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I'm getting ready to till about 1,000 square feet, but the problem is I have no experience buying tillers. However, I don't know much about buying them. What should one look for in a garden tiller that's appropriate for the size of my garden?

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up vote 6 down vote accepted

It depends on how you plan to use it. Are you going to till every spring? fall? Are you going to use it for cultivation (weed control) of paths? What's your soil like? Are you going to use it to incorporate soil amendments? green manures?

Where I'm coming from:

  • I use a ~35 year old (hand-me-down) tiller to maintain about 3000 sqft of vegetable garden, and a handful of smaller flower gardens.
  • A couple of years ago I borrowed a brand-new tiller to work one of the flower gardens (to compare performance to my old clunker).
  • I primarily use the tiller for breaking in new beds -- it hardly sees any use in mature planting areas.
  • In mature gardens, I manually work in amendments in the spring with a fork -- it takes less time and effort than using a tiller would.
  • We have very rocky soil (it would be more accurate to describe it as "gravel with a little dirt").

Given this, my perspective on what to look for:

  • rear tines (mine is front, and it's much harder to control, much more effort)
  • self-propelled (mine is not, and again it's hard work to shove it around the planting area)
  • a reverser (without this, when rocks get stuck in the tines, you have to shut off the machine and bang them out with a hammer; you may not care if you don't have rocks)
  • 4-cycle engine (more power and IMO easier to maintain)
  • get a heavy machine (I haven't used the little 2-cycle machines, but I can't see how they can possibly break up heavy soil to any depth. When prepping new beds in my garden they'd just bounce around on the rocks.)

If you just want a tiller for cultivation / weed control, you might look at some of the inexpensive little 2-cycle machines that puree the top inch or two of soil.

Finally, the reason I'm using such an old beast of a machine is that I can't justify the expense of a new one. As Mike Perry mentioned in his answer, definitely consider renting. In a normal year I use mine maybe 10 hours; most of that work would be done in a day or weekend. At around $1000 new, over the next decade I'd be better off renting a machine for $100 each spring (and not having to bother with storage and maintenance). Of course, your other alternative is to look for a used machine -- especially if you are handy with maintenance, you may be able to find a good deal on something that just needs belts and a spark plug.

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Great answer and even answered some questions I had locked away mentally. I'm in Galveston County, TX and we have very hard soil, so I'd assume that I needed something very heavy. Thanks for the tips. –  Robert Aug 8 '11 at 21:28
    
@Robert: I'm in the "Granite State"... hard "soil" by definition! –  bstpierre Aug 8 '11 at 23:45
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I own a pretty large tiller. The next step up would be a garden tractor with an attachment. Until my wife started farming on large property we really didn't use it that much. One thing to consider in the equation is the maintenance costs. If you hardly use it it might not be cost effective. A neglected machine is a maintenance issue.

Renting is a good idea until you discover that you are going to use it more than once or twice per year. Or better yet, become friends with someone you can borrow from.

For your size plot you will want one of the big rigs. Forget the little ones - you definitely need self-propelled with rear tines.

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+1 for the maintenance issues –  bstpierre Aug 10 '11 at 2:08
    
@Tim thanks for the advice. I do think I'll be using it more than once or twice per year which is why I originally decided that I wasn't going to rent. Renting with a U-Haul to carry from the store is going to cost me more than just buying (over time at least). –  Robert Aug 10 '11 at 17:42
    
Got it - then certainly go buy one. take your time - might be worth it to buy a used one. I have the Troybuilt "Horse" model. It would work fine for the size of garden you are talking about. You might also take a look at something like a cub or bolens lawn tractor with a PTO for a tiller. –  Tim Aug 11 '11 at 0:56
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Another thing to consider is the fact that your garden might eventually contain strawberries, horseradish, garlic, kale, onions, asparagus etc... some things you might want to keep from year to year.

This will reduce the tillable area in your garden by quite a bit.

Also, in the spring, you might wind up with parts of your garden that are too wet to till and parts of your garden that don't even need all that much tilling.

For all this and more, a gas powered mantis sort of gizmo is the best option in my opinion. Even if you get a big tiller down the road, you'll still be able to use the mantis to work up the bed after your spring crops.

In your smallish garden, you're probably not going to leave enough room between rows to run a big tiller, so you'll at most get one use out of a big expensive thing in your garage.

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Some things to consider and questions to ask yourself before spending your money on such a piece of motorised gardening equipment:

  • How often will you really use this motorised tiller?

  • Do you really need a motorised tiller for such a small area, 1,000ft² (93m²)?

  • If you do need a motorised tiller, it might be easier and cheaper just to hire from a local tool hire shop when needed.

Comment by Robert: I've thought about renting, but I wasn't for certain if it was worth it if I decided to expand (I've got a lot more land). For a trial run, I'm seriously considering renting.

Renting might be worthwhile (make a little more sense) for the first time or two, just to see how you get on, especially for such a small (experiment) area.

But if you have "a lot of land" and discover you have a real need for a motorised tiller, then buying one is probably the right way to go.

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I've thought about renting, but I wasn't for certain if it was worth it if I decided to expand (I've got a lot more land). For a trial run, I'm seriously considering renting. Thanks. –  Robert Aug 8 '11 at 20:13
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My in-laws got me this little battery powered roto tiller and I have been pleased with it, but I only have about 400 sq ft and sandy, easily broken up soil. Given that environment though, it easily works in my compost, and doesn't ever need oil cleaned off or changed, spark plugs changed, and a constant supply of fresh gas, not to mention the noise. You can probably get away with it for a 1000 sq ft garden if you have loose soil, but any more space or harder soils and you might want a gas powered unit.

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I'm being picky I guess, but that's not actually a rototiller. It's a cultivator. The specs on the web page say it has a maximum tilling depth of 4", which is inadequate for preparing new beds. It probably does a nice job of weeding and shallow incorporation of amendments, but the OP has heavy soil and ideas of expanding his garden in the future. This little device will be frustrating to use at best. –  bstpierre Aug 9 '11 at 14:26
    
Ahh, I see. I suppose I did just use a shovel to dig up the garden initially do a depth of about 6-8", then got the cultivator to mix in compost. –  psusi Aug 9 '11 at 17:48
    
Sounds like a good strategy. I do a fair amount of digging in my garden too -- when it's time to pick rocks, the tiller doesn't help much... –  bstpierre Aug 10 '11 at 2:06
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