By Julie Christensen
Every experienced gardener knows that good soil equals healthy plants, but building quality soil takes time and effort. If you’re fortunate enough to have loam in your garden, the battle’s half-won. If you’re like most gardeners, though, you probably have clay, sand or even a mix of the two.
Hands-down, the best way to improve garden soil is through the regular addition of soil amendments, such as compost and manure. Green manures, planted in the fall and dug under in the spring, enrich the soil and improve texture, as well.
If you’ve got a small garden, you can use a shovel to add amendments and loosen soil for spring planting, but a roto tiller is the fastest method for getting your garden into shape. Tillers build and prepare soil for planting; they can also be used for weeding and making rows. Some large tillers can even power log splitters or clear snow.
What to Look For in a Garden Tiller
So, what time of tiller do you need? Most manufacturers suggest a mini-tiller or cultivator for gardens less than 1,500 square feet in size. Consider a medium-sized front tiller for slightly larger gardens. For gardens larger than 5,000 square feet, you’ll want a big rear-tine tiller.
Mini-Tillers pack a lot of power in a little package. Most mini-tillers are 2-horsepower or less. These front-tined tillers won’t break up hard, uncultivated soil, but they work great for maintaining an already established garden. Use them to add amendments, prepare soil, cultivate and make rows. Mini-tillers are easy to maneuver, making them an ideal choice for small gardens and raised beds. Most weigh 30 pounds or less. They also take up minimal storage room. New electric models are whisper quiet and eliminate the hassle of mixing fuel or checking the oil. Mini-tillers cost between $200 to $350.
Medium tillers usually have front tines and weigh around 100 pounds. These tillers can tackle heavier jobs than a mini-tiller, but are easier to maneuver than a large tiller. They work very well for breaking up most soils, but might need multiple passes in rocky or hard soils. Some take regular gasoline, while others require an oil and gas mix. Cost for a medium tiller is between $500 to $800.
Large tillers are the monster trucks of the garden. These tillers have at least 6-horsepower and can tackle serious gardening jobs. They chomp through even the hardest ground with ease. Large tillers are heavy and somewhat difficult to turn. They’re made for large garden spaces. Most have rear-mounted tines and guide wheels in the front. Some have tines that rotate in the opposite direction. Plan to spend $800 to $2,000 for one of these bad boys.
In addition to size, you’ll want to consider warranty, ease of use and maintenance when choosing a tiller. Can the tine’s width and tilling depth be adjusted? How much does the machine weigh? Below, we’ve done the research for you with our five top roto tiller picks for 2013. Here, you’ll find a roto tiller for every gardening job.
Roto Tiller Top Picks
Best Overall Garden Tiller
Our top pick is the Mantis Classic 4-cycle tiller, powered by a Honda engine. This compact machine weighs only 24 pounds, but packs a wollop. It won’t turn over hard, new ground, but it’s the ideal machine for adding soil amendments or preparing already established gardens in the spring. Adjustable blades till down to 10 inches deep or cultivate the top 3 inches of soil. Reviewers rave about the machine’s ease of use, durability and versatility. Many reviewers had owned Mantis tillers for 20 years or more. The Mantis comes with a five-year warranty on the entire machine, including the engine, and a lifetime warranty on the tines. Lawn edging and dethatching attachments are sold separately. An electric version is also available. Cost for the gas-powered tiller is $429. For a hundred dollars less, you can buy a version with a simple 2-stroke engine that is still CARB compliant with its emissions.
Best Electric Rototiller: 7 to 10 inches
The Troy-Bilt Electric 6.5 Amp Garden Cultivator costs around $229 and comes with a two –year warranty. Troy-Bilt has been making roto tillers for over 60 years and is known for reliability and durability. This machine won’t tackle heavy gardening tasks, but it’s ideal for cultivating and preparing established garden beds. The tilling width adjusts from 6 ¾ inches to 10 inches, with a depth of up to 8 inches. Best of all, there’s no mixing fuels or emptying tanks. Just push a button and you’re off. Because it’s electric, this machine is almost noiseless. Most reviewers commented that it was more powerful than expected and simple to assemble and use.
Best Medium Sized Garden Tillers: 12 to 24 inches
We like the Husqvarna FT900 for its reasonable price and ease of use. This model costs around $450 and has enough horse-power to tackle most gardening jobs. The machine weighs 100 pounds, but is easy to maneuver and turn. The front tines are adjustable from 12 inches wide to a 24 inch swath. The Husqvarna FT900 has a four-cycle Briggs & Stratton engine so there’s no mixing fuel. Reviewers found it easy to assemble and start. All Husqvarna machines come with a two-year warranty.
Experts and home gardeners alike appreciate the Ariens Front Tine Tiller. This machine has a powerful Subaru engine and enough horsepower to dig through hard soil. The Ariens Front Tiller is known for its ergonomic design and comfortable use. The tines can be adjusted to widths of 12, 22, or 24 inches, with a digging depth of 6 inches. Foldable handles tuck away for storage. This roto tiller comes with a two-year warranty and weighs 115 pounds. Retails at $600.
Best Large Garden Tillers: Our Top Pick
When you’re ready for a big machine, our top pick is the Troy-Bilt Big Red. This heavy-duty machine has forward rotating rear tines with an electric start. The engine has four forward, neutral and two reverse speeds. Reviewers love it for its rugged build and long life. Big Red comes with a two year warranty and costs $2,499. There is also a smaller 12 inch version of the Big Red without electric start that retails for $1,899.
Which garden tiller or roto tiller do you use? Do you agree or disagree with our picks? Leave a comment and let us know!