Garden cultivators and tillers are often confused, and many times operate as the same unit. The main difference between a cultivator and a tiller is power. A cultivator turns a garden, gets rid of light weeds and is a maintenance machine versus a tiller that digs down deep, breaks up heavy turf or destroys heavy weed infestations. Choosing the type of cultivator or tiller you need is easy if you understand the limits of each type and what you can do with them.
An important consideration in garden cultivators and tillers is size. The proper size depends on the type of property and the intended use for the machine. Large acreage with a lot of brush and heavy root systems requires a big tiller with strong tines that won't bend under pressure. To dig up a garden area a smaller, home-sized unit will work well, and for edging or border work you need a cultivator and tiller that has attachments to do more than just turn the soil.
Commercial-sized tillers come with as much as 14 hp for maximum performance. Most home cultivators and tillers have two- or four-cycle engines that range between 4 to 10 hp, although some are available in higher horsepower ranges. Rear PTO (Power Take-Off) drive tractors with cultivator/tiller attachments are gaining popularity for large, rural acreage and big garden plots. Garden tractor propelled tillers have extremely high horsepower and are very powerful.
Front, Middle or Rear Tines
Front tine tillers need strength to keep the back end up and the front from nose-diving into the dirt. For property owners who use a tiller to regularly weed or care for an plot a front tine tiller penetrates well. It is harder for some users to manage a front tiller on virgin ground that needs to be broken and tilled.
Rear tine tillers do not always get as deep into the soil, but do an excellent job of breaking up soil and cutting through grass, weeds and other debris. Rear tine tillers are bigger, and usually have higher horsepower for doing large spaces. One of the biggest differences between front and rear tine tillers is the propulsion source. Front tine tillers are propelled through the earth by their tines; the engine merely turns the tines. The engine of rear tine tillers turns the tines, but also propels the wheels to move the machine more efficiently.
Mid-tine tillers combine features of both front and rear tine; the tines are the main propulsion, but the weight is more evenly distributed and the tines do not dig in the way a front tiller can. It is excellent for larger plots that are regularly cultivated.
The most common power source for garden cultivators and tillers is a gasoline engine. Smaller home units powered by electricity or even battery powered are gaining popularity as an alternative fuel source that is less expensive to operate. The drawback to electric or battery power is a slightly less powerful engine, and limited distance and time use.
Garden cultivators and tillers vary widely in cost depending on size and type, but the averages in 2010 run between $79 and $132 for a small, electric mid-tine cultivator; $299 for a gas-powered front tine cultivator/tiller; $2,500 for a heavy-duty 305cc 4-cycle rear tiller with electric start; and $159 to $2,000 for a PTO garden tractor attachment.