Cultivator vs. Tiller – What’s the Difference?

Cultivators and tillers are both designed to break and prepare soil, which is why they’re often used interchangeably. 

Sometimes, even gardening professionals with years of experience under their belts confuse the two! However, cultivators and tillers have two distinctly different purposes.

To summarize, tillers break hard, toughened soil while cultivators turn and mix loosened soil in preparation for new crops. 

In other words, tillers are garden creators and cultivators are, well, garden cultivators!  

In this article, we’re going to answer one of the most common questions new gardeners have: what’s the difference between a tiller and a cultivator? Let’s find out! 

What’s a Tiller?

Garden tillers, also known as rototillers, are mechanical gardening tools that help individuals break and aerate the soil in preparation for plants. They’re especially useful with soil that has never been cultivated.

Appearance-wise, tillers look quite similar to farm plows, except much smaller, and they can be pushed around by hand like a lawnmower. Their blades, powered by engines and motors, cut through the soil quickly and efficiently.

Tillers are larger and more powerful than cultivators, since they have to turn hard-packed soil and mud into loose planting soil. Tillers also yield more consistent results than cultivators.  

How Garden Tillers Are Used

Garden tillers are used for composting, soil aeration, and weeding. They’re also used to plow, hoe, and break soil into smaller pieces. Since their blades dig deeply into the ground, tilling soil helps crop roots develop quickly and reach farther into the earth.

Before using a garden tiller, make sure the ground is free from large stones and underground utility lines. If your ground has never been tilled before, don’t dig too deep on your first pass. Instead of pressing too hard on the machine, let it pass over the same ground in two different directions, or until the soil is at a depth of eight inches. 

For best results, use the machine’s depth regulator on the first pass. When the ground softens, change the setting from deep to regular.

Most tillers are designed to propel themselves forward. Therefore, instead of using pressure, focus on keeping the machine directed in a straight line. Move the handlebars from side to side for better forward movement. 

If you want to learn more, check out our post on how to till a garden.

Types of Rototillers

Garden tillers come in three different variations: front-tine tillers, rear-tine tillers, and vertical-tine tillers. While all three can technically be used for the same project, each tiller has its own designated purpose.

Front-Tine Tillers

Front-tine tillers are small to medium-sized tillers with tines that are positioned in front of the wheels. They’re the lightest and smallest kind of mechanical tillers, which makes them ideal for tilling closed and small spaces. 

Since they can only till a few inches down the soil, front-tine tillers aren’t suitable for hard, uncultivated soil. They’re also not the perfect choice for gardeners with a lot of ground to cover.

While not as powerful as rear-tine tillers, front-tine tillers are popular among hobbyists, DIY gardeners, and beginners. This is primarily because they’re lightweight, easy to use, and budget-friendly.

Rear-Tine Tillers

Rear-tine tillers are most often used by professionals and individuals with large, open plots of land. They’re large and powerful, making them ideal for large-scale tilling jobs.

Unlike front-tine tillers with tines positioned at the front, the tines of a rear-tine tiller, as you may have guessed, are situated at the rear. This allows them to move in multiple directions rather than just one. 

Since their wheels are engine-powered, users can single-handedly cover more ground with less time and effort.

Vertical-Tine Tillers

Vertical-tine tillers, although available, are less common among consumers. Their vertical tines, installed behind the equipment’s engine, spin in opposite directions as they till. 

This allows them to instantly drill down and forward through the dirt at their full depth, therefore minimizing fatigue and vibrations.

Vertical tine tillers are slightly larger than front tine tillers but smaller than rear tine tillers. 

What’s a Cultivator?

In contrast to tillers, cultivators rotate already loosened soil to increase its airflow and nutrient count. They’re also used for removing small weeds and stirring fertilizers into the ground.

Cultivators are either pushed by hand or attached to the back of a tractor. Due to their small size, cultivators can easily weave through existing plants to eliminate harmful weeds without destroying your crops. 

While they aren’t suitable for digging up the solid ground, they can turn loose soil even more finely to beautify your garden or lawn.

How Cultivators Are Used

Cultivators are used for mixing potting and regular soil together and working fertilizer, compost, or manure into soil mixtures in the quickest time possible. 

Since most cultivators have depth adjustment settings, they should be placed appropriately before they’re used. Also, the blades should be lifted several inches above the ground before switching on the machine.

After every successful pass, turn the machine off to remove any debris or chunks that may have gotten stuck in the blades. If you’re using a hand cultivator, you may need to perform several passes until the soil is sifted appropriately.

Cultivators and tillers are more or less used identically. Grip the handles firmly and guide them along the path without applying too much pressure on the blades. Don’t push them down into the soil, as that can cause the blades to grind together, which may damage the equipment. 

Types of Cultivators

The two most common types of cultivators are as follows:

Mini Cultivators

Mini-cultivators are designed for home gardens and smaller spaces. They’re usually equipped with only two or three tines, making them exceedingly lightweight and easy to control. Their small size allows them to expertly maneuver around trees, shrubs, and perennial plants.

Mini-cultivators are usually powered by gas, electricity, or a combination of gas and oil.

Electric Cultivators

Electric cultivators are ideal for large-scale projects and wide, open spaces. Since they’re powered entirely through electricity, you won’t have to worry about running out of gas in the middle of cultivation. Plus, they don’t produce toxic fumes or gas, making them environmentally friendly! 

Electric cultivators come in both corded or cordless options.

Tiller/Cultivator Combos

Buying a tiller/cultivator combo not only saves you money but also space. It’s the ideal choice for beginner gardeners and hobbyists who don’t want to spend more than they have to for their gardening projects. 

These machines allow you to dig up, aerate, weed, and fertilize the soil in preparation for your crops. However, since they’re a combination of both tiller and cultivator, they’re heavier and therefore more difficult to control and maneuver around.

Tiller/cultivator combos are often called dual-rotating tillers or cultivator tillers.

Dual Rotating Tine Tillers

Dual-rotating tine tillers (DRTs) are a combination of counter-rotating tine tillers and forward-rotating tine tillers. Although expensive, they’re one of the most sought-after because they offer high-end performance and versatility.

As the name suggests, dual-rotating tine tillers work in both reverse and forward motions. They’re a type of rear-tine tiller, which makes them quite large and heavy.

For cultivation purposes, dual-rotating tine tillers should be used in a forward gear motion. Although, for extremely compact areas, switching the machine into reverse allows it to cut deeply into the soil without much effort.

Tiller vs. Cultivator – Why to Use One or the Other

Choosing the right garden tool increases your efficiency and reduces the effort required to complete the job. To help you choose the right equipment, here are some scenarios to consider:

Starting a Garden

If you’re starting a garden, use a garden tiller, particularly rear-tine tillers. Rear-tine tillers are equipped with sharp tines that dig and cut into the soil very easily.

The blades found on cultivators aren’t heavy-duty enough to loosen hard soil, and even if they were, it’ll likely take you double or even triple the required time and effort to break the soil.

Reviving a Current Garden

When reviving a garden, cultivators are the best tools to use. Cultivators have the ability to pull out small unwanted weeds so you can replace them with healthier plants. 

They can also introduce compost, air, and other nutrients into the soil to help your new plants grow better. 

Size and Power

In terms of size and power, tillers beat cultivators by a long shot. However, this doesn’t mean that tillers are superior; their purpose simply differs from cultivators. 

Tillers are designed to break up tough soil, which is why they’re equipped with sharp heavy-duty blades and powerful engines. 

Cultivators don’t have the same power as tillers because they don’t need it. Their primary role is to simply stir up loose soil.

Mixing vs. Breaking up Soil

Tillers are used for breaking and loosening soil. Cultivators, on the other hand, are used for mixing and stirring soil to incorporate fertilizer, assist with weeding, and break up crusted soil ahead of irrigation.

Conclusion

Tillers and cultivators are two completely different garden equipment. While they both look quite similar, each of these tools is built to perform a unique function in the garden.

Tillers are best used with brand-new garden beds and tough ground. Cultivators blend and aerate soil prior to plant, thus improving air penetration which is vital for the survival of soil microorganisms. 

If you don’t want to buy too many gardening tools, consider purchasing a cultivator tiller. This two-in-one product saves you both money and space!

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