Use of a Rotary Garden Tiller

Richard L. Parish  |  12/4/2004 2:16:05 AM

Figure 1. Deep primary tillage with rear-tine rotary tiller.

Figure 2. Smooth soil texture and good tilth with deep tillage by rear-tine rotary tiller.

Figure 3. Shallow cultivation with rear-tine rotary tiller.

Whether you buy, rent or borrow a tiller, you will find that it has many uses. In some countries, particularly in Southeast Asia where farms are small, a rotary tiller is a general purpose farm tool. It can be a general purpose garden tool for you.

Some tillers can be fitted with attachments to do jobs other than garden tilling. Some of the small hand-held models can be equipped with dethatching tines or rotary brushes. Some of the larger rear-tine tillers can handle a snow/dirt blade or a middle buster (lister); and can have the entire tiller assembly replaced with a sicklebar mower, a shredder/grinder or even a generator. These attachments can be useful, but may not work as well as separate machines. You have to decide whether this capability will be useful for you.

Preparing the Garden
Rotary tillers can be used for primary tillage (working up the garden in the spring) (Figures 1 and 2), secondary tillage (breaking up clods and preparing the soil for planting) and for cultivation while the crop is growing. Under ideal conditions, one pass with the tiller may provide both primary and secondary tillage, leaving a good seedbed. Under other conditions, multiple passes may be needed to chop up existing vegetation and then prepare the seedbed.

If vegetation is heavy, it is often helpful to make one or two passes and then leave it alone until after the next rain before tilling again. This process will help the vegetation to break down. Primary tillage requires the slowest speed (lowest gear) available, but you can sometimes use a higher gear for secondary tillage. You should always run your tiller at full engine rpm and then shift up or down as needed.

Garden Cultivation
Tillers can be effective at cultivating around crops, and the cultivation can usually be done at a higher ground speed than you would use for primary or secondary tillage (Figure 3). Be careful to use a very shallow depth setting when cultivating to avoid damaging crop roots. It is best to avoid walking on the cultivated ground since weeds will germinate and/or re-establish better in your footprints.

Growing and Incorporating Organic Matter
A rotary tiller can contribute to the health of your garden soil by incorporating cover crops and green manure crops. In our climate, it is difficult to increase organic matter permanenly, but you can improve structure and tilth by incorporating vegetation and/or compost. A tiller can also be used in planting cover crops. After a seedbed is prepared, you can broadcast seed and then run the tiller over the ground at high speed and minimum depth to cover the seeds. A tiller is most effective at covering larger seeds such as peas. Small cover crop seeds such as ryegrass may be covered too deeply by a tiller; raking or dragging is more effective for small seeds.

Probably the most useful accessory for your tiller is a wide sweep or middlebuster (sometimes called a "furrower"). This tool attaches to the rear of the tiller (with the tines still in place) and allows you to dig a shallow furrow. Two adjacent passes with a sweep or middlebuster will throw up a raised bed, which can be important in many parts of Louisiana. You can then level the top of the raised bed and plant your crops there. The furrow from a single pass is ideal for planting Irish potatoes. You can then run the sweep beside the row to cover the potato seed and again later to throw soil up on the plants. You can throw soil on sweet corn roots the same way.

Tillers also have uses outside of the garden. A tiller can be  helpful when digging a ditch or trench. Just run the tiller over the ditch line to loosen the soil, then shovel out the loosened soil and repeat until you reach the desired depth.

Tillers are useful garden helpers. It is difficult to manage a large garden without one. Proper use can make your gardening experience more pleasant and productive.

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