How to Till Your Garden in 6 Steps for Happier Crops

Susan McCullah
Written by Susan McCullah
Updated April 25, 2022
A man plowing a soil by motor cultivator
Photo: Roman / Adobe Stock
Difficulty

Simple

Saturday skill builder.

Time to complete

48 hours

2 hours to 2 days

Cost

150

Get all the dirt on how to till a garden

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What you'll need:

TOOLS

  • Rototiller
  • Eye protection
  • Work gloves
  • Hat
  • Sturdy, closed-toed shoes or work boots
  • Hoe
  • Pickax
  • Soil temperature gauge
  • Shovel

SUPPLIES

  • String
  • Compost

Those first warm, sunny days after winter signal spring is here. If you enjoy being outside and active, gardening may be on your mind. That means it’s time to think about tilling your soil and planting your garden. 

Using a rototiller, or tiller for short, is the most efficient way to prepare your soil for planting, especially if it’s the first time that piece of earth has been used as a garden. Tilling provides plenty of great benefits, like giving you an opportunity to add nutrients to the soil, aerating the soil so it absorbs water better, and promoting faster plant growth. 

Before you fire up your tiller, make sure to take the time and do it right. Here’s a step-by-step guide on how to till a garden.

Prepping to Till a Garden

Whoever said preparation is the key to success was most likely a gardener. Just jumping in and starting to till can create issues that make it slower going, and you can even tear up your tiller. Before you start tilling, you need to inspect the area and take steps to make sure it’s ready. 

Call 811

The last thing you want is for your weekend project to turn into sliced-up utility lines. If you’re tilling soil for the first time, call to see if there are any underground utility lines before you begin. 

Clear Away Debris

Bare soil is the easiest to till. Move all the rocks, leaves, sticks, grass clippings, and anything else that’s accumulated over the winter out of the way. Use your hoe to dig up every weed and all the plant roots you find in your soon-to-be garden bed. Doing this upfront helps your tilling job go faster and easier. 

Mark the Rows

Once you start tilling, it can be hard to move in a straight line. Making yourself a path helps you create neat, symmetrical rows. Use a stick to etch lines in the soil or take string and map out easy-to-follow garden rows. Once you’re behind the tiller, you’ll appreciate this step. 

6 Steps to Till a Garden

Once you know you won’t be digging into utility lines, your bare soil is free of debris, and the rows are clearly marked, it’s time to get your hands dirty.

  1. Check the Soil

    A soil temperature meter
    Photo: Dusan Kostic / Adobe Stock

    Go to the land you’ll be tilling and look for signs it’s ready to be tilled. You need to specifically check the soil’s temperature and moisture. 

    Temperature

    Soil temperature is the key factor that drives seed germination, and most soil organisms function best in a certain temperature range. Before tilling, you should always make sure the soil is warm enough. 

    Check the temperature in the early morning (because that’s when soil will be the coolest) by sticking a soil temperature gauge into the dirt as deeply as possible, and leaving it for one minute. The soil temperature should reach around 60 degrees Fahrenheit before you till. 

    Moisture

    If you try to till wet soil, it will clump up and cause a big mess. Test the soil’s moisture by picking up a handful and squeezing it into a ball, and then poking it. If the ball falls apart, your soil is dry enough. However, if the ball keeps its shape, that means your soil is too wet for tilling. Wait a day or two longer and try again.

  2. Spread Compost

    Healthy soil is essential for raising a high-producing crop. If you’re working with clay soil, you’ll definitely need to introduce some soil organic matter. Tilling time is the best time for adding organic material like compost to your garden soil to help your plants thrive as they grow. 

    The University of California Cooperative Extension recommends improving poor soil by adding about 2 inches of compost or organic matter, as this addition improves drainage and aeration. 

    Shovel 2 to 3 inches of compost onto your soil surface and layer it evenly. 

    Tilling will mix the organic matter into the soil. Working your compost into the soil via a tiller creates a healthier, more nutrient-rich environment for your plants.

  3. Set Your Tiller Depth

    Most tiller blades can be adjusted by several inches. It’s important to set your tiller to the correct depth according to the type of gardening you’re doing. 

    For plants with shallow roots, like lettuce, corn, broccoli, chard, and onions, set it between 6 to 8 inches. Plants with deeper roots, like potatoes, tomatoes, pumpkins, and parsnips, need a depth of 8 to 10 inches.

  4. Begin Tilling in the Corner

    Start up your tiller and keep both hands firmly on the handles. Go about tilling like you would mowing your grass, by starting in one corner and working your way down the first row. Complete the row, then start on the next one, and so on until you work your way around the entire garden bed.

  5. Maintain a Slow Pace

    Tilling a garden isn’t a task that can be rushed. If you do, you’ll end up with uneven rows, areas of dirt that aren’t properly broken up, and you could possibly break your tiller blades. Be prepared that, the deeper you till, the harder and slower your work will go.

  6. Only Till Once

    A gardener cultivating ground soil
    Photo: Anastassiya / Adobe Stock

    While using a tiller helps mix nutrient-rich compost into the garden soil and breaks up the soil to assist plant growth and water absorption, too much of a good thing is, well, bad. Going over the tilled soil again can be detrimental to the soil structure, causing compacted soil and soil erosion.

    The soil stores its water and nutrients in soil aggregates. Tilling too often can disrupt them, so the soil won’t be able to properly nourish plant roots.

DIY Tilling a Garden vs. Hiring a Pro

Some gardeners want to tackle tilling themselves, while others would rather hire someone to do it. Think about these options before you make a decision. 

DIY

If you already own a tiller, you’ll only be out for the cost of the gas. Renting one can add around $100 a day to the cost. Check the prices at a few local hardware and big box stores to get the best deal. 

Hire a Pro

If you’ll need to rent a tiller, or you aren’t crazy about wrangling a heavy piece of machinery through dirt, or your garden is going to cover lots of ground, hiring a professional gardener in your area to till your garden would be your best bet. 

Additional Questions

Can you plant immediately after tilling?

To get the most out of tilling your soil, wait for at least 2 weeks after tilling to plant your crop. This time gives soil organisms that were disrupted during tilling a chance to establish themselves again and start developing nutrients in the garden soil. This quiet period will increase your soil health, which will be a big boost to your garden. 

What do you use to mulch the beds of a vegetable garden?

Mulch offers many benefits, such as holding moisture so you don’t have to water as often, and stifling weed growth. If you decide to mulch your vegetable garden, consider using an organic choice like leaves, hay, or burlap bags. Be sure to leave an inch of space between your plant and the mulch to give it room to grow and avoid rot. 

What is lasagna gardening? 

This type of gardening, also referred to as sheet composting, refers to the no-till gardening method of layering organic materials that mesh and blend over time. This creates a super nutrient-rich soil that is a growing plant’s dream home. 

Kitchen scraps, yard waste, newspaper, and cardboard are all acceptable ingredients of a lasagna garden. The advantages of lasagna gardening are fewer weeds, better water retention, and loose, fluffy soil.

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