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What Is the Difference Between a Tiller and Cultivator

rear tine cultivator

A tiller or cultivator is a great power gardening tool for working garden soil before planting flowers, shrubs, or vegetables. People often use the terms cultivator and tiller (also called rototiller) interchangeably. This is because both these machines look similar and perform similar functions of making it easier to break up or loosen the soil. However, there are several differences between tillers and cultivators.

Successful gardening requires having the right tools for the job. This means that if you have a small homestead, vegetable patch, or large garden, the right choice of tiller or cultivator is critical.

This article explores reasons for using a tiller to break up hard ground and when a cultivator is a better choice. In addition, you’ll learn the pros and cons of garden tillers and cultivators.

The Difference Between Tillers and Cultivators

A powerful tiller is necessary for larger jobs that involve breaking up compacted soil, creating a garden out of nothing, or shredding weeds after harvest. A cultivator is a lighter garden tool that is more suitable for loosening soil, aerating the ground, working in compost, or breaking up small weeds.

What is a Tiller or Rototiller?

front tine rototiller

A garden tiller is an electric or gas-powered tool to break up hard, compact ground into loose soil ready for planting. Its primary purpose is to prepare new garden beds or aerate existing beds that have become unworkable. A tiller does the work of a plow but is lawnmower size.

There are two types of tillers, popular for residential gardens or small homesteads—a front-tine tiller and a rear-tine tiller. The tine is the forked or angled disc that breaks up the soil.

  • Front tine tiller—As the name suggests, a front-tine tiller has the tines at the front and wheels at the rear. The machine pushes forward, and applying pressure on the handles adjusts the depth of tilling.
  • Rear tine tiller—A rear-tine tiller has wheels at the front and rear tines at the rear. Typically, tillers with rear tines have more power than front-tine tillers, and they dig deeper into the soil.

Typically, front-tine tillers are more popular with homeowners because they are cheaper, smaller, and easier to maneuver.

There are three types of front-tine tillers suitable for preparing a garden for planting:

  • Gas-powered tiller
  • A corded, electric tiller
  • Battery-powered, cordless tiller

What is a Cultivator?

Tiller vs cultivator

A cultivator is a machine that aerates the soil and helps work fertilizer and compost into the ground. Additionally, a cultivator will remove weeds, control weed growth, and thoroughly mix the earth in an existing garden plot. Gardeners use cultivators in soil that has already been tilled.

A garden cultivator is the best garden power tool for weeding existing beds without destroying vegetables, shrubs, or flowering plants.

There are three types of cultivators:

  • Gas-powered cultivator
  • Corded, electric cultivator
  • Battery-powered, cordless cultivator

Pros and Cons of Using a Garden Tiller

When tackling heavy and difficult gardening jobs, having the correct power tool to hand is vital. Using a tiller in your garden has many advantages. However, there are reasons why tilling isn’t always the best option.

Here are some pros and cons of using a tilling machine.


  • Easily breaks compact, rugged, rocky ground
  • Suitable for every type of soil
  • Increase air circulation in the soil, allowing it to warm faster in spring
  • Kill larvae and pests that overwinter in the soil
  • Turn over lawns with ease to create a garden space
  • Ideal for digging extensive gardens or soil preparation
  • Remove weeds and harvest debris at the end of the season


  • Heavier machines than cultivators
  • Take up more storage space
  • Although tillers are effective for gardens, they are more difficult to control
  • Tilling can strip nitrogen from the soil
  • Too much tilling can result in compacted soil

Pros and Cons of Cultivators

Maintaining a healthy garden requires getting the right amount of organic matter in the soil to provide nutrients. Additionally, weed control—especially if you have many crop plants—is vital to keep your garden healthy and promote excellent growth. But cultivators are limited in their scope of preparing the ground.

Here are some pros and cons of using a cultivator.


  • Excellent for mixing soft soil in a garden bed
  • Ideal for weeding without damaging crop roots
  • The smaller size means that cultivators are suited to working in tight spaces
  • Easily add compost, fertilizer, or soil amendments
  • Easier to use than a tiller
  • Their lightweight design makes them easy to use


  • Not as powerful as a tiller
  • Cultivators are generally not self-propelled, meaning you must work to push them forward
  • It doesn’t perform well in compacted ground or rocky soil
  • Only suitable for a small or medium garden

Cultivator vs. Tiller — Which is Best for Your Garden?

The decision to use a cultivator or tiller in your garden depends on what you hope to achieve.

Tilling hard ground

If you want to maintain a garden bed or vegetable plot, then a cultivator is the best choice. You can use the cultivator to dig up weeds, prepare the soil for planting by adding compost or get the ground ready in an existing garden. For regular gardening, a cultivator is typically the ideal tool for the job.

A tiller is the best power tool if you must create a garden out of nothing. A powerful tiller will quickly break up compact soil or rocky ground. The large tines will also get deep below the soil surface to ensure it’s ready for planting. Additionally, a tiller is excellent for end-of-season work when you must remove dead plants.

How to Use a Cultivator or Tiller in Your Garden

Using a tiller or cultivator in your garden removes much of the back-breaking work of using manual tools to prepare the soil. The tine design means they reach many inches deep below the soil surface. Then, all you need to do is power up the piece of equipment and start turning over soil.

To use a cultivator for amending the soil or weeding, walk slowly in straight lines, gently guiding the machine forward. With each pass, slightly overlap the previous line to ensure you work through all the soil. It’s best to use a cultivator on dry soil.  

The best time to use a tiller is spring and fall when the soil is relatively dry. Tilling wet soil usually results in large clumps of compact soil. If preparing a plot of land for a garden, remove any large stones that are visible. On the first pass, use the adjustable tines to make sure you don’t till too deep. If soil is extremely compacted, then use the shallowest setting.

After the first pass, you can adjust the depth and continue tilling deeper to ensure the ground is ready for cultivation.

The Price Difference Between Garden Rototillers and Cultivators

In general, tillers are a more expensive pieces of equipment than garden cultivators. This is because they are heavy-duty, robust machines for tackling heavy gardening jobs. There is also a difference in cost depending on the power source.

Typically, gas tillers and gas-powered cultivators are more expensive than electric models. However, they usually have more power and are ideal for working on difficult ground.

Electric garden tillers can be corded or cordless models. A corded electric tiller or cultivator is cheaper than a battery-powered model. However, the length of the electric cord will limit your range.

Therefore, a tiller or cultivator with a gas engine or rechargeable battery is ideal if you have a large garden space.

Tiller vs. Cultivator — In Conclusion

The best type of tiller or cultivator to buy depends on your gardening needs. To succeed in working a plot of land, it’s vital to choose the right tool for the task. For regular garden maintenance, an electric cultivator is usually the best choice. However, if you have a large garden and need to create a planting space, a tiller will quickly get the job done.