Tilling or Rototilling the Soil in Your Garden Using a Rototiller

If you have ever heard about loam soil, or you’re in the process of trying to improve the quality of your gardening activities, there’s a bunch of different steps that you can take.

In this article, we’ll talk about rototilling or tilling, why people do it and what it’s good for. The actual work is done by a piece of machinery called a rototiller that can cost  upwards of $800, which is why a lot of people simply choose to get it done by a landscaping company. It not only means that they don’t have to go out and invest in the machinery, but also that they have the convenience of not having to go through the process themselves.


What is Tilling With Regards to the Soil in Your Garden?

First off, let’s take a look at what rototilling, or tilling actually is. By getting a better understanding of what it does, you’ll learn to understand when it’s right to do, and when there may be other avenues that are better to pursue instead.

So basically what a rototiller does is that it helps turn over the soil, thereby loosening it up too. Instead of having to battle with a spade or cultivator, this machine will take out the hard work and help loosen up the soil.

You might have heard that one gardening tip is to use soil that both has a lot of nutrients as well as the ability to drain well to help the roots from drowning. Some plants may live better in soil that drains extremely well, like cacti, while others may require more water and will therefore require soil that is actually better at holding onto water, which is the case for loam or more clay-rich soils.

Very compacted soil won’t drain well, and loosening up the earth can therefore help.

Why Do You Not Want Soil That is Too Compact?

Soil that is too compact will create certain problems for plants. First of all, it won’t be nearly as easy for the roots of plants to penetrate the soil. In addition, it will also be more difficult for the organic matter to get down and get properly mixed with the soil, and third it can create drainage problems too. While some plants need a lot of water, most plants will grow better in loam soil, which is both rich in nutrients and has good drainage.

Benefits of Tilling Soil: Should You Till Your Garden?

When you’re amending the soil, one of the main things you will be doing involves adding organic matter to it, which will help make the conditions better for those microorganisms in the ground that you want to have present. The organic matter that is added to it in the process can be anything from compost to leaf mold, but by tilling the soil, you’re mixing the elements, rather than simply having them lay on top.

With very compacted soil, the process can significantly help give the plants better conditions for growing and improve drainage.

Do you have a lot of weeds? This process will help get rid of them and can disturb the roots that they have which is the reason  why they seem like they’re coming back every time you try to get rid of them.

Since vegetables require both a lot of nutrients and good drainage, it’s often a process that’s used in preparation for creating a vegetable garden too.


Some people are hesitant with the practice of using a rototiller, believing that they can simply cover the weeds in order to get rid of them. While covering them will help, the practice isn’t very effective at getting the organic matter into the ground. If there are a lot of weed seeds laying on top of the soil, tilling the soil could cause them all to be planted, which is maybe the biggest concern with the process, and why you might want to consider how you go about doing it.

Additionally, there’s the possible concern of overtilling the ground which should also be avoided, and it can therefore be good to get the feedback from a pro to hear if they would recommend it in your case or not.

When to do it

There’s a good time and a bad time to rototill the garden,  and first of you should actually have a test done to make sure it’s necessary, which will test the soil’s pH value among other things as well as testing its texture.

You’ll also want to do it when the soil is not wet nor dry, but rather damp. So what is the best way to test that it actually has the ideal texture for the purpose? When you can make a ball of dirt that will fall apart with a gentle squeeze, you know it has the right consistency. Since the whole point is to loosen up the soil, you don’t want to go through the process at a time when it will simply cause more damage – when it’s too wet. If that’s done, it will simply be compacted afterwards when you’re walking on it.

If on the other hand, you’re not able to actually create a ball of dirt, your soil is too dry.

When it’s Wet

We’ve created this section to emphasize the importance of not doing this process when it’s too wet. What happens when you add water to sand? You can actually create a ball of sand as a consequence. What has happened is that the particles have become a lot more compact, and the same will happen when the moisture content is too high in soil (did you know that sand actually makes up a good part of your soil and is what gives it a lot of its good drainage properties?).

The whole purpose of tilling is to loosen up the soil, not to make it more compact. You can in fact end up making the whole situation worse for your garden if you start tilling wet soil.

When it’s too Dry

When it’s too dry, that’s another time when you don’t want to loosen soil further as the inevitable consequence is that it turns it into more dust than anything, and erosion will become a likely consequence from it.

Getting Started in the Fall

Fall’s a good time when you’re adding stronger additives that need longer time in the soil before you start the process of planting things in it, and that way it will be ready when spring comes around.

In Spring

Rototilling can cause erosion when done improperly, too aggressively or on slopes, and if you’re doing it in the fall, it can therefore be good to not do it too aggressively. The best time to do it when you’re 2-3 weeks away from planting, so that the microorganisms will still have time to readjust after the tilling has happened.

Tilling vs Cultivating

Cultivating is also the process of loosening up the soil, although often less deep than is the case with tilling, with the same intention of making the earth more loose and better allowing the nutrients access to it. The same as with tilling, it’s best done in moist but not wet soil, and if you’re unsure about whether the soil is too wet, it probably is. Smaller seeds especially have an advantage when the soil has been cultivated.

If you don’t either till or cultivate, you will often see that the runoff is significant when you add that organic matter to the soil, and that is one of the advantages with loosening up the soil and giving it a better possibility of getting into the ground.

Tilling is especially important with a new garden bed since it will help cultivate deeper than traditional cultivating. When soil is really poor, it can be done deeper than 10 inches, although 8-10 is more common. Some tillers will however be adjustable and can be able to till between 4-8 inches deep, when simply a light cultivation is needed.

The two methods do however have in common that they should generally only be done when more organic matter is being added, since you’re otherwise just loosening the soil without adding any of the good stuff to it. They both have in common that loosening the soil is important, but their depth generally differs. Especially when the ground needs to be properly loosened like when it’s either very compact or you’re starting a new vegetable garden, cultivating the top part of the soil simply might not suffice, which is when more extensive machinery is brought in in order to help out.

If you look at the definition of cultivating, you’ll also see that it actually more broadly refers to getting the soil ready, and that too includes getting rid of weeds which can be done in other manners than simply turning over the soil too, but it also includes the turning over of the topsoil to improve the soil’s ability to better absorb water and nutrients. One of the main reasons you will want to remove weeds is because they will take the nutrients that you actually want going to your flowers instead. And then there’s the obvious fact that you’d rather want to be looking at your flowers rather than  a bunch of invasive plants.

Best Practices When Tilling and How to Prepare

We already mentioned the importance of considering your weeds situation when you’re about to amend soil. Rather than simply turning them over, taking active steps to have them removed and dealt with is a better practice before you go ahead and loosen up the soil.

You should also seriously consider the depth you’re tilling, and while it may make sense to go deeper when initially preparing a garden, it won’t be something that you will need to do over and over. If you have already gone ahead and tilled the earth pretty deep, you might simply want to keep it to the top 4 inches to disturb the natural processes already in place, as well as limiting the risk of disturbing the roots.

You should also consider if you want to till or cultivate the entire area, or whether it makes sense to keep it somewhat isolated to an area that you will be planting in in the spring.

Are you aware of where your utility lines are buried in the ground? You want to make sure that you don’t accidentally hit them in the process, so it’s always a good idea to call up your utility company and hearing them out.

You should also consider whether rocks and roots in your garden could be causing issues for the tines of the rototiller, as well as the simple fact that you don’t want to be damaging the roots of trees in the process, so it’s important that you consider whether it’s really necessary to do in proximity to plants or trees that you actually want to keep around.

While it may seem tedious, manually getting rid of weeds can be a good step in preparing the area for tilling.

Rototilling Services

So if  you thought that you could simply put some earth in a ceramic planter and start growing those cucumbers, then you now know that there’s a little bit more to the process than that. If you’re not wishing to have to go through the process yourself of rototilling the soil, we’d be happy to help you get quotes from competing landscapers in your area to have it done at a very reasonable cost. By getting it done by a pro, you can also make sure that it’s done improperly. They’re able to do all these different steps and actually make sure the conditions are right for tilling.

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