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Fertile soil is the foundation to any garden project. Vegetable gardens and planting beds need rich, loose, drainable soil to ensure root growth and abundant crops. Properly preparing the soil with a cultivator or tiller is a great way to start successful planting.
Both cultivators and tillers dig into the ground. Choosing one over the other depends on the size and type of planting area you need to prepare. Cultivators work well in existing planting areas for weeding, loosening the soil and working in amendments. Tillers are more powerful machines that are better for larger areas. Some tillers are designed for breaking new ground to create new planting beds.
For more information on choosing the right machine for your planting project, see our Cultivator and Tiller Buying Guide.
Good soil allows roots to quickly develop and spread, which in turn increases the water and nutrient intake necessary for healthy and productive plants. A tiller or cultivator makes quick work of what could be a strenuous task if done by hand.
Improving the soil is best done in the fall. Tilling in soil amendments at that time allows them to settle in and break down over the winter. When spring arrives, the garden is ready for a new crop.
Tilling a New Garden
You can successfully till the soil for a new garden once it warms up in the spring as long as it's somewhat dry. Soil needs to reach a temperature of about 60°F before you work it. If a handful of soil crumbles when you squeeze it, it should be dry enough.
You can remove sod before tilling or work it into the soil. Working the sod in during the fall will provide nitrogen to the soil. However, tilling sod under in the spring may only cause the grass to resurface as the temperature warms.
Make sure that the selected garden area doesn't have underground utility lines that you can damage with a cultivator or tiller. Before digging, cultivating or tilling a new garden, call 811 to be connected with the local utility companies. They'll mark your utility lines for you.
Good soil must have nutrients and must allow water to reach plant roots. Good soil also allows excess water to drain away. Using a cultivator or tiller is a great way to work needed amendments into the soil.
Inspect the soil and feel it with your hands to determine whether water can permeate it. If the soil is excessively damp or has high clay content, consider adding sand or gypsum. These amendments will help break it up and allow moisture and nutrients to move through the soil.
Organic material such as compost can improve most soil. However, some soil conditions require extra attention. If the soil is extremely wet or thin, consider constructing a raised garden bed instead.
Test the soil to check the levels of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium and the pH level. Make the necessary adjustments based on the type of plants you plan to grow.
For more information on soil tests, see Test and Improve Soil.
Vegetable gardens in particular need rich soil to produce crops. These plants only have a few months to bloom and produce.
For best results when tilling, wait a day or so after it rains so the dirt is semidry. A little moisture will make the soil easier to till. Soil that is too wet will clump and eventually dry into hard clods that will be difficult to break up.
Read the cultivator or tiller manufacturer's instructions carefully to become familiar with the controls and for information on use, maintenance and safety. Wear eye protection, sturdy work shoes or boots and any other safety gear and clothing specified by the manufacturer. Instructions for cultivating and tilling may vary by the machine and the type of work you're doing. Here are some general steps for tilling a garden.
Remove any rocks, sticks or other debris. For existing gardens, pull up any thick weeds or vegetation that might become entangled in the cultivator or tiller tines. The machine will chop up smaller weeds.
Set the tiller for the appropriate depth. Use a shallow setting to start on hard, compacted soil. For softer ground, start at a medium setting.
Start the tiller, following the manufacturer's directions.
Engage the tines and slowly make parallel passes across the garden. Let the tiller do the work. Some manufacturers suggest simply overlapping, straight passes while others may recommend a particular pattern.
Once you've tilled the entire garden, adjust the tiller to its deepest setting, and begin making passes perpendicular to the first set of passes. Walk slowly and remember to let the machine do the work.
After you've broken up the ground, you can work any amendments into your soil. Make passes along the length of the garden followed by passes across its width.
Continue tilling until the organic matter is thoroughly mixed into the soil to a depth of about 8 inches.
Allow the nutrients and organic material to enrich the soil for a few days, or if possible, several weeks before continuing.
With the tiller at a medium-depth setting, make passes back and forth across the garden to aerate it and make sure the nutrients are well-blended.
Set the tiller to a deeper setting, and make the final perpendicular passes across the garden soil.
For best results, keep these tips in mind when using a cultivator or tiller: