Tiller vs Cultivator: The Differences Explained

Tillers and cultivators are metal-bladed power towels designed to prepare the soil ready for planting or laying lawn. Although they appear similar, each has a specific set of functions and capabilities.

The Differences Between a Tiller and Cultivator

Tillers are heavy-duty, powerful machines designed to break soil and dig deep. They are aggressive machines that power their way through the most compacted soil that is too difficult for a spade.

Cultivators are mostly less powerful machines that are lightweight and portable. They help in all aspects of garden maintenance including, weed and stone removal and churning loose soil to make it healthier in preparation for flower beds.

A tiller's purpose is to prepare the ground in readiness for a garden; a cultivator is a tool best used in an existing garden.

Types of Tiller

There are 3-primary types of tiller; front, mid, and rear-tine models.

Each set of tines consists of 4 L-shaped metal blades arranged in pairs, sharpened to make light work of slicing through the soil.

Each set faces opposite directions to the next; this enables faster and smaller soil-churning with each pass.

rear tine tiller
A Rear-Tine Tiller

Front Tine Tiller

As the name suggests, the tines are at the front and the wheels at the rear. It gives the user great control over its movement and maneuvers easily around curves, taking care not to damage plant roots.

They are robust machines that make light work of compacted soil in small to medium gardens.

Front tine tillers usually cut at a depth of 6" - 8" with a width of 12" - 24" and are often the most affordable type of tiller.

Mid Tine Tiller

The least common of all tiller types, possibly because they are usually gas-powered. The more powerful engine makes operation and movement easy.

Other than costing slightly more than the front tine tiller, its attributes and capabilities are very similar.

Rear Tine Tiller

The rear-tine tiller is the most powerful of the machines with a bigger, more complex motor. Sometimes called Walk-Behind Tillers as the motor drives forward at a continuous steady pace.

Rear tine tillers power through previously untreated soil, no matter how compact or rocky. The blades cut through clumps of roots with ease, digging around 10-inches deep, with a cutting distance of up to 36".

Their increased weight and reduced mobility make them suitable for large spaces; small gardens rarely require such a powerful piece of equipment.

It all comes at a price; they start at around $600, ranging to $6000.

Types of Cultivators

There are 4-primary types of cultivators, each distinguished by the tines they utilize.

Unlike tillers, cultivators have blades similar to star wheels that rotate through the soil.

Agricultural cultivators are giant versions of the small machines used in garden maintenance.

They are less powerful, smaller, and therefore, more portable and easier to store than tillers. They operate in the same manner; a series of tines driven by a motor. They rotate to loosen and aerate the soil. They also mix in compost and fertilizer and pull weeds.


Spring Tines

These heavy-duty springs and shovel protect the tines from breakage. For use in wet or dry soil, spring tine cultivators suit medium to large gardens.

Rigid Tines

Made from a system of U-clamps and a shovel, rigid tine cultivators loosen and aerate denser soils. They are versatile machines, suitable for use in gardens of all sizes.

Rigid Tine Shovel Type Cultivator

Useful in heavy-duty gardening or agricultural situations, this type of cultivator is the most common. It is versatile; loosens and aerates the soil, clears weeds and rocks, prepares beds in readiness for planting, and improves the overall health and quality of the soil.

Bar Point Cultivators

The tines are mounted on a frame and clamped behind a tractor. When pulled through fields, this machine cultivates light and heavy soils to prepare them for crop plantation.

Domestic cultivators are powered by 3-methods; gas, electricity, and battery.

Gas Powered Cultivators

Gas-powered cultivators are the most powerful type to take on the toughest jobs. They are affordable to run and require little maintenance.

The robust engine makes light work of packed soil, making them the ideal tool for large yards and fields.

As with all gas-powered tools, they are loud during operation and expect some fumes.

Electric Cultivators

Economical to run, lightweight to handle, and easy to store; electric cultivators are the perfect tool for aerating soil in small to medium gardens.

The user is limited by the length of the cord, unless they want to run extension cables through the garden.

Battery Powered Cultivators

These lightweight machines are versatile; for use in areas where there is no available power. They run quietly and emit zero fumes, although they only last for a limited time on each charge.

Suitable for small gardens, raised, and flower beds.

How Do Tillers Work?

Tillers consist of a motor, a series of tines, and a set of handles. They are easy to operate, differing slightly depending on if they are front or rear-tine models.

Smaller models are lighter and easier to control; they have 1-5 horsepower engines and 4-tines that do the majority of the work.

Larger, more powerful machines have between 5-12 horsepower, again relying on the 8-tines to do the heavy lifting.

The gardener tips the tiller and raises the blades before steering a front tine model to the exact spot. They lower the handle and start the engine. The alternating blades rotate, the tines dig in the ground providing forward propulsion for the unit.

Rear tine tillers rely on the wheels for forward motion; the tine's only job is to dig through the soil.

On both models, the tines face alternating directions. The blades with the sharp outward edge do most of the cutting; the inward-facing blades prevent soil from clogging.

How Do Cultivators Work?

Cultivators consist of rotating axle discs driven by a motor. Some of the more powerful gas-powered models also utilize a side belt and chain system.

Forward drive models, including gas cultivators, are propelled forwards by the rotation of the blades. They propel forwards as the tines dig into the soil, they also rely on some effort from the user to a lesser degree.

Gas cultivators with rear tines have powerful motors to self-propel; the user walks behind using the handlebars to adjust direction. In this instance, the wheels serve no other purpose than for transportation.

Final Thoughts

The differences between tillers and cultivators are many; power output, soil treatment, ease of use, and practicality to name but a few.

To encourage an existing garden to thrive, purchase a cultivator. It reduces the earth to a finer tithe, pulls weeds but leaves them in the soil to prevent erosion. They generally leave the earth in excellent quality conducive to healthy plant growth.

A till is the ideal tool to turn a previously untreated plot of land into the loosened soil. The ground becomes workable, enabling the start of gardening works.

Annette Marsh
For the past twenty years, Annette has allocated much of her free time towards gardening and landscaping related tasks; Planting flowers and trees, weeding, pruning, mulching, mowing, constructing ponds and various other structures, as well as growing and maintaining a vegetable garden.

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