The terms rototiller, rotary tiller and garden tiller refer to a motorized tiller used to turn the soil for gardening. These gas-powered machines operate by turning a set of steel tines that penetrate the soil to a depth of 8 to 12 inches. Models range from lightweight tillers designed to till a small area to large pull-behind models used with tractors.
Front-tine rototillers feature a set of steel tines located in front of the motor, whereas the tines on a rear-tine tiller are located behind the motor. Each is powered by a 4-cycle gas-powered motor that may be 8 hp or more. Stand-alone models are designed for manual operation.
The rear-tine tiller features tines that turn in the opposite direction as the wheels. Featuring both forward and reverse gears, this machine typically has several speed options. Rear-tine tillers till the soil to a depth of 8 to 10 inches. Front-tine tillers feature tines that rotate in the same direction as the wheels. These tillers operate in a forward motion and must be tilted upward and pulled backward, as they do not have a reverse gear. Front-tine tillers turn the soil an inch or two deeper than rear-tine tillers.
Front-tine tillers require upper body strength to operate, as the tiller must be held back to allow the tines to adequately work the soil. These tillers tend to jump and bounce -– particularly when the soil is rough -– but are easier to turn than a rear-tine tiller. Although rear-tine tillers require less body strength to operate -- some models boast one-hand operation -- they are heavier and more difficult to turn.
Rear- tine tillers are more expensive than front-tine counterparts, ranging from hundreds of dollars to several thousands, depending on the model chosen. Those designed to use with a tractor cost considerably more than hand-operated versions. Front-tine tiller prices range in the hundreds.
For small gardening areas, the front-tine tiller may be the better choice, because it is lighter weight, easier to turn and less expensive. For large gardening areas – where turning the tiller is less of an issue -- the rear-tine tiller may be more efficient. The ease of use may outweigh the added cost. Upper-body strength of the user warrants consideration when deciding between a rear-tine and front-tine tiller. Generally, front-tine tillers meet the needs of those with small gardens that are tilled once or twice a year.