Vegetable Garden Tilling. Put Your Back Into It!


Vegetable Garden Tilling is Crucial

Tilling is not an option.  It is fundamentally necessary to till the garden soil…ensuring that our backyard vegetable garden has loose soil.  If the soil is too compacted and hard, the plants will not be able to establish a complete root growth network.  Those roots have to get down deep into the soil, 6 inches or more, to absorb water and nutrients…which keeps the plants healthy and productive.  Thus, I commit to vegetable garden tilling a minimum of twice each year to ensure that the roots have an easy path to their destination.

It also allows the soil to drain easier.

Tilling prevents excessive water in garden area

You don’t want mud puddles all over the garden.  Excessive water can suffocate the root systems, cause diseases, and possibly kill the plants.  We don’t want that now, do we?

The tiller and I spend time together in my backyard garden at least twice every year.

  • In the fall, after the last harvest…the organic plant material should be worked into the soil so it can compost over the winter.
  • And, in the spring…after getting the soil test and applying fertilizer. This is just before I finish hardening off my seedling transplants.  I want loose soil for my transplants to have a comfortable garden home for the growing season.

If the soil has become pretty hard, I may also do a quick tilling before I gather samples to send off for the soil test.  It makes gathering samples easier.



When tilling beware of underground wires

Before tilling, make absolutely sure that there are no underground utility wires in the garden area!  Most utilities will be buried between 18 inches and 36 inches deep…except for cable and telephone lines, which are normally buried closer to the surface…varying from 2 inches to 6 inches deep.

If the garden area is over 20 feet from the house, there shouldn’t be any wires to worry about.  However, if you want to be absolutely sure…call 811 several days before digging for a report of what’s buried around the house and where.


OK…Let’s get to the Meat of the Matter

If the soil is dry enough (crumbles when you squeeze it), start the process.  I normally till my garden in two different directions.  The first pass is across the width.  The second pass is along the length…the same direction I will place my garden rows.  The method to my madness is that crisscrossing the tilling patterns will more effectively chop up the large dirt chunks into smaller, loose soil.


Garden Tilling Strategy


Time To Get Out My Trusty Tilling Tool

Now, I am going to wake up my faithful Mantis 7250 tiller/cultivator.  Since my tiller has forward rotating tines, the actual tilling occurs while I’m walking backwards.  Walking forwards takes me to the next tilling path.  I slightly overlap each trip back and forth to ensure complete loosening of the dirt.  That is also why I till two different directions…first the width of my garden…then, the length of my garden.  By the time I’m done, I’ve got the depth I need and the entire garden is full of loose, soft soil!



Tilling beginners will be surprised that a tiller can jump sideways on very hard soil or when hitting a large root or rock.  So, it is essential to be on your guard when tilling close to plants, fences, or trellises you don’t want damaged.  I am speaking from experience…it pays to be vigilant!  Also, when you encounter large roots or rocks, take the time to pitch them out of the garden.


The problem is…there seems to be an infinite number of rocks and roots in my garden soil.  I never seem to reach the end of them.  Maybe more are continuously being added by a nefarious garden troll…in the middle of the night.  Ya think?

While tilling, I occasionally stop, remove the tines, and clear some of the tougher weeds from it.  But, it doesn’t take long.  Then, I’m on my way again…doing my backwards “tilling dance” across the garden listening to K.C. and the Sunshine Band!  “That’s the way…uh-huh…uh-huh…I like it…uh-huh…uh-huh…”


My Tiller Chops Up Weeds, Too

I also use my tiller for weeding between the rows when the weeds get too crazy or, before I have time to add mulch to the garden.  This is why I try to keep a minimum 4 foot or, a more comfortable 5 foot, space between rows.  It makes “weed tilling” so much easier.


Better Than It Used To Be

I’ll tell you what…using my tiller in the garden sure does beat the old days…when I was a kid.  Then, I only had a shovel for my tilling companion.


My Smart Dad

My dad, a Master Gardener, knew all the best tricks and techniques for growing vegetables in our backyard garden plot.

He would first put on his oldest, grubbiest gardening clothes and a time-worn, wide-brimmed straw hat.  After that, he would walk with me into our garden with a shovel in one hand and, a cold drink in the other.

Then, dad would hand me the shovel…and, tell me where to dig…saying,

Tilling for Christmas





“Merry Christmas, Jim!  Hoe, Hoe, Hoe!”


Can you dig it?


Did you till your garden yet?  Have you had a look at the electric tillers I have reviewed?  What are you using?  Comment below or email me:


Jim, the Lifelong Gardener

4 thoughts on “Vegetable Garden Tilling. Put Your Back Into It!

  1. jeffrey16201 Reply

    I do miss my tiller which died not long ago, I am debating weather to replace my tiller or not? My gardens now are very small with perennials, I would like a herb garden but without a tiller the digging would be hard for me to do.

    What about those little tillers, are they worth the money and will they get the job done? Even the small tillers are not exactly cheap to buy, what do you think about them are they a good buy or a waste of money?

    • Jim Reply

      If you only have a very small space to till and you don’t need to go more than 4 inches deep, the Black and Decker LGC 120 might work. But, if you have a garden space bigger than 100 square feet, get a good solid Mantis 7250. Your back will thank you later.

      You can check both of them out in my review of electric tillers:


  2. ches Reply

    We have around 1/4 acre of garden which is put down to lawn mostly but we want a decent veggie garden. Being in Wales, UK, we have plenty of rain but recently the weather has been dry and the ground has gone like concrete.
    Our soil is probably better to make pots out of than grow veggie, but that’s all we have in this part of Wales, clay which is very difficult to work.
    Have you any suggestions on how to get this soil into better condition other than getting a JCB in and digging the lot out. That sounds drastic but what alternative to we have? My husband is trying to dig this garden but I’m afraid it’ll be the death of him if he’s not careful!
    Any advice on how to get this soil tillable would be appreciated. Great post. Ches

    • Jim Reply

      Hi Ches,

      Welcome to my website!

      You do, indeed, have some work to do to get your soil garden-ready. Based on my experiences with hard clay soil, I wet it down very well and let it soak in. I will do this for several days to soften up the clay as much as possible so I can till at least the top several inches with a tiller. Then, I add several inches of compost and/or garden soil, along with any soil amendments recommended by my soil test results and till it all together. If the red clay is particularly hard and barren, I will bring in a truckload of topsoil before I add amendments.

      Either way, it will take a couple of years to get the soil just right so it will produce a bountiful harvest every year.

      Read my article on soil testing to understand the importance of knowing the pH and nutrient levels in your garden.


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