All You Need to Know About Garden Tilling

Updated: Jun. 04, 2024

Gardening is more rewarding when your veggies and flowers are vibrant and healthy. For this, you need to prepare the soil before planting. Here's how.

While working as a landscaper and gardener off and on for almost 30 years, I’ve always been amazed at the ability of spindly vegetable and flower plant starts to grow into hardy, full-sized plants. To do this, the roots have to wend their way through the soil, absorbing water and nutrients. When you think of it, this is a Herculean task, especially considering how fragile young roots are.

To produce a successful garden, you want to make this task as easy as possible by preparing the soil — tilling it — before you plant. Young roots will struggle in compacted soil, they won’t transfer nutrition to the growing plants if the soil is devoid of nutrients and the plants won’t be healthy if the soil has a chemical imbalance, or it’s too loose to retain moisture. Tilling corrects all these deficiencies.

I’ve never found tilling to be difficult to do with hand tools, but it definitely helps to have a motorized tiller for large garden plots. When it comes to adding nutrients, there’s no better source than compost, and according to Lauren Click of Let’s Go Compost, the most balanced compost comes from locally sourced, recycled garden waste. In this post, you’ll find answers to your questions about the benefits of tilling, the tools you need and the best way to do it.

Benefits of Garden Tilling

As I mentioned, tilling means breaking up the soil to prepare it for planting. Effective tilling churns dirt from six to eight inches below the surface, creating a loose, aerated soil bed for planting seeds or seedlings.

“Roots and plants hate thick, hard, clumped-up soil,” says expert gardener Elle Meager. “That’s because plants need plenty of oxygen, nutrients and moisture — all of which are hard to come by if the dirt is hard as a rock. When you break up the soil with tilling, your plants have more of a chance to take root, flourish, access oxygen and develop without stress.”

In addition to aerating the soil for better root-to-earth contact, garden tilling offers these benefits:

  • Weed prevention: “Tilling helps prevent weeds because it chops weeds that have already started to grow as well as disturbs any perennial weeds that have taken root, so they won’t return,” says gardening expert Katie Dubow.
  • Fertilization: Turning the soil helps organic matter decompose into the soil to provide nutrients for plants. If you are adding compost to the plant bed to boost nutrients, tilling helps spread and mix the organic matter uniformly throughout the soil.
  • Pest Control: Larvae that have overwintered in the soil can wreak havoc on young plants. Tilling disrupts their life cycle.

When Is the Best Time to Till?

“I say there’s no perfect time for tilling your garden,” says Meager. “Any time before planting your veggies or crops works for me. I’ve had tremendously successful yields when I’ve tilled my garden minutes before transplanting directly in the freshly tilled soil! I’ve also had luck breaking up the dirt week before transplanting.”

The best time to till for spring planting is after the soil has thawed and dried out from the spring rains. “By tilling, you’ll mix in more air and help the soil warm sooner and your plants will grow more quickly,” Dubow says. Avoid tilling wet soil; you’ll just compact the ground, and it will be harder for roots to penetrate when it dries out.

Tools You’ll Need

Unless you’re planting a new garden in severely compacted soil or you’re planting a very large garden, you can do your tilling work with hand tools. The most important ones are:

  • Hoe: For as long as anyone can remember, a hoe has been the gardener’s standby cultivating tool. It slices deep into the ground, severing weed roots and loosening the soil so you can turn it over with a tiller.
  • Rake: Use a cultivator rake (not a leaf rake) to remove surface debris and loosen the first few inches of topsoil. If the soil is already loose, and you’re spreading mulch or sowing seeds, this may be the only tool you need.
  • Hand tiller: Two types are available. A rotary tiller has a tined wheel on the end of a long handle, and you simply run it back and forth along the ground, allowing the tines to dig up the earth as you go. A twist tiller has fixed tines that rip up the soil as you apply a twisting force to the handle.

Pro tip: A cordless rotary tiller can save a lot of work for medium-sized gardens (up to about 100 square feet).

  • Broad fork: Also known as a U-bar, this tool resembles a large pitchfork (which you can also use). Dig the tines deep into the earth and use the handle as a lever to lift the soil up and turn it over.
  • Auger: An oversized screw attachment for your drill, an auger bores down into compacted soil and loosens it, which allows your compost to get deeper into the ground.
  • Rototiller: You’ll get tired trying to till a garden plot larger than 100 square feet with hand tools. For this, you’re better off renting or buying a gas-powered rotary tiller, also known as a rototiller.

How to Till a Garden

Tilling isn’t a complicated job, but it’s one that takes effort, especially if you use only hand tools, so prepare to sweat.

  1. Prepare the area: Manually remove stones, tree roots and large weeds that will get in the way of the tiller. If you don’t do this, you risk damaging your tools.
  2. Mark out the areas to be planted: Mark out your planting rows and other areas with chalk. You don’t necessarily have to till the sections of your garden you don’t plan to use, but you do need to till these areas.
  3. Spread compost: Lay a four-to-five-inch layer of compost over the areas to be tilled. You’ll work this into the soil as you turn it over. Click recommends stopping at this point and letting the compost naturally leach into the soil. “No-till gardening promotes soil health, reduces erosion, and enhances water retention by avoiding the disruption of soil structure,” she says. Heavily compacted soil, however, needs to be turned over to promote root growth.
  4. Use your tilling tools: Loosen compacted soil with hand tools, then use a hand tiller or rototiller to turn over the rest, working compost into the soil as you go. Don’t rush it. Work slowly and let the tools do most of the work.

Pro tip: Once you’ve tilled a row, don’t go back over it. This compacts the soil and defeats the purpose of tilling, which is to loosen and aerate the soil.

About the Experts

  • Lauren Click is the Founder of Let’s Go Compost, a 501(c)(3) non-profit dedicated to making composting free and accessible throughout the United States. The organization works to install free food waste drop-off programs at public schools and community gardens across the United States with an emphasis on composting education.
  • Elle Meager is a seasoned horticulturalist with 25 years of hands-on experience. She’s a qualified permaculture teacher and the Founder of Outdoor Happens, a blog dedicated to providing tips and advice from a global team of expert gardeners.
  • Katie Dubow is the President of Garden Media Group, a public relations firm specializing in home and garden topics. Her goal is, as she puts it, to convince people that brown thumbs can indeed turn green.