Although tillers and cultivators may seem to be the same type of machine, they’re used for different jobs. A tiller digs up hard soil before seeds are planted, breaking it into fine particles. A cultivator also loosens soil, but is used after a crop has started to grow and is mostly intended to remove weeds, according to the Agricultural Equipments website. Keeping soil well tilled and weeded is a key factor in maintaining productive gardens and flowerbeds, so it’s important to choose the right tiller or cultivator.
Cultivators and tillers come in various sizes, ranging from huge commercial machines with 14 or more horsepower to tiny machines with less than 1 horsepower, according to Extreme How-To. Tillers are large, heavyweight tines for initial groundbreaking. These machines can usually dig 8 inches deep or more into soil. Most cultivators are smaller and lighter machines with tines that are less sturdy. The average depth of soil a cultivator can dig is about 4 inches.
Cultivators come in three main varieties: the heavy-duty cultivator (a chisel plow), the intermediate cultivator and the field cultivator, according to the Government of Alberta website. The primary differences between these types of cultivators lie in the shank assembly. The shank assembly functions as the heart of the cultivator and is made up of the shank, the sweep and the shank protection mechanism.
Tillers are available in various sizes and styles; Power tillers are either electric (you plug them in) or internal-combustion-driven (you put gas in them like a lawn mower). Some tillers have special attachments for dethatching, edging, trimming and snow removal, according to the University of Illinois Extension. They come in rear-tine or front-tine varieties. Rear-tine power tillers, which are made for soil that’s densely packed, have counter-rotating tines and powered wheels for breaking up earth very effectively. On the other hand, front-tine machines are designed more for smaller landscaping jobs such as preparing garden patches and flower beds, Husqvarna says. There are also tillers that attach to the rear of a tractor and are driven by the tractor's implement power take-off, or PTO.
Larger tillers or cultivators take up more space and can be harder to use since more muscle power is required to maneuver them. Smaller units have grown exceptionally popular because they’re lighter and easier to use, notes Garden Tiller 411. Some smaller tillers even have folding handles, making them easier to store.
If you plan to use a tiller only once a year, renting one may be more reasonable than buying a machine, warns Garden Tiller 411. However, if you do decide to purchase one, find a dealer that will allow you to test it out first. Decide how much noise and vibration the machine makes and whether it’s easy to turn.