For any home gardener, it’s important to have the right tool for the job. Establishing a new garden or reinvigorating an old one means turning and working the soil to prepare for planting, and that can leave you wondering: what exactly is the difference between a cultivator vs tiller?
This already confusing issue gets gets even more murky when you see products labeled as “tiller/cultivator.” They’re both used for digging up soil, but there are enough differences between a tiller and a cultivator to make them two separate tools.
- A cultivator is ideal for mixing and smoothing soil that’s already been broken, removing weeds between garden rows during the growing season and working compost or fertilizer into the soil.
- A tiller is a midsized-to-large piece of garden equipment, and it’s ideal for breaking ground for a new garden, working very rough/difficult soil or preparing large plots of ground.
And take it from me- getting the right tool for the job is critical!
A few years ago, we decided to rip out some old bushes and landscaping along the back side of our house and reseed the area with grass. Add to that the heavy clay soil we have in our area, and the project was quite challenging. My husband rented a cultivator from the home improvement store, not realizing that what he actually needed was a tiller.
Needless to say, the cultivator bounced, bucked and was an overall nightmare to work with. It took a lot of sweat, time and frustration, and the final result wasn’t what he had envisioned. And honestly, using the wrong tool here created quite a safety hazard.
Don’t make the same mistake we made! In this article, you’ll learn the details of what differentiates a cultivator from a tiller, where each one is the right tool for the job at hand and answers to some common questions.
Let’s get started!
Up to 6 inches
Up to 10 inches
6 to 10 inches
11 to 21 inches
Loose soil with small roots/rocks
Difficult soil (hard, clay, rocky), moderate to large roots
Manual, electric motor
or gas engine
Mainly gas, but occassionally electric
Breaking new ground
Annual garden soil prep
$ to $$$
$$$ to $$$$$
What Is a Cultivator?
These are the key features that distinguish a cultivator from a tiller:
- Ideal for light jobs, including annual soil turning in established gardens, working compost/amendments into the soil and removing weeds
- Working depth is usually between 4 to 6 inches
- Tilling width for manual models is usually up to about 6 inches wide, and power cultivators are up to roughly 10 inches wide
- Narrow width can fit between garden rows or individual plants
- Usually capable of cutting through small roots and fine, shallow root systems
- Gas powered engines are typically between 20cc and 50cc
- Corded electric motors generally draw between 2.5 and 8.5 amps of power
- Battery motors typically draw 20V to 40V of power
A cultivator is primarily used to finely break up soil that’s already been worked to some degree, which is also known as secondary tillage. In other words, a cultivator is the second step in preparing new ground for planting.
A garden cultivator for home use typically has densely-packed tines between 4 and 6 inches long. This construction creates a fine, even soil texture for easy planting that’s highly efficient at working in fertilizer or soil amendments.
There are two main categories of cultivators on the market:
- Manual cultivators
- Electric or gas powered cultivators
Manual cultivators are very lightweight and easy to handle, so they’re perfect for turning and mixing soil in small, established garden plots or raised beds. They can also uproot stubborn weeds and loosen soil in tight spaces between plants.
Another benefit is that manual cultivators are much less expensive than their electric/gas counterparts, so they can save you some serious money if you’ve got a very small area to work with.
We’ve featured two popular types of manual cultivators below.
The Yard Butler is surprisingly effective at turning/mixing soil at few inches deep. And if you’re willing to put in the time and elbow grease, you could actually break new ground with this tool.
The Garden Weasel works on shallower soil depths, and it’s main strength lies in the ability to create a fine soil surface texture and light mixing.
Electric or Gas Cultivators
These machines are powered most often by corded electric or battery motors, and they typically offer between 2.5 and 8.5 amps of power. Gas-engine models are typically in the 20-50cc range; they’re less common but still readily available.
Power cultivators typically can dig between 4 and 6 inches in depth, and they have wheels and rotating tines. They’re much more effective for tougher jobs or slightly larger gardens that you just don’t want to use a manual cultivator for.
Below are two examples of power cultivators.
The Tazz 35351 uses a 33cc 2-cycle gas engine and sturdy tines for jobs that are a little tougher.
The Earthwise TC70025 has an electric motor that delivers 2.5 amps of power. Thanks to the corded electric power source, this one is ultra-lightweight.
Where You Should Use a Cultivator
For annual garden tune-ups and getting that fine, crumbly texture that plants love to sink their roots into, a cultivator is the ideal solution.
Diane Kuthy, a longtime Idaho homesteader and founder of How to Grow Anything, says she likes to fire up her cultivator for many standard jobs around the garden. “A cultivator is a great choice for lightweight soil tilling such as seasonal maintenance of an existing garden bed, breaking up grass and minimal weeds, and mixing together various kinds of soils and amendments.”
They’re also ideal for dealing with mid-season weeds between your plants or garden rows and working soil amendments into the garden.
Garden size comes into play here too: For raised beds and very small garden plots, a manual cultivator saves money and storage space. For garden that’s a little bit larger, up to 1,500 square feet, an electric cultivator is perfect.
Can a Cultivator Cut Through Roots?
As long as it has at least 3 horsepower, a cultivator can cut through fine roots, mostly those from shallow weeds and smaller plants near the surface of the soil.
But if you’re dealing with larger roots, like those of thistles, shrubs or small trees, you’ll need a tiller’s higher horsepower.
What Is a Tiller?
Here’s a quick rundown of the key points of a tiller:
- Ideal for heavier jobs, including breaking ground for a new garden
- Capable of cutting through clay soil, stony ground and moderately sized roots
- Working depth is typically 6-8 inches, with some models tilling as deeply as 10 inches
- Tilling width is usually between 11 and 21 inches
- Saves time and effort for medium to large garden plots
- Gas powered engines typically are 99cc to 212cc
- Electric motors typically draw between 8 and 13.5 amps
Tillers are machines that perform primary tillage, which means that they’re designed to slice into hard ground that has never been planted before. You could plant directly into soil after tilling, but it won’t have the fine, airy texture that a cultivator delivers.
The strong tines are typically longer than those of cultivators, and some can till as deeply as 10 inches into the soil. If your soil has a heavy clay component or you’ve got pesky deep-rooted weeds in your garden plot, a tiller makes short work of both.
Thanks to a total width that beats most cultivators by several inches, a tiller lets you cover more ground in less time and fewer passes.
There are two main types of tillers on the market for home gardeners:
- Front tine tillers
- Rear tine tillers
Front Tine Tillers
With a front tine tiller, the wheels or stabilizing bar are behind the rotating tines, and it’s the rotation of the blades cutting into the hard earth that propel the machine forward. The tines always rotate in a forward direction (also known as a forward-rotating tine tiller) and in the same direction that the tiller is moving.
Most front tine tillers can reach 6-8 inches into the ground.
This very beginner-friendly video from Helpful DIY does a great job of showing how the drive mechanism works on a front tine tiller:
Most front tine models have gas engines, although you can occasionally find an electric model. They’re smaller than rear tine tillers, and they’re usually quite easy to maneuver in the garden. Also, front tine models tend to be less expensive than the rear tine models, making them a wonderful choice for many home gardeners.
Below we’ve listed a couple of popular front tine tillers.
The Earthquake 20015 Versa tiller packs a lot of power, with a 99cc 4-cycle engine. Also, it carries some extra peace of mind with a 5-year limited warranty.
The Tazz 35310 has a slightly more modest engine (79cc) and the convenience of being able to adjust your tilling width from as narrow as 11 inches all the way up to 21 inches.
Rear Tine Tillers
Rear tine tillers are powerful pieces of garden equipment, and they’re ideal if you’ve got a very large plot of ground to work with or one that has tough conditions, like thick weed growth or stony soil.
These tillers utilize rotating tines that are situated behind the wheels. In this case, the tines work independently, and the engine drives the wheels to move the tiller (unlike front-tine tillers where the tines pull the tiller forward).
Rear tine tillers can be either forward-rotating or counter-rotating. Counter-rotating tines spin in the opposite direction of the wheels, which is more effective for cutting through roots and working in difficult soil.
Some rear tine tillers can go both forward and backward (also called “dual-direction”), which can save some time when you hit a particularly rough patch of ground that needs a few passes to break up. Rear tine tillers can also be pretty heavy and hard to maneuver, so the ability to have dual-direction can save a lot of wear and tear on your body.
Rear tine tillers are the best for working the soil at a deep level, with most digging down between 8 and 10 inches.
All rear tine tillers have gas-powered engines and large wheels with treads. Oftentimes, they have adjustable tine settings for different soil depths.
Listed below are two options for rear tine models.
The Earthquake Pioneer is a true beast of machine. It offers both counter-rotating tines and dual-direction, and the deep tread and no-flat tires offer excellent traction.
The Champion Power Equipment model also boasts counter-rotation and dual-direction, along with a 212cc engine and a 19-inch tilling width.
Where You Should Use a Tiller
Basically, whenever you have a truly heavy-duty gardening job ahead of you, you’ll want to have a tiller.
And Diane agrees: “A tiller is a better choice when you need more power to loosen tough soil conditions. I use a tiller when starting new garden beds in my rocky Idaho soil, when I need to tear through thick weed patches, and to break apart cold soil in early spring to get a head start on the gardening season.”
Choosing Between a Front Tine or a Rear Tine Tiller
To decide whether you need a front tine tiller or a rear tine one, keep these points in mind:
Front tine tillers are ideal for:
- Annual prep for established garden plots between 1,500 square feet up to about 5,000 square feet
- Breaking moderately difficult soil
- Tilling under moderate weed growth
Rear tine tillers are ideal for:
- Annual garden prep for established garden plots over 5,000 square feet
- Breaking ground that has heavy soil compaction or large roots/stones
- Tilling under excessive weed growth
Frequently Asked Questions about a Cultivator vs Tiller
Choosing between a cultivator vs tiller can be a confusing issue, especially since both tools have similar purposes.
To summarize: Tillers are your best bet for new gardens, tough soil conditions and large areas. And cultivators are your go-to for annual soil mixing, small gardens and working in tight spaces. With these guidelines in mind, you’ll always have the right tool at the right time.
We want to hear from you! Have you ever tried to use a tiller for a cultivator’s job, or vice versa? What was your experience like? And if you have any other questions about cultivators and tillers, feel free to ask. If you’re wondering about it, someone else probably is, too!