Cultivator vs Tiller: Which Is Best for Your Backyard?

You have a dream of transforming your backyard into a paradise of vegetables and flowers, but there’s a problem. The soil is rock hard or heavily compacted.

In this situation, a tiller or cultivator is required to work the soil into a better condition. 

They will work together to break down the rocky soil in your backyard, dig out the weeds and chop off roots that make your yard barren.

This article details the roles of a cultivator vs. tiller, outlines their differences, and when to apply each to regenerate your soil and open up a world of possibilities for your backyard.

Tiller vs Cultivator: What’s the Difference?

In short, a tiller breaks up firm soil, while a garden cultivator blends the soil to a lighter tilth.

Tillers are large machine that claws into the surface of the soil and digs deep to break up soil during the initial bed preparation stages. It will also turn over any remaining plant material into the soil after the growing season. Tillers are more challenging to operate than cultivators due to their size, weight, and power.

Cultivators work better on lighter tasks. They don’t dig aggressively or powerful as Tillers. Their primary function is to carry out cultivation, so preparing the soil for planting. The cultivator breaks down clumps of soil and grinds them into a fine texture and adds air in the process.

Their less aggressive nature makes them the ideal tool for the final bed-preparation stages.

Many people use the term ‘tiller’ and ‘cultivator’ interchangeably, and to add to the confusion, the two pieces of equipment look similar, except for size differences. Still, their functions are different, and one piece of equipment cannot do the other tools work effectively.

Tilling depthUp to 6 inchesUp to 10 inches
Tilling width6 to 10 inches11 to 21 inches
Soil conditionLoose soil, weeds, and rootsHard, compact soil
Power sourcesGas engine or electricGas engine

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What Is the Function of a Garden Tiller?

A garden tiller plows, hoes, weeds, and crumbles soil, which helps improve soil aeration and prevents weeds from growing.

It also loosens the ground under the topsoil, thus assisting roots in reaching farther into the soil.

A tiller is suitable for large areas of 200 sq. feet or more and effectively turns over hard or rocky soil (virgin ground), making it ideal for creating a new garden.

You’ll need a tiller for:

  • Breaking down rocky or compacted soil
  • Turning turfed areas info planting beds
  • Creating a garden bed
  • Tearing up last season’s dead plants

Power and Engine Type

A tiller engine is gasoline-powered. Some tillers use a two-stroke engine, like those used in other outdoor power equipment. Two-stroke engines require mixing the gasoline with a two-cycle oil that lubricates the engine.

Larger garden tillers sometimes use a four-stroke engine, similar to lawn mower engines. Four-stroke engines don’t require a gasoline-oil mix and are easier to maintain.

You can power most tiller engines by pulling a cord attached to the engine to turn over the ignition, but some high-end tiller engines use a battery and electric starter.

Types of Garden Tillers

Garden tillers are available in three types; front, mid-tine, and rear tine tillers. Let’s address the principle differences.

Front Tine Tillers

earthquake front tine tiller

Front tine tillers have forward rotating tines in front of the machine, while the engine sits above or slightly behind them.

They have an adjustable tine width. Most have three tine width settings to help you till all spaces, from narrow spaces between plants to two feet wide rows.

The forward rotating tines pull the tiller forward, which can be an unnerving experience as the machine powers forwards under its own steam. 

It’s challenging to till the virgin ground with a front tine tiller because the tines skip over the ground instead of digging deep. Front tine tillers require more strength from the user to hold the machine static whilst the tines penetrate into firm soil.

These tillers are suitable for small to medium-sized gardens. 

Rear Tine Tillers

rear tine tiller

Rear tine tillers have their tines at the back. These tillers are typically more complicated and have larger engines, making them suitable for extensive gardens or rocky soil.

A rear tine tiller has drive wheels that enable it to move forward at a pre-set speed. The drive wheels hold the tiller in place to dig to the desired depth.

Rear tine tillers don’t run away with you like the front tine tillers because the drive wheels are in control of the tool movement.

They have variable speeds for hard and soft soils and reverse the movement to get out of tight spaces or double back over ground that needs more cultivation.

Their counter-rotating tines, as opposed to standard rotating tines, move in the opposite direction. The opposite movement helps in breaking rocky soil or cutting large roots.

Mid-tine Tillers

Honda Mid tine tiller

Mid-tine tillers are smaller versions of front-tine tillers and are sometimes known as soil blenders. They are light-duty machines that can weigh as little as 100 lbs. They function best in small areas with soft soil, like raised garden beds.

These machines are not suited for virgin soil because their small and light tines get clogged in the soil. 

Mid-tine tillers work best after a large tiller has broken down the soil.

You can purchase a range of garden tillers from specialist tools stores such as AMCE Tools.

Is a Rototiller the Same as a Tiller?

A garden rototiller is the same as a tiller. Its primary purpose is to break up hard soil using rotating blades called tines.

A rototiller also pulls out weeds, chops roots, and mixes compost with the soil. This machine is useful when preparing the ground for planting. 

Since you do not need a rototiller for regular garden maintenance, some gardeners prefer to hire one, so they don’t spend much on buying and maintenance.

mantis tiller

What Is the Function of a Garden Cultivator?

A cultivator is a smaller power tool that is best suited to perform lightweight tasks that keep your garden weed-free and thriving. Its main job is mixing soil and eliminating weeds.

Stirring and pulverizing the soil is done before planting to aerate it, which helps water and nutrients flow freely from the soil to the plants.

The soil is mixed again once the crops start growing, which kills the weeds and stops them from competing with your plants for the available nutrients and water.

Cultivators work around the plants without reaching deep into the ground and destroying their roots. They are convenient for regular garden maintenance and do not take up too much storage space.

You’ll need a cultivator for:

  • Preparing soil for planting on an existing bed
  • Pulling out small weeds and grass
  • Introducing air and compost into the soil

You can purchase the suburb Mantis Tiller range from ACME Tools here.

Power and Engine Type

Motorized garden cultivators operate by small two-cycle or four-cycle gas engines. They also operate through cordless or plug-in electric motors.

Cordless cultivators work without being tethered to a power source. Simply charge the battery and carry out gardening worth 45 minutes.

These units use lithium batteries and are quiet and low-maintenance.

A cordless battery-powered cultivator is ideal if you need to work more than 100 feet from an electrical source.

Can You Use a Cultivator as a Tiller?

Tilling and cultivating refer to breaking and turning over the soil to ease planting. However, they are applied in different situations and so are not interchangeable.

You can’t use a tiller in smaller spaces because it can’t maneuver through confined places. On the other hand, a cultivator can’t operate on rocky soil because its tines are not heavy enough to loosen hard soil.

A tiller may be more powerful but can’t be used in a cultivator’s place because it would loosen soil more than is required, and your soil mixture would turn out differently. Therefore, a cultivator can’t be used as a tiller, and vice versa.

Verdict: Cultivator vs Tiller

Tillers are heavy garden equipment that breaks down large or hard lumps of soil, a task not easily accomplished using a cultivator alone. 

Cultivators can’t break down big lumps of soil, but they stir and mix soil to aerate it and prepare it for planting. Their other weakness is that they don’t operate well in extensive gardens.

If you are wondering which is better, cultivator vs tiller, the answer is both. They often work together to prepare the soil for planting. Keep that in mind next time you’re gardening. 

FAQs Cultivators and Garden Tillers

Below are some of the most commonly asked questions about cultivators vs. tillers.