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Tiller vs Cultivator: Differences and Which You Need

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Roto tillers and cultivators are not one and the same. They are somewhat similar in concept and design so you wouldn’t be alone in thinking it. In fact, there is no shortage of gardening professionals who use the terms interchangeably.

This guide clears the air, taking you through their differences in construction, design, and uses among others. What’s more, after the differences, there is a short summary to assist you to find out which of the two you need for your garden. But first, a quick glance into the similarities that have been causing all this controversy is warranted.


  1. They both use metal blades to dig into the soil.
  2. They both work with gasoline or electricity.
  3. They have the same general shape, with the cultivator looking like a scaled-down version of the rototiller.


1. Construction and Design

A rototiller is larger than a cultivator. The most common models are gasoline powered because they require too much power to run on electricity and/or battery. It has a set of large tires with a huge engine between them. The metal tines are located at the front or the back depending on the type as discussed below. These tines are made of heavy-duty material to prevent breaking when as you cut through hard ground and balled up soil. Their fast rotation poses some danger so they tines have a protective guard over them to protect you from an accident.

Due to the stress and the effort these units put to ground, a roto tiller uses a 4-cycle engine. It delivers more power and you won’t have to mix oil and gasoline to use it.

A cultivator is smaller, hence easier to maneuver than a tiller. It measures almost the same size as a standard lawnmower. Its also has metal tines like the rototiller, but they are not covered with a guard.

They are of four types, with each having the tines connected to the frame using clamps. The clamps allow you to adjust the distance between the tines depending on your gardening needs. Both the electric and gas-powered models are very common as they do not have huge power requirements. The electric ones are available in corded and cordless models. The gas-powered models run on the smallest engines – the two-stroke. This means you will need to mix oil and gasoline in the right proportions in order to get it up and running.

2. Types

Types of Cultivators

A. Spring tine cultivator

The feature that sets this one apart from the rest on this list is the use of heavy duty springs. When the shovel comes into contact with something hard, the springs prevent the tines from breaking. It is of the mounted type and excels whether used in wet or dry soils. By adjusting the tines in crops with wider rows, you can also use it for interculture.

B. Rigid tine cultivator

This is a tractor mounted unit with a frame made of shovels, U clamps, rigid tines, and box section. The tines can be adjusted thanks to the use of clamps. This makes it usable for both narrow and wide rows. The sturdy shovels are made from low alloy steel, tempered and hardened for durability. They are mounted to the tines with fasteners so they can be replaced when they wear out or become dull. The hydraulic system of the tractor determines how deep you cultivate.

This type of cultivator is ideal for both shallow and deep cultivation. You can use it to till if you have a small garden that would be impractical to use a rototiller in.

C. Rigid tine shovel type cultivator

These are the most common types used in agricultural operations. They consist of a rectangular frame which holds the sturdy tines. There are reversible shovels attached at the ends of the heavy-duty tines with hitch assembly and fasteners. The distance between the tines is adjustable to match different row sizes.

This type is ideal for soil aeration, subsoil cultivation and preparing the seedbed.

D. Bar point (mounted type) cultivator

Bar point cultivators are operated by tractors. Its tines are mounted on a rectangular steel frame and have bar points attached to their ends. The bar points can be easily replaced when they wear out. If you want to use it for interculture or shallow cultivation, you can attach duck foot shovels in place of the bar points.

Types of Rototillers

The types of roto tillers are defined by the location of the tines and how they till.

A. Front-tine Tillers

This type of rototiller has a pair of tines in front of the wheels, right beneath the engine. Though more powerful than cultivators, they fall behind when compared to the other types of tillers. They are easy to maneuver and excel in narrow rows. It is very simple to push, reverse, or turn them. They are quite hard to break new ground by making them ideal for firm, but not solid ground.

Their small and compact design makes it easy to transport and store.

B. Rear-tine Tillers

These are the most powerful types, and very handy when you want to break new solid ground. They are significantly larger, more powerful, and tougher than front-tine tillers. Although their size and weight reduce maneuverability, it serves as an advantage when you are working on very hard ground over a large area.

Their design features huge front wheels with tines behind the engine. Some models come with the wheels rotating forward, others with rotating counter. Latest models allow you to select the motion depending on your intended results. Forward-rotating models tend to churn shallower than counter-rotating models.

C. Vertical-tine Tillers

These rototillers are relatively new but they are catching up pretty fast. Instead of cutting downwards through the soil as the other models do, they cut forward. As a result, they are much faster whether you are breaking new ground or stirring soil.

3. Uses

Uses of Tillers

Tillers are typically used at the beginning of the year to make the gardens ready to plant. They are ideal for this because the heavy-duty tines allow them to till large areas and new ones fast. The heavyweight design of the rear-tine tillers minimizes the amount of effort you need to put in. Additionally, the option of choosing the tine rotation direction allows you to achieve different results for different soil hardness. The forward movement is best when you only want to churn the top few inches while the counter rotation is for when you want to go as deep as possible.

This churning of the soil allows aeration, kills weeds, and breaks up large soil deposits. Most people do this tilling about two weeks before the planting date. This allows the soil to heal because the tilling process disturbs various beneficial microorganisms.

Tilling is also done after harvesting to mix all the leftovers into the soil for nutrients. You can also add yard compost and other manure.

Uses of Cultivators

You will need a cultivator only when the plans have started sprouting. These machines do not churn as deep as the rototillers and are only capable of loosening the soil. You cannot use them to break hard or new ground.

Thanks to their small design, they are commonly used between rows to eliminate the weeds and keep the soil aerated. They can also be used before planting to blend the soil, or for mixing fertilizer and compost into the soil.

Other uses of cultivators include:

  1. Preparing the mulch on the surface to conserve moisture.
  2. Building rows.
  3. When fitted with the proper attachments, it can sow seeds.
  4. Preventing surface evaporation.
  5. Encourage fast water absorption into the soil.

Tiller or Cultivator?

From the above, you may have seen that there are some areas where you can use the cultivator in place of a rototiller and a rototiller in place of a cultivator. For instance, if you have a large area that you need to stir up soil for planting, a front-tine rototiller will function just as good and faster than a cultivator.

However, there is a possibility of making the wrong judgment. It is for this reason that you need to consider the following few factors before making the final decision.

1. Use

The uses section makes it clear on how and when each of them is used. One thing to keep in mind is if you are going to break the ground only once, you should consider renting one out for a fraction of the price. Powerful tillers are quite pricey and a single use doesn’t justify the price.

2. Soil type

If the soil in your garden is soft or relatively firm, a front-tine or a cultivator will do the trick. If it is hard and has clay and/or rocks, you will need a rototiller with special tines to break it up. If you are not sure what will work for your soil, it is worth consulting a company representative.

3. Garden size

This goes without saying. The bigger the garden, the more powerful and large the tiller. The relatively small coverage of cultivators makes them impractical for large gardens. You will complete the job in twice the time.

Similarly, a huge rear-tine tiller is a little overboard for a small garden.

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