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Product Reviews 1: Tillers & Cultivators

How to Select a Tiller or Cultivator: – Smooth `n Easy is the Best – April 2000

WESTFIELD: When deciding either to start a new vegetable and/or herb garden – or, to cultivate an existing garden – it is helpful to understand the different types of tillers or cultivators that are available today.

“Years ago,” says Keith Petersen of The Eardly T. Petersen Company in Westfield, “the word “tiller” would usually conjur up a mental picture of a large, heavy tiller that would snort and buck as it churned up the sod to prepare for a new season’s planting of vegetables and/or herbs. Such tillers were essentially designed one of two ways: either as a rear-tine tiller in which the engine was poised in the front and the business end of the tiller was located to the rear; or, as a mid-mount tiller in which the tines were directly underneath the engine. Both these designs are still used today; however, with the advent of better, smoother engines and better tine designs a quality tiller today is a considerably more refined, gentler creature than the iron dinosaur of yesteryear. Quality tillers,” continued Mr. Petersen, “now incorporate a host of design features that result in a smooth, powerful, easy-to-use product.”

“Essentially,” says Mr. Petersen, “the best larger tillers use rear tine design. In this configuration, the tines are located fully in the rear, and the engine also powers a set of drive wheels located almost directly underneath the engine. These wheels actually propel the tiller, and the tines accomplish the tilling – better units will have one to three forward speeds and one in reverse. In the best of such tillers, the tines will feature a counter rotating action – i.e., one set of tines spins in one direction and one set spins in an opposite direction – so that “jumping” is minimized and so that the soil is more evenly mixed.”

“A mid-tine tiller, on the other hand, has no separate propulsion system – the action of the tines pulls the tiller along. This design strikes a balance between a need for propelling assistance and the additional expense of a separate drive system. This type of tiller would be suitable for use in a smaller garden, etc., or, where the soil is nice and loamy.”

States Mr. Petersen, “A cultivator is loosely classified as a tiller; however, it is primarily used to maintain an existing garden. It is a small, lightweight unit with approximately a nine-inch cultivating width and is very useful for cultivating between the rows of vegetables or herbs to keep the soil loose and to eliminate weeds, etc. A good one will allow cultivating right up to within an inch of a vegetable without damaging it.”

“How do you know which tillers or cultivators are the best?” asks Mr. Petersen. “Here are a few common points to consider in making a selection:

  • The better engines are either overhead cam (OHC) or overhead valve design (OHV) which results in smooth, vibration-free power
  • High torgue (turning force) and higher-speed transmissions mean faster, stronger tine action for more effective tilling results
  • Adjustable handles without tools allow for “sizing” the tiller to different heights of operator, and for comfort of use depending upon the type of terrain
  • Better tillers feature transportation wheels which can then be swung out of the way without tools when tilling
  • Better tillers use chains to drive transmissions rather than belts which slip and need replacement
  • A good tiller will usually come with side discs which enable close tilling to plants, etc. – the plant is protected from the tilling action by the side disc
  • A good tiller allows the versatility of removing some tines without tools to reduce the tilling width
  • Somer better tillers use aluminum gear cases to reduce heat, thus extending bearing life, etc.

“A good cultivator is available today for about $300,” states Mr. Petersen, “while good tillers range from about $650 up to about $1800. As with any buying decision, the need is to balance the quality of the tool with the desire to invest no more than necessary; however, it is always more feasible to own a better tool that performs well and lasts longer than to buy an inferior tool that is unsatisfactory. Honda is the world’s largest producer of Roto-tillers and, by looking at a Honda oneself can gain an understanding as to preferred features and benefits. Then, other tillers or cultivators can be examined in light of the Honda “benchmark”. Growing a garden can be very rewarding and a good tiller or cultivator simply makes the job more enjoyable.”

For questions on tillers/cultivators or for any questions on Outdoor Power Equipment (OPE) please contact The Eardly T. Petersen Company at 908-232-5723; or, visit them at 224 Elmer Street in Westfield or on the internet at