FIRST VEGETABLE GARDEN
THE OZ VICTORY GARDEN
GARDENING TO SAVE MONEY
INCREASE YOUR BOTANY SAVVY
TILLING VS CULTIVATING
THE PERILS OF PEAT
THE DIRT ON SOIL
TINES, TINES, TINES
WHY AND HOW TO TILL
RENT OR BUY
FALL LANDSCAPING TIPS
ECO FRIENDLY TIPS
USING GOOD PESTS TO FIGHT BAD PESTS
BUYING A LAWN MOWER?
MY NEW TILLER
Tilling On Time - When is a good time and How should the job get done?
Tilling in the Spring
Tilling in the spring gets your garden ready for planting. Of course, it’s possible to plant without tilling – just look at how weeds have an uncanny ability to spring up in your lawn, between sidewalk cracks, and practically everywhere else – but, tilling makes planting much easier. Tilling will also improve the texture, or tilth, of your soil. And, if you’re adding any amendments, like sand, compost, lime, shredded leaves, or fertilizer, tilling ensures that the amendments will be mixed into the soil, where they’ll actually become part of the soil and do your plants the most good.
Tilling at the beginning of the gardening season can also help you get rid of any leftover plant material from last year’s garden. Spring tilling gives you a new canvas on which to be creative. And, tilling always improves the quality of your soil. Sometimes, the act of tilling is a little adventure all to itself. I almost always find a few surprises when I till my gardens – even though most of my gardening is done in areas that have been gardened for many years. I’m always surprised at the number and diversity of objects that I find when I till … bottle caps, pieces of row markers, and, of course, rocks. I have uncovered an antique medicine bottle, an old pet ID tag, and several coins.
Tilling in the Fall
Tilling at the end of the season is the best way to prepare for the following year’s garden. By turning residual plant material under (assuming that the plants are disease-free), you can add to both the nutrient content and the tilth of your soil. Of course, this is a great time to add some of the compost that you’ve been making all summer, too. If you’re going to plant a winter cover crop, such as rye grass, tilling is practically essential. If you aren’t planting a cover crop, I recommend that you cover the garden with mulch – a 4 to 6 inch layer of well shredded leaves, perhaps mixed with some grass clippings, is my favorite. I find that the mixture of grass clippings and pulverized leaves helps to keep the little pieces of leaves from blowing away and also prevents the grass clippings from creating impenetrable clumps. You can use straw, but I prefer the look of leaves and grass clippings. Don’t mulch with wood chips, though, as they will not break down quickly enough, and may actually steal some of the nitrogen from the upper layer of your soil. Wood chips also provide a haven for many unwanted garden pests. They may look pretty, but this is certainly one case in which good looks can be deceiving. If you have a lot of wood chips from a summer or fall clean-up project, you can probably add some of them to your compost. Better yet, use them to create natural pathways. But, don’t put them into your garden.
How to Till
How you till will depend on the size of your garden, the size and type of tiller that you’re using, and the slope of the terrain on which your garden is located.
1. The first step in using a tiller is to become familiar with the tiller’s operation. Read the owner’s manual, watch the video or DVD if one was provided, or go to the manufacturer’s web site to view the owner’s manual or on-line video.
2. Visually inspect your tiller to ensure that all connections are proper. All nuts and bolts are in place and tight. It’s always easier and safer to tighten any loose bolts before you get to the garden!
I consider any garden (or combination of gardens) which measure over a quarter of an acre in size to be a large garden. A quarter acre is 10,890 sq. ft. – which is just a little less than one quarter of a football field (the area between the goal line, the 25 yard line, and both sidelines). While a quarter acre of lawn is a relatively small lawn, a quarter acre of tended garden is a large garden. (Mowing a quarter acre of lawn takes a lot less time than tilling a quarter acre of garden!)
Tilling Large Gardens in the Spring
For a large garden, you should till with a large tiller. I use a rear-tine Troy-Bilt PTO Horse model tiller for my large gardening projects. As you’ll see elsewhere on this site, there are a number of very good “rear-tine” tillers that make tilling a large area reasonably easy. Indeed, I consider it enjoyable. Click Here for the list of large tillers.
For relatively flat, rectangular-shaped gardens, add any needed soil amendments (sand, compost, lime, leaves, or fertilizer) to the garden surface, spreading it out in a relatively thin layer over the entire garden. Then, simply till the garden in rows, making parallel passes until all of the area is completely tilled. In spite of their power, most large rear tine tillers can be controlled with one hand, so you really don’t need to walk directly behind the machine. You may find it easier to walk beside the freshly tilled area, so that you don’t have to trudge through freshly tilled soil. It’s simply easier on the legs and feet. But, by all means, till safely; and, unless you’re very experienced in using your large tiller, till slowly.
If your garden is on a sloping terrain, consider leaving rows of untilled soil perpendicular to the direction of the slope. This will reduce erosion in case of you get a heavy rainfall before the new season’s plants have established roots sufficient to hold the soil in place. Untilled paths should ideally have a cover crop of rye or another grass to hold the soil in place and they make good pathways for working in the garden as well.
Of course, if you’re creating a series of raised beds in a large garden, orient the beds so that the beds and the trenches between them are perpendicular to the direction of the slope of the terrain.
Tilling Large Gardens in the Fall
Tilling any size garden in the fall is a good idea. Tilling a large garden in the fall is an especially good idea, because it will improve your soil and save you a lot of time the following spring.
First, remove any really large plants, like tomato plants or corn stalks. Compost them (assuming that they’re free of any diseases) if at all possible. See HowToCompost.org for composting tips.
Second, add a layer of compost and any other amendments that will make your garden soil even better for next season. If you had areas that had especially poor drainage, consider adding some sand, compost, shredded leaves, or some combination of these.
Third, till the amendments into the soil to create a uniform blend. Level the garden surface, if large humps or valleys are obvious.
Finally, cover the garden with a nice 4 to 6 inch layer of mulch or sow a cover crop, like annual rye grass. Mulching or a cover crop will reduce erosion, retard weed seed germination, and improve you soil’s fertility. Of course, cover crops or mulch also look better than bare soil over the winter.
Medium Size Gardens
While an arbitrary distinction, I consider any garden less than a quarter acre, but larger than 1,000 sq. ft. to be “medium” in size. If you already own a large, rear-tine tiller, it will probably work well in your medium size garden. But, if you’re considering the purchase of a tiller, you’ll do well to invest in a mid-size machine. It will cost less, and take up less storage space that a really big tiller. Click Here for a list of medium size tillers.
Tilling Medium Size Gardens in the Spring
Whether you use a front-tine or rear-tine tiller, the process is generally the same as for large gardens. Spread any soil amendments on top of the garden, and immediately till in the amendments and any small parts of last year’s plant residue. For flat areas, till in straight lines, back and forth, until the entire garden is tilled.
For medium size gardens on slopes, leave several paths of untilled soil to reduce the likelihood of soil erosion that can be caused by heavy rainfall that could occur before your plants have established enough roots to effectively hold the soil in place.
Tilling Medium Size Gardens in the Fall
Tilling a medium size garden in the fall is precisely the same procedure as tilling a large garden in the fall (see above) – except that it won’t take as long, and it can be accomplished using a smaller tiller.
My idea of a small garden is one that is 1,000 sq. ft. or less. Gardens of this size don’t require the use of a large or even medium size tiller. You can do all of the required tilling in a small garden with a good small tiller, often called a “mini-tiller.” Unless your garden is extremely hard-packed, or has very dense turf or other vegetation, you should be able to till 1,000 sq. ft. in less than 2 hours.
Tilling Small Gardens in the Spring
For spring tilling, the soil should be moist, but not soggy. Remove any large plant material and add it to your compost pile or discard it, if necessary. Distribute any necessary soil amendments (sand, compost, fertilizer, pulverized leaves) on top of the garden, and till it in.
All of the small tillers can be operated in a forward direction by slowly walking behind the machine. Click Here for a list of small tillers. However, deeper tilling can be more easily accomplished by pulling the tiller backwards and walking backwards in the garden. This method has the added advantage that you aren’t walking in the tilled soil. With just a little practice, you’ll find the right speed of tine rotation and walking that will create the depth of tilling that you want. This procedure may seem a little awkward at first, but with a little practice, you’ll quickly find that it can be very efficient.
As with large and medium sized gardens, if your small garden is on a sloping terrain, consider leaving untilled pathways perpendicular to the direction of the slope. This will both reduce the likelihood or severity of erosion during heavy downpours and provide a good place for you to walk when accessing the garden.
Tilling Small Gardens in the Fall
At the end of the gardening season, it’s a good idea to till the garden before “putting it to bed.” Remove large plants; add any desired amendments (sand, compost, shredded leaves, dry grass clippings); and, till the garden to enrich the soil and reduce pest habitat. Level the soil with your small tiller or a garden rake, and either cover it with a layer of mulch or plant a “cover crop” (annual rye grass or another quick-germinating grass that can be easily tilled in next spring) to reduce wind and water erosion and discourage weed germination.
If you have any comments, I’d really like to hear from you.
The Garden Of Oz
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4.0 out of 5
April 21, 2011
By: Nib West Resident UK
Being new to tillers/cultivators I'm a little unsure of the influence there will be on seeds by the mix of live vegetable material and soil that is the inevitable result of tilling as against turning the vegetable matter completely under the soil as with a plough or a garden spade. In this respect are there different techniques needing to be used? Any advice would be helpful. Personally I have a Mantis and a plot 32 feet x 90 feet