Cultivator vs Tiller : What’s the difference? How do you choose one over the other?
What is the difference between cultivators, tillers and rotavators? Is there someone out there who is not confused by the various definitions? It seems that most retailers consider ‘cultivator’ as a generic term for rotavators and tillers. They often list tillers/rotavators in brochures/websites under cultivators.
It’s all very confusing. And by the way, a rotavator (UK) is the same as rototiller (USA). Some terms are rooted in geography so it can be difficult to understand what’s being referred to.
Intro | Cultivator vs Tiller
Husqvarna on the other hand makes a bold statement and says that a lawn tiller breaks up hard and compacted soil. Gardeners use a garden cultivator like the Husqvarna T300RH gas cultivator to mix up soil that is already loose. It stirs in compost or fertilizer, but according to Husqvarna, it’s not a tiller. So, what’s the truth?
Some others refer to a tiller as something that turns over and mixes up soil that is already loose. Another definition says a cultivator is generally more hand driven. They also make the assumption that cultivators have no wheels. The cultivator is driven along by the tines. Many small cultivators have wheels that you use for transporting the machine between beddings.
According to Collins English Dictionary a rotavator is a machine with rotating blades that break up soil. If that is an accurate description then a rotavator with tines are not rotavator’s, but tillers or maybe just a cultivator.
VIDEO | How to Use A Tiller
I have also read that cultivators do not turn the ground as deep as a rotavator, that you use them to remove weeds. Another opinion is that cultivators are smaller than tillers and easier to maneuver, they do the same work, it only comes down to size. Many refer to these smaller machines as garden tillers.
The more I try to define these terms in my mind I feel it depends on where you live, and what you grew up with. Shall we say a rotary tiller is a rotavator? Some cultivators rip the soil with spring tines and additionally use rotating blades to rotate the soil. Where I grew up with a tiller, it’s used to turn the already loose soil. You use a plow to turn hard soil, then you use a tiller to turn it over and loosen it. A tiller can have blades/spikes/spring tines or rotavators with tines or spiked disks.
For this article I accept that cultivator is a generic term for a machine that works the soil to prepare it for planting and sowing. A rotavator is a machine or part of a machine that rotates tines to turn over the soil. A garden or small holdings tiller does the same. A tiller can have the rotavating tiller in front of the wheels and then we call it a front tine tiller. With the rototiller behind the wheels it is a rear tine tiller. A tine is the part that is forced into the soil to break it up, it can be rotated or dragged through the soil. Tines are the spikes on a tool, rake, grapple, etc.
Champion 100379 | 22″ Front Tine Tiller
A spring tine tiller is an example of one that you tow behind a tractor or garden tractor. They have spring loaded tines that digs into the soil as you drag them. These spring-tine tillers are mainly 15-feet and wider, used for agriculture and dragged behind a tractor.
In summary then, you use some form of power to push or drag or rotate tines through the ground. This action breaks up and prepare the soil for planting and cultivation.
Our focus with this article is on the rototiller, rotovator, or rotary tiller used in the garden or small holding. Machines driven either by electricity, batteries, gas or diesel. It can be a walk behind machine or you ride on it. You hook the tow behind cultivator behind a two-wheel or lawn tractor and an engine powers the tiller.
Before we discuss the various tillers on the market let’s consider variations in how they utilize the tines.
Standard forward rotating tines rotate in the same direction the wheels rotate. These are good for tilling soil that’s up to five inches deep.
Counter rotating tines rotate in the opposite direction from the wheels. It makes them more powerful because they scoop up the soil like a garden fork. Counter rotating tines does a good job of breaking up tougher soils, with a clay content.
Dual rotating tines means that the tiller offer both options, the tines can rotate both directions.
Vertical dual rotating tines point downward and rotate in a vertical axis, like an eggbeater. This is a powerful option which reduces the tendency of tillers to jump around.
Types of Tillers
Electric tiller or garden tiller (garden cultivator)
Some electric tillers are front tine tillers with the tines ahead of the wheels and some do not have wheels. The electrically driver tillers have unique qualities which impelled me to list them separately as a unique type. Some distributors refer to them as garden cultivators and will be quick to tell you they are not tillers.
These machines are small, light and for the smaller garden where a cord and extension can reach the areas you wish to cultivate. Surprisingly powerful, these tillers can break compacted soil and work deep into the soil of an established garden. The Mantis 7250-00-03 three-speed electric tiller with a worm gear transmission is one such tiller. Electric tillers like this one offers the advantage it saves you a lot of maintenance costs. You do not have to fiddle with fuel and maintenance issues. It reduces noise levels to the minimum and starting it is always effortless.
The compact size of an electric tiller allows for closer tilling around obstacles and in small spaces. Mantis positioned the motor directly above the tines to add its weight to the downward action. They cost less than a gas-powered tiller of similar size and power. The Mantis tillers are easy to use, maintain and are more affordable than most tillers.
Electric tillers are lightweight yet powerful, with the immediate torque of an electric motor that enables it to break compacted soil. You can use it for any good cultivating soil like flower bedding and vegetable patches. It will work well in existing beds and it is powerful enough to break up and dig new ones.
Electric tillers such as the corded Mantis electric model is also available as a battery-driven design. Both designs have two speeds so you may choose the speed that best suit the soil you are cultivating.
You can turn the tines on this model around to convert it to a powered weeding machine. In this orientation the curved tines do not cut into the soil but scoops the soil, making it powerful in turning weed into the soil. It adds to the versatility of this tiller.
Mantis mounted the electric motor vertically on top of the tiller so it drives it directly through a worm drive gearbox. It puts the weight of the assembly over the tiller; it improves its tiller action and simplifies the design of the power transmission. The gearbox drives the shaft of the tiller directly, eliminating the need for belts and pulleys. It minimizes the components used and reduces maintenance needs. This is a dusty environment in the center of the action so you do not want the dust and dirt affecting working components. I believe this is an excellent design if executed correctly.
This machine is quiet, and you do not have to be content with gas fumes. When you store it after using it you merely clean it and inspect it for components that worked loose. Mantis offers a lifetime guarantee that the steel tines will not break. If it happens, they will replace it free of charge.
You can till up to 8-inches deep with the Mantis 7250-00-03 three-speed electric tiller and its path is 12 inches wide.
An accessory that fits some small garden tillers is a border or edger attachment. It is a wheel and hardened spring-steel spiked blade that attaches to the tiller. You will use it to edge the grass along the driveway and sidewalks. It cuts sharp, clean edges around paths, flower beds, and bushes.
Front Tine Tiller
Front tine tillers are good for breaking moderately hard ground and loosening firm soil. We use them to dig small to medium size gardens and preparing the soil with fertilizers and mulch.
Front tine tillers have good visibility of the tiller action, making it possible to cultivate closer around obstacles and in small spaces. Their tines are positioned in front of the wheels, with the engine mounted directly above the tines. They cost less than a rear tine tiller of similar size and power. One example of a front tine tiller with gas-powered engine is the Champion Power Equipment 100379 22-inch front tine tiller.
Front tine tillers do not have driven wheels but merely transport wheels. They make it easy to push the tiller to where you need it. When using it to cultivate the soil, you use the wheels to control the depth of the tines. On some models you move the wheels out of the way when tilling. The cutting action of the tiller provides the forward drive and reduces the effort to push the tiller forward. Turned sods and stones lets the tiller jump around somewhat but you can control it so it does not pose a serious problem.
Some front tine tillers can change the direction that the tines are rotated or you may turn the tines over on others. When you change the direction that the tines rotate, they scoop the soil up instead of cutting through the soil from the top. It makes the tiller more effective when removing weed because it lifts the roots, pulling them up. It breaks a hardened crust from below, aided by the leverage of the wheels.
The alternative of turning the tines around to let them push the pointed end into the soil still happens from the top. It is therefore less effective in breaking the crust or when weeding.
Unlike the 2-speed selection of the electric models you use the throttle on the gas-powered models to control the speed. You set the engine throttle lever at a speed that gives the engine adequate power, yet you also let it operate at the slowest possible speed. When you reach the desired maximum tilling depth, you may increase the speed for final passes.
Some tiller brands offer interchangeable blades of different shapes to suit soil types. You also find that some offer a furrower that makes plant rows, trenches and ditches several inches deep. It has the advantage that it forms straight, uniform depth furrows in the tilled soil.
Some has removable outside tines so you can reduce the working width. It’s useful when you work between rows. We can also fit crop protection discs to some. They look like small shields that’s fitted to the tiller shaft axle. They protect plants you do not want to damage with the tines of the tiller. Another accessory can be axle extenders to produce a wider cut.
The drive system that drives the tiller varies according to design. Some use a belt system, controlled by two levers, to select forward or counter rotating tines. The drive system can include a chain drive to rotate the tiller axle and tines.
The worm drive systems use no belts or chains but only the directly driven worm drive that extends down to drive the axle. It has the advantage that the whole drive system is enclosed and it makes more torque available to the tine axle.
It’s important that you maintain gas engines regularly and ensure gas lines are clear, otherwise it will be hard to start. They use two stroke engines and four stroke engines. With the two-stroke engine you have the additional trouble of mixing the fuel and oil. On some brands an electric starter is available, either as an accessory that you use or as a fitting. On some models they offer adjustable control handles that lets you move the tines up and down and from side to side. It offers more control over the tilling process. The extra width of the front tine gas powered tillers means you do fewer passes to prepare the soil.
The front tine tiller is perfect for turning soil in medium and larger gardens. You will use it to mix in compost and loosen soil that helps water to reach plant roots.
Rear Tine Tiller
Rear-tine tillers are bigger, heavier and more difficult to push and steer than the front tine tillers. These tillers are excellent machines for the work you need to do when starting a large new garden plot. Rear tine tillers are more powerful than front tine tillers. Gas rear tine tillers are self-propelled, some with two or even three speeds. They have powerful gas engines that drive both the tines and wheels. They use bigger, heavy duty wheels fitted with pneumatic tires with grips for good traction. The tiller is behind the wheels and a shield over the tiller axle protects the operator.
Rear Tine Tiller | Southland SRTT196E
They are sturdier, heavier machines which you can use to tackle heavier ground and soils. Even for breaking up previously uncultivated ground such as lawns. Because of its powerful action it turns the soil into cultivated beds or a working vegetable plot. The gas-powered engines vary from just under 200cc to 270cc in size. The powerful engines enable them to cultivate a path up to 20 inches wide.
The tilling depth is in the range from 6 inches to 10 inches deep. Most rear-tine tillers have counter rotating tines to loosen hard or rocky soil. Counter-rotating tines rotate the opposite direction to the wheels, with the curved part of the blades scooping into the soil. Rather than with the curved blades cutting into the soil from the top. Contra-rotating tines let the tiller dig deeper and break up ground more effectively.
This contra-rotation throws the soil forward. The tines cut into the sods more than once, creating a finer tilth, ideal for planting and seeding. Some gas-engine rear tine tillers have tines that revolve both directions, offering better flexibility in cultivating, that includes lighter soil maintenance.
VIDEO | Southland SRTT196E Rear Tine Tiller
One of the few dual rotating tillers on the market is the Husqvarna TR317D. It has a sturdy frame and sealed transmission with a working depth of 6.5 inches.
You will find rear tine tiller accessories such as a furrower, used for planting furrows and raised beds with no effort. It also hills corn, potatoes and more. Another attachment worth mentioning is an aerator attachment. These attachments look like spiked disks that replaces the tines. Their purpose is to reduce soil compaction and let air and water in. It promotes the easy absorption of water, oxygen and nutrients in the soil and a healthier lawn.
Tow behind tiller
I will focus on the tow-behind tiller with rotating tines, not the spring tines. You can choose between two types of tow-behind rotating tillers. Either a power take-off from the tractor or one that has its own engine.
The Agri-Fab 45-0308 (see below) tow-behind tiller is one such example. It has a powerful Briggs & Stratton engine that will power through any soil condition. The Agri-Fab has a 36-inch tilling width, and the tines rotate forward so it cuts into the ground from the top down. You can adjust the tiller to set the tines 1.5-in to 5.5 inches deep. This model has six double edge, heavy duty steel tines of 11 inches long. The operator controls used to raise and lower the tiller is conveniently close behind the driver. The universal pin-type hitch attaches to lawn and garden tractors with at least 12 HP. You need none additional equipment.
Because the engine need not power a forward drive, it uses all its power to rotate the tines. It is therefore possible to make the tow-behind tiller wider and it can cut deeper than most garden tillers. Conversely, the tiller with its tractor is larger, this one is definitely for open spaces, where it’s used to cultivate large areas.
It will handle any arable soil. The tines are more widely set apart so that rocks will not easily get embedded between them.
The tow behind tillers do not have selectable speeds. If you need to, it may be possible to set the speed on the motor to run a little slower. There is a constraint that gas engines lose power when you lower the speed but the usable range is wide enough.
When selecting a tow behind tiller, keep in mind that the distance you will tow it may put a lot of wear on the wheels. Make sure it has sturdy wheels with good tires. It must be able to withstand the terrain you wish to cultivate.
The maintenance on a tow behind tiller is the same as for any gas-powered tiller. You need to run the engine dry before you store the tiller. Another task is to service the engine according to the regular maintenance schedule and it needs regular top-ups of oil and gas. Remember that it’s important that you read all the manufacturer instructions and follow them closely. You must clean and sharpen the tines between uses. You must make sure you have adequate storage space for this rather large tiller. Tow behind tillers can take up more room than the garden tractor.
Vertical tine tiller
The Bronco Axis Model No. 21A-70M8711 vertical-tine tiller has a smooth, fast tilling action unlike the other horizontal axis tillers. It has two vertical axis tines that work together like an eggbeater, spinning in opposite directions. They mounted the tines vertically so you can let them drill into the ground. Then you till forward through the dirt like any tiller but even at their full depth. This vertically driven counter rotating motion minimizes vibrations, bucking or jumping.
The Bronco has a one hand operation; you walk on solid ground to one side but behind, not on freshly tilled soil. As one user reported, the tiller makes a seedbed in one pass. He warns that it doesn’t till as fast as the conventional tiller, but the one pass action makes it more efficient. If you have a lot of weeds you may need to do a second pass.
Many users report that it eliminates clumps and uneven soil in beds and produces smooth soil ready for seeding or planting. This machine seems very successful, it has one forward speed and power drive reverse through its 13-inch agricultural style tires. It has a 16-inch tilling width and its tilling depth it is adjustable up to 6.5 inches.
Maintaining it seems the same as all the other tillers. I notice the driving components are pretty well protected, and it exposes only the tines to the dirt. Cleaning the tines is as important though, and you will have to check bolts and screws for proper tightness. You will need to visually inspect the machine for any damage after each incident and during maintenance.