If your garden gets too big for realistic hand cultivation, and is too small to justify a large garden tractor or small farm tractor, what you need is a rotary tiller. The tiller replaces both spade and hoe, and can replace rake and cultivator too, with a little ingenuity. A tiller, run shallowly between rows, makes a weed cultivator without equal.
Because of its versatility, the tiller is probably the most popular garden tool made today. But to determine whether you can economically justify purchasing one, you should compare costs and the amount of food your garden produces.
Types of Tillers
Tillers are either rear-mounted or front-mounted. With a front-mounted tiller, you push down on the handles to make it dig deeper, the same as the rear-mounted, though the principles involved are different.
When you sock the “brake” of the front-mounted tiller into the ground, the tiller can’t go forward and the blade continues to turn in place, going deeper into the soil. If the soil is hard, the tiller blades will bounce off it, causing the vibrations that after an hour or two can tire you out. The rear-mounted tiller won’t vibrate when the going gets tough, but if you try to force it to bite into tough soil, it will lunge ahead, dragging you with it.
The moral of the story is that neither type works well in very hard soil or in heavy sod. Here, as elsewhere, patience is the answer. Go over the area several times, letting the blades chew into the ground only an inch or so at a time.
In the case of sod, allow the soil surface to dry out some between passes with the tiller. After the first pass, you’ll have a mess. Cut through the mess the second time at right angles to the first working. Don’t try to till sod when the ground is hard and dry. Wait until spring.
The easiest way to till sod is not to try. Instead, cover the area with a foot of leaves in the fall and leave them there the whole next year. (You can set out plants, like tomatoes, down through the leaves if you want.) By the following fall, most of the leaves will have rotted away and the sod, too. Then you can rotary-till easily.
Tillers won’t always cut up plant residues on the garden either. Things like tomato vines and cornstalks will tangle in the blades, especially if the blades have dulled with use. It’s best to run a rotary mower over the patch to be tilled first if there’s lots of plant material on it.
Tillers will “disk” plowed soil very well. If the plowed area had been in sod, do not let the tiller dig too deep as it will bring sod back to the surface. Tillers will fall-plow or spring-plow garden soil that has been previously cultivated and do an excellent job of it. They will incorporate into the soil chopped straw, hay, grass clippings, or leaves exceedingly well, and as mentioned, they will cultivate between rows too.