.  It is a good idea to give these creatures some time to recover before planting your seeds.

For more information, check out my article on how to get more worms in your garden.

If you are worried about a short growing season, then start your seeds indoors to get a head start on the season.

Is Tilling Bad For Soil?

Tilling too often can be bad for your soil.  As mentioned above, there are a couple of good reasons to rototill your soil:

  • To loosen up compacted earth for a new garden
  • To get rid of thick grass or weeds
  • To till green manure crops into the soil.

If you don’t have one of these three reasons to rototill, then you probably should not do it.  This means that you may not need to rototill every year.

Should You Rototill Your Garden Every Year?

No – as mentioned above, you should only rototill your garden as needed.  That probably means once when your first plant it, to loosen up the earth, and then again whenever you need to till green manure crops into the soil.

Can You Till When the Ground Is Wet?

No, you should not till when the ground is wet.  This will make it more difficult to do the work of rototilling.

Even worse, it can result in compacted soil, which is the opposite of what you are trying to achieve by tilling.  Wait until the soil dries out a bit before rototilling.

Conclusion

By now, you have a much better idea of what a rototiller does, and how it can benefit your garden.  You also know that it may not need to be done every year, and that it may make sense to hire someone to help you do it.

I hope you found this article helpful – if so, please share it with someone who can use the information.  If you have any questions on rototillers, please leave a comment below.

jonathon.david.madore

Hi, I'm Jonathon. I’m the gardening guy (not guru!) who is encouraging everyone to spend more time in the garden. I try to help solve common gardening problems so that you can get the best harvest every year!

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