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Choosing a Tiller

New options in tiller design break new ground for the do-it-yourself gardener. Successful gardening depends on healthy soil. One of the best ways to maintain productive gardens and flowerbeds is to keep the soil well tilled. Tilling provides a loose, friable soil that will drain well and enhance richness as it breaks up the materials and allows better root growth. On small beds and gardens the soil can, of course, be broken up with a shovel. A hand cultivator or hoe can then be used to keep the soil loosened and to kill and remove weeds around plants. Powered machines with rotating tines make the chore much easier and are usually considered a necessity for large gardens. These machines are called tillers, cultivators or tiller/ cultivators. Tillers have larger, heavy-duty tines that can be used for initial ground-breaking and can often dig the soil to depths of 8 inches or more. These machines can also be used for cultivating. Cultivators are, for the most part, smaller machines with lighter, less sturdy tines. Cultivators don’t work the soil as deeply or as aggressively as tillers. Normally the digging depth of a cultivator is around 4 inches.

Tillers and/or cultivators are available in a wide variety of sizes, ranging from huge commercial-duty machines of 14 horsepower or more and a 36-inch tilling width to tiny mini-tiller/cultivators of less than 1 horsepower that cultivate a 4- to 6-inch-wide strip. Prices range from several thousand dollars for the larger units to just over a hundred dollars for some of the smaller units. The larger units require more storage space and some are harder to use, mostly because of the need to muscle them around. Smaller units have become increasingly popular because they are easy to use and lighter in weight.

Most tillers are powered by two-cycle engines. A number of manufacturers, however, are now producing tiller/cultivators powered by four-stroke engines. Although they are more costly, they offer several advantages, including less emissions a very important factor in today’s increasingly green world. The second factor is simply ease of use. Oil and gasoline doesn’t have to be premixed with four-stroke engines. They also tend to have less maintenance problems and are longer-lasting. Many of the larger-horsepower models are available with electric start. Tillers are available as front-tine, mid-tine or rear-tine models.

Front-Tine Tillers The rotating tines on front-tine tillers pull the tiller along. With this design, muscle power must be used to tip the tines into the soil to operate the machine. Muscle power is also needed to hold back on the machine to control the tilling depth, and/or push to propel the machine forward. All this is physically strenuous and makes it difficult for some people to operate the larger, front-tine tillers. The engine sits slightly behind or almost over the tines on front-tine tillers to provide weight. This design, however, is somewhat harder to use on the larger units, especially when breaking ground in hard, uneven or rocky soils. As the tines grab hard obstacles, they tend to jump or jerk the machine forward. Although, since front-tine tillers are shorter in length than rear-tine models, they can be more maneuverable in smaller spaces. Front-tine models are available in large, mid and mini sizes. The larger models will handle even the largest gardens, even in excess of 5,000 square feet.

Mid-size, front-tine tiller models have become very popular with suburban landowners. With horsepower ranging from 3.5 to 4, these mid-sized machines will easily handle gardens up to 2,500 square feet. Many of the larger and mid-size units have more than just one forward gear, in addition to reverse. This makes it easier to control the unit in hard soil by using a lower gear, and then shifting to a higher gear in softer soil. Reverse allows you to back out of corners or away from obstacles.

Mini-Tiller/Cultivators The mini-models are great for small garden spaces up to approximately 500 square feet. They can even be used for raised bed gardening or landscaping. Some of these models weigh less than 20 pounds and can be easily carried to the work site, or lifted into raised garden beds. All mini-tillers are front tine. Tilling width varies from 4 to 11 inches and some of the better-quality units have adjustable tilling widths. Some mini-tillers have a variety of attachments that can be interchanged with the tilling tines. This means you can purchase and store only one engine, and then simply interchange accessory tools as needed. Typical accessories include lawn edgers, dethatchers and aerators. Some models also have plows, furrowers and trimmer bars. Many of those units have transport wheels so you can easily roll them around from place to place. Some models have folding handles that allow for easy storage.

Mid-Tine Tillers Mid-tine tillers have the engine directly over the tines, providing more weight and balance to the machine than front-tine tillers. The cost of mid-tine units is usually greater in comparison to the same size and horsepower model with front tines. Because mid-tine units are still propelled by the tines, they are usually categorized with front-tine tillers. Mid-tine tillers are actually the most maneuverable of the models, and are available as both large- and mid-size machines. Front- and mid-tine units are usually more economical than comparable rear-tine models.

Rear-Tine Tillers The tines of rear-tine machines are powered independently of the forward or reverse motion of the machine. The engine sits well in front of the gear case, with the tines at the back. These machines definitely require a lot more storage space. Because they’re more complicated, and usually have higher horsepower, they’re naturally more costly than other designs. Horsepower ranges from 5 to 14, with 6 to 8 horsepower considered adequate for most homeowner chores. Although not quite as maneuverable as some of the smaller models, these machines are the easiest to use because the wheels pull the machine along, with the tines working independently. This is a real asset in hardpan soils or when breaking new ground, as the units don’t jump or jerk when they strike an object. These machines also make it easier to till at consistent depths. The drive wheels only allow the machine to be propelled forward at a set speed, regardless of the forward action of the rear tines. This means the drive wheels can actually hold the machine in place so the tines can dig the seed bed to the desired depth. Forward motion can even be stopped, and the tines will still dig. Compost can be power-tilled with these units, as the forward motion of the fast-turning tines chops the material and mixes it with the soil.

With these large units you can easily till and maintain a garden of 7,500 square feet or more. Tilling width ranges from 12 to 24 inches. A large metal shroud on the back of the tiller covers the tines, protecting your feet and preventing debris from being thrown by the rotating action.

Rear-tine models often feature both forward and reverse, with several forward gears. Some units feature more than one tilling speed, and some models also feature counter-rotating tines. The tines can be placed in forward motion for cultivating or when breaking up soft soils, or in reverse motion for breaking up hard soils. Counter-rotating tines, however, do not produce the consistent results of forward-rotating tines.

Due to the method of propulsion, rear-tine tillers are fairly easy to steer. You can start, stop, speed up and slow down, all independently of the tilling action. Some models feature swiveling handlebars that allow tilling without the operator walking over and compacting the freshly tilled soil. You can walk down one row while tilling the row next to you. Several manufacturers of rear-tine machines also offer accessories such as snow blades, snow throwers and sickle-bar mowers.

Another type of cultivator should be mentioned. Some manufacturers offer split-boom string trimmers or power heads to which accessories such as cultivators can be attached. These units are small, and are designed primarily to cultivate small, previously tilled areas such as flowerbeds or very small gardens.

Tillers are a fairly costly investment for a tool that’s used seasonally. It’s important to determine your needs — the types of gardening, landscaping or flower raising you plan to use the tiller for — before purchasing.

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