In the Garden:
Western Mountains and High Plains
April, 2010
Regional Report

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My choice of tillers is the rear-tine, which cuts deep and incorporates compost into the soil profile.

Understanding Roto-Tillers. Which one is best for you?

"When you plant your garden, it's best to plant in a well-tilled, enriched soil." You will read and hear this recommendation in my garden articles, radio show, television segments and checklists every month. But just what does that mean?

You recall that adding good compost helps enrich the soil by improving moisture retention and nutrient uptake. Now let's take a look at the well-tilled part of the equation.

To make it simple, tilling the soil fluffs it up which makes it easier for roots to penetrate and grow. Depending on what you plant, this translates into more robust flowers, greater fruit and vegetable production, and quicker growth response.

However, if you're going to a local equipment dealer or ordering online, it can be somewhat intimidating when deciding which size tiller is right for you. Would you better off renting one? Will those lightweight kinds do the job you need to get done? Here's my brief rundown of what to look for and consider.

The big boys of the tiller world are the rear-tined types. The tines, the blades that chew into the soil and mix it up, are located on the rear of the tiller. Usually powered by a five to eight horsepower engine, these heavy-duty machines are great for tackling hard-packed clay or rocky soils that small machines will just bounce over. Rear-tined tillers are supported by a pair of large, air-filled tires. They are self-propelled and are recommended when breaking new ground and for larger garden areas. Expect to pay $800 and up for a new one.

Front-tined tillers are equipped with two and a-half to five horsepower engines. The tines are located either directly under or slightly in front of the engine, hence the name. Many models will have a stabilizing rubber wheel in the front or back. The smaller, front-tined tillers are good for turning up the already loosed soil in vegetable gardens, flowerbeds, and other garden areas. Prices range from $500 to $600, depending upon horsepower and manufacturer. Used ones can be found, but it's a good idea to give them a test run before buying.

Among the most promoted are the "lightweight" machines. They can weigh in at 20 pounds or thereabouts. They are easy to tote around, making them ideal for the home gardener who tends to a small garden or raised beds. These lightweight models are best for the easiest jobs, scratching the soil surface of established flower and vegetable beds, weeding out germinating annual weeds, and mixing compost in to previously prepared garden areas. There are some models that have a variety of attachments including a lawn aerator, edger, and hedge trimmer, depending on the type selected.

So which tiller is right for you? Choosing the right tiller depends on the size of your garden and your tolerance to equipment weight and horsepower. Also consider how often you will be using your tiller. For now, I prefer a rear-tined tiller to work the soil deeply and work new or heavily-compacted soils. Over the years, it has helped me transform clay and rocky soils into rich, humus-enriched garden soils that support fruits and vegetables. For the smaller garden, you may decide on a lightweight model or a front-tined tiller.

Since tillers are not cheap, it's a good idea to rent or borrow one to get an idea for how they work and feel. If you plan to use a tiller only once or twice a year, you're better off renting one. Rear-tined tillers are more expensive that front-tined types, but are easier to control. Also, many tillers have attachments for other yard and garden work. Using a tiller for other jobs besides just tilling will make it easier to justify the expense.


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