What is Tilling?
Tilling is the process of breaking up and stirring soil. Someone may want to till the soil to prepare it for planting, to mix in organic matter, or to reduce the amount of weeds in the area. Gardens are the area most frequently tilled, but tillers are also helpful when seeding and leveling lawns, or even large fields where crops will be grown.
Tillers designed for the home garden typically run on gasoline, and may require a mix of gasoline and oil, similar to a chainsaw or weed trimmer. The engine runs the tiller, which has tines that rotate in circles, breaking up and stirring the soil. For the home gardener, a rototiller is an affordable way to till an area. There are larger tillers available that attach to tractors, but these are most common for use on large areas. For the typical backyard gardener, a walk behind rototiller is both manageable and affordable.
It is possible to rent tillers at many equipment rental stores. It makes sense to rent a tiller for occasional use, but many people find that once they purchase a tiller, they use it quite frequently. Many types of soil respond well to tilling, and using a tiller improves the quality of the soil.
The most common time to till soil is before planting season. If the land is undisturbed, planting flowers or vegetables is difficult without first tilling the ground. Tilling loosens up the soil, gives the plant's roots room to expand, and kills weeds and other plants that would compete for nutrients with the items to be planted.
An established garden can benefit from tilling as well. During the growing season, running the tiller between the planted rows will stir up the soil and prevent weed seeds from germinating. If some weeds do establish themselves, a quick pass of the rototiller will pull them up by the roots.
The tiller action stirs up the garden soil, making it a great tool for adding fertilizer or organic matter to the garden. Run the tiller over the area initially to loosen the soil, and then shovel compost, organic matter, or fertilizer onto the surface of the garden area. Run the tiller over the surface of the garden again, until it is impossible to see the new additions in the soil.
There are two basic types of tillers for at home use, front tine and rear tine tillers. Front tine tillers are typically smaller and less expensive than rear tine tillers. They do require more strength to use, though, and many people find them tiring. Rear tine mowers are normally heavier than front tine mowers, and the tines help push the tiller forward, making them easier to use. For light duty tilling, a front tine tiller may be sufficient, but for serious planting preparation, and amending the soil, a rear tine mower may be a better investment.
@browncoat - Loosening the soil in a home garden isn't quite the same as a large scale tillage operation though. You aren't using massive machines that can compact the deeper levels of soil and you aren't churning up soil well past the top levels so the layers get mixed up.
@Ana1234 - Mostly that applies to larger scale farms, rather than home gardens. If you are digging compost into your soil you are going to be increasing the goodness of the soil and its ability to hold water and attract good insects and bugs.
Plus you absolutely have to loosen the soil to a certain depth if you are planning to grow anything below the surface, like carrots. If you don't, they tend to become very stunted as they can't grow past a certain point.
Tilling is not something that you will want to do for every single project. Even though it was always done traditionally, it can actually be quite harmful to the soil by killing off the little beneficial creatures that live in the soil, like earthworms, and damaging the properties of the soil itself, like it's ability to hold water.
It can also contribute quite a lot of carbon to the air and encourage weeds to grow in the soil. If you live in an area with difficult weather, you might lose quite a bit of the loose topsoil to erosion before the seeds grow enough to secure it.
There have been quite a few innovations in seed planting that were meant to reduce the need to till the soil. Anyone who is planning on doing this should investigate these other methods first.
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