Garden tillers and tractors are labor-saving machines that make it possible for one or two people to maintain a much larger space than they could manage with hand tools. A tiller (the word is an abbreviation of "rototiller") can cultivate the soil, and tractors can be set up to mow, cultivate, and move heavy loads. It is important to choose the right machine, one neither too large nor too small for the job at hand.
Sizes of Tillers
Rototillers come in a wide range of sizes, from little machines that can be picked up with one hand to large, heavy, and powerful tillers with 6- to 15-horsepower engines. If all you are dealing with is a small garden bed, a small tiller may be enough. A large garden, ¼-acre or more, needs a more powerful machine that can till more deeply and produce a fine seedbed ready for planting.
Small tillers are very maneuverable, and will fit into tight corners and small spaces. Big tillers need plenty of turning room, and because they are heavy can take a good deal of strength to use.
Front Tine vs. Rear Tine
Some tillers have tines --- the curved, sharp-edged steel "teeth" that churn the soil --- in front of the engine. These are often less expensive than rear-tine tillers that have the tines behind the engine. Front-tine tillers must be forced into the soil, and generally require a bit more strength to use. Rear-tine tillers tend to be a little heavier, but because the tines are behind the engine they do not "buck" and can often be guided with one hand
Uses for Tillers
Large and powerful tillers are needed to turn unused ground into a garden. Grass and weeds have deep roots, and only a big engine has the power to chop those up and till the soil. Once virgin soil has been tilled, however, it can be maintained with a smaller machine. Some gardeners rent or borrow a big machine for that one-time groundbreaking, then buy a smaller tiller for regular use.
Properly used, following the manufacturer's instructions, a tiller can produce a light, fluffy and smooth seedbed without lumps and clumps. It can incorporate compost and other soil amendments into the top few inches of soil, but should not be used more than two or three times a year or it can destroy the natural structure of the soil on which plants depend.
Most garden tractors are set up and equipped to do one job --- mow grass. A riding mower is a wonderful tool if the garden has lots of lawn area. The mower deck can be raised or lowered to control the height of cut, and it's a lot easier to mow a big lawn while sitting down than having to walk around behind a mower, even one that is self-propelled.
Most small garden tractors and riding mowers can be used to tow a small trailer. This is useful for moving heavy loads around the yard. Spreaders for fertilizer and other amendments can also be towed behind a small tractor. This is less arduous than pushing a spreader around by hand.
One class of garden tractor is smaller than a farm tractor but bigger than the typical riding mower. These machines can also be used to mow grass, often using a mower deck that can be attached or removed. A variety of other attachments are available, from large rototillers to all kinds of spreaders, lawn dethatchers, even log-splitters, snow-blowers and snowplows.