8 Tilling Tips for the Abundant Garden of Your Dreams

Susan McCullah
Written by Susan McCullah
Updated March 31, 2022
An abundant garden with shrubs and flowers
Photo: Photos by R A Kearton / Moment / Getty images

Don’t toil over your soil

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If you’re planting a garden this year, you will undoubtedly enjoy the fruits of your labor all year long. Flourishing gardens take planning and consistent tending. It’s important to kick off your project by knowing how to till your soil effectively. Tilled, healthy soil is an essential building block to a strong, supportive root system and high-yielding plants. 

Choosing the right tools, knowing when to till your garden (and when not to till), and preparing your soil will put you on the path to a beautiful and abundant garden. 

1. Wait Until the Right Time

You may be eager to get out of the house and start on your garden plans, but have patience. Knowing when to till your garden is key. Spring is typically the best season to till. Planting your crop too early can cause your plants to freeze, and your efforts will be wasted. 

Two things signal when to till your garden: First, the garden bed must be dry, because tilling wet soil can damage the soil structure and create problems as your garden grows. If the soil sticks together, it’s too wet to till. 

Check your soil by picking up a handful and shaping it into a ball. If it crumbles when you squeeze it, then it’s dry enough to till. 

Second, you need to till when the soil is 60 degrees Fahrenheit or warmer. The soil surface won’t tell you what you need to know. You need to use a soil thermometer for an accurate reading. 

Early morning is a good time to check the soil temperature, as it tends to be colder, and that time of day will have the most impact on your plants.

2. Choose the Best Tiller

A rototiller offers plenty of benefits for your garden. Nicknamed “tiller” for short, it’s a piece of equipment that will be helpful in your gardening. It has blades, called tines, that loosen the soil and mix in fertilizer. 

You can use a tiller to hoe, crumble up compacted soil, and pull weeds. The benefits of tilling your soil are greater aeration, fewer weeds, and your plant roots can develop quicker. 


The size of the tiller you choose depends on your soil and the size of your garden. If you’re planting a small vegetable garden or flower bed with decent soil, a small tiller will do the job. A large garden, or densely packed, hard soil, may require a larger tiller with more horsepower. 

When picking a tiller, consider the tiller’s weight, as some of the larger push tillers weigh almost 200 pounds. Push tillers or advanced models can be pulled or driven. Anything bigger than a push rototiller will likely require a small garden tractor to haul.

Buy or Rent

If you don’t want to buy a tiller of your own, you can rent one from your local hardware or lawn care specialty store. You’ll probably need a van or truck to transport it, or pay extra to have it delivered. 

As with any piece of machinery, thoroughly read the owner’s manual and follow all safety precautions. A tiller is a dangerous piece of equipment with powerful spinning blades. Using it incorrectly could cause serious injuries. 

No-Till Gardening

It’s important to note there is a no-till gardening trend that has many gardeners chucking the till altogether. The argument behind no-till farming is that the ground is home to millions of soil organisms that help produce a healthy garden. Tilling soil can damage these organisms, create soil compaction, and reduce the presence of soil organic matter. 

There are pros and cons for no-till farming, with a big drawback being the extra muscle that goes into preparing a no-till garden. Whether you decide to use a tiller or try your hand at no-till gardening, you’ll still want to work on your soil’s health. 

3. Build Up Healthy Soil

Two men tilling the garden’s soil
Photo: Aleksander Rubtsov / Tetra images / Getty Images

If you’re planting a brand new flower or vegetable garden, call the utility company and make sure there are no buried lines you could cut into with your tiller. 

Surface Preparation

Clean off the soil surface you’re going to till by removing the rocks, sticks, leaves, grass clippings, debris, and weeds that have accumulated over the winter. This gives you a clear, easier-to-manage tilling path. 

Pull or dig out perennial weed seeds so your tilling doesn’t spread them all over your garden. The effort it takes to prepare the area protects your tiller blades and makes your job go a bit more quickly. 

Soil Amendment

What you do next depends on your type of soil. If it’s hard and dense, you’re working with clay soil. You can get it ready for your garden by amending it. 

Soil amendment is the process of adding materials to the soil to “balance it out.” You can use sand, organic matter like compost, and minerals to help amend your soil. 

If your soil is sand as opposed to clay, soil amendment will also work by mixing in some organic material. If you decide to add compost or other material to your garden soil, do it before you till. 

Tilling will spread it across and deeply into your rows so your entire crop benefits from the nutrient boost. A layer 2 to 4 inches thick introduces a healthy shot of organic matter into your soil that helps your plants thrive. Try to achieve a 1/4 organic matter, 3/4 soil mixture for best results.

4. Till Your Garden Bed

After you’ve decided when to till your garden, gather the gear you’ll need to keep yourself safe while you’re using the tiller. Eye protection is essential to keep wayward flying debris from potentially damaging your vision. Heavy work gloves will protect the skin on your hands, and sturdy work boots are necessary to guard against accidents. 

It’s smart to mark off the area you’ll be tilling to help you stay on track. Start in one corner of the garden bed and work your way down the first row while making sure you go as deeply into the soil as you need by setting the tiller to the correct depth. Till each row slowly while gently guiding the tiller but letting it do the work. Stop the tiller and pick up any rocks or trash it digs up and move it out of the garden. 

5. Be Careful Not to Over-Till

Once you start tilling, make sure your path allows you not to have to move backward over your tillage. While tilling offers big benefits to your plants and garden, overtilling can make your soil worse than before you began by reducing protective crop residue and killing soil organisms that benefit your garden. 

Over-tilled soil can also compact the soil, which worsens the issue you’re trying to resolve in the first place. Too much tillage can speed up soil erosion, as well. 

6. Let the Soil Rest

A common question is “can I plant right after tilling?” The short answer is, you can, but you shouldn’t. 

To grow a healthy, high-producing garden, you need to know how to till, but you also need to know when to wait. After tilling, let your soil set for at least a few days so the organic material you added can enrich it before you plant. 

When you’re ready to plant, rake your soil to even it out. Remove any new debris that has collected since you tilled your garden.

7. Pick Your Mulch

Hands in gloves picking mulch with a shovel
Photo: Annie Otzen / DigitalVision / Getty Images

Mulching your bare soil is an important part of creating a vibrant garden. Like compost, it improves soil health. It also decreases soil erosion, stunts weed growth, and reduces evaporation, which keeps you from weeding and watering as often. 

A nice layer of mulch protects your plant roots from extreme hot and cold temperatures. This gives them a better chance to grow and bear fruit. 

Wood chips and bark are common types of mulch, and serve a garden well. You can also choose stone or aged organic mulch. Keep in mind that chunky mulch typically decomposes slower, which cuts down on maintenance. 

Note: Plant your garden before you mulch it. This lets you work around your new growth. Using a shovel or a pitchfork, spread a layer of mulch about 4 inches deep to help retain moisture and avoid a weed seed problem. Don’t spread it too thickly, because that can overheat your soil on hot summer days and suffocate plant roots.

8. Clean and Store (or Return) the Tiller

When you’re finished using your tiller, clean the blades so they’re free from dirt, roots, and grass. Use a stiff brush to get dried soil off the tiller, and cut out any tangled grass or weeds with a sharp knife. Dry the tiller off with a towel to prevent rusting. 

Finally, check the tires for punctures or low air and inflate or replace them if needed. If your tiller isn’t running well, repair itbefore using it again. These simple tasks will extend the life of your tiller, making sure it’s in working order the next time you need it. Store it in a clean, dry area. 

If you need help with tilling or designing your dream garden, contact a gardener near you.

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