As many gardeners know, part of building a successful garden is making sure your ground is well prepared for planting. Tilling, or the process of making sure your soil is broken up, fluffed up, and well mixed, plays an important role in accomplishing this task. If you’re not familiar with the process or want to add some new tips to your repertoire, you’ll enjoy digging in to the following information.
Choosing Your Tiller
There are two common tillers that many home gardeners use.
Rear Tine Tiller: These larger modern tillers are great for preparing large areas of land to be planted. Newer models have special designs to help save the machine and your back by placing the weight over the blades in the rear. If you are using one of these larger tillers, be prepared for some bouncing and odd jerking, especially if your ground is hard.
Mini Front Tine Tiller: These tillers are designed for smaller areas and tight situations in which greater control and a smaller unit is required. These tillers still have some bounce and jerkiness, and be aware that they often will pull pretty strong – at times feeling a little more out of control than larger tillers.
When to Till
The time to till your ground is not always easy to gauge. However, it’s important to get this part of the process right as it will affect the your workload and garden success down the line. The keys to remember are:
Till when the ground is appropriately moist. If you dig into your dirt and find the soil very crumbly and dry (just falls through your fingers), it’s too dry. If your soil however feels soft, slightly damp, and breaks up finely in your hand, you’re probably good to go. In the Rogue Valley, it often works to till during our “Spring Tease” period that tends to come in January or February. If you do till to early, with our common clay soil here in Southern Oregon, you’ll likely end up with hard chunks of clay that practically turn to stone after sitting exposed for a while.
First off, if you’ve scoped out an area for your garden (read more about this process here), but have not tilled the area before, you’re going to want to till a little deeper than you will in following tills – 1-1.5 feet should do the trick. If you have grass covering this area, do a thin till first and rake off your loose grass. Otherwise you’ll be pulling it, weeds, and other things out of your garden area later. After your first till, wait 3-4 weeks to let things grow back (nutrients and healthy organisms). This is especially important if you are tilling and adding soil amendments.
Second (and Subsequent) Tills
If you’ve already tilled an area before, it’s not necessary to go as deep. Usually 6-8” will be sufficient. This is done to help protect those very same nutrients and organisms you’ve been working to cultivate in your soil. In some situations using a smaller tiller may help you more efficiently gauge your depth and not over till.
Planning Your Till for Large Areas
At times when tilling a larger area, it might help to develop a diagram and plan for how you’re going to till. It’s best to avoid walking over soil you’ve just tilled, which can be a bit tricky if you don't plan ahead. However, proper planning can help ensure you know exactly what you’re doing and maximize the benefits of your labor.
Go forth and till!
Looking for more intsruction? This video (while an obvious commercia) will run you through some of the basics of getting up and running with your tiller