How to Till a Garden: A Complete Guide

If you want to grow a lush, bountiful home garden, there may be a few things that you’ll need to learn first. One of the most important gardening chores you’ll have to do is tilling.

In this article, we’ll discuss how to till a garden, as well as what exactly tilling is, why you should do it, and the right time of the year for soil tilling.

Let’s dive in!

What Is Tilling?

To give you the full answer, we must talk about the difference between tilling, cultivating, and plowing. Most people tend to confuse one term for another, but each one of these soil-preparing techniques is unique.


Simply enough, to till a garden refers to the act of churning the soil and disturbing it to a depth of about eight to ten inches. To do so, you’ll need a tiller, which is a power tool that features rotary spinning blades.

While tilling is a specific chore, cultivating is a more general term that stands for any process you use to prepare a plot of land for crops or gardening. Plowing, on the other hand, is more heavy-duty work.


There’s a huge difference between plowing and tilling. See, when you till the garden, you only turn a maximum of eight to ten inches of soil. However, plowing means turning over a large amount of soil, usually working between 12 and 20 inches deep.

Because this is serious gardening work, you can’t simply do it using a cultivator or tiller. Instead, a gardener will attach a plow to his or her tractor and start breaking apart the garden soil.

Unlike tilling and cultivating, gardeners don’t plow their gardens frequently. This chore is only necessary if you want to start a new garden or turn a field into a garden. The plow will allow you to dig deep inside the soil and remove the roots of pre-existing plants.


Cultivating means taking care of a garden and its plants and tending to their needs. Most farmers use this word to describe hoeing or utilizing a tiller to get rid of weeds and mixing fertilizers with the soil.

Usually, cultivating occurs at a depth of only three inches of the soil.

Now that you can tell these three gardening terms apart, let’s go through some common questions that may be on your mind about tilling.

When Is the Best Time to Till Your Garden?

The best time of the year to till your yard is in the spring or fall. During these two seasons, the soil is still pretty warm and easy to break apart. 

Plus, you want your garden soil to be dry so that it’ll respond well to tilling. Working on wet soil may quickly damage its structure, which is the last thing you want if you’re getting ready to plant some daffodils or fuchsias.

Tilling in the spring prepares the garden for immediate planting, while tilling in the fall gets it ready for next year’s planting.

When Shouldn’t You Till Your Garden?

Gardening experts agree on two scenarios where you mustn’t till your garden soil. Let’s walk you through each one of these instances so that your gardening experience remains free of mistakes.

During Wet Weather

As we’ve already pointed out, tilling wet soil can harm its composition because it could cause compaction. When soil compaction occurs, the roots of the plants won’t be able to penetrate the soil the way they should during the growing season.

Therefore, you must wait until spring or early fall to ensure that the soil is completely dry. But what if it rains like it sometimes does in spring or fall?

In that case, you’ll have to wait a few days after it finishes raining then till your garden. A telltale sign that your soil is ready for turning is if you find it hard to insert a trowel into it. Also, you could feel the ground with your hand to make sure that it’s dry to the touch.

When the Soil Has Been Overworked

Tilling is generally healthy for your garden soil. Yet, if you till overworked soil, you could strip it of its natural moisture by exposing it to too much air and sunlight.

If you over-till your soil, you may end up with smaller soil particles. These tend to dry out faster and will soon develop an unwanted crust on the soil surface, which leads to poor planting conditions.

What Kind of Tiller to Use in My Garden?

Knowing the right type of tiller that fits your garden is crucial to make your work easier and more efficient. You’ll have to make your decision depending on the size of your yard, how compacted its soil is, and how much you’re ready to work to prepare it.

To keep things simple, tillers are available in three types. These are mini-tillers, mid-sized tillers, and large, rear tine tillers. Now, which one of these models is suitable for your yard?

Mini-tillers should be perfect for a small garden – about 1,500 square feet – where you’ll be growing herbs or delicate flowers. These small tillers will work fantastically with soil that isn’t too hard or rocky.

On the other hand, if your soil is more on the rocky side, a small tiller may not be able to handle it.

Even if your garden is small, your best bet is to invest in a mid-size, front tine tiller. This version is usually packed with enough power to break up solid dirt, yet it’s pretty easy to maneuver in tight places. Mid-size tillers should be suitable for 1,500 to 5,000 square feet yards.

Large tillers are awesome candidates for tilling yards that are over 5,000 square feet. Sure, they tend to be bulky and heavy, but they can till a large area fast, as well as work in difficult soil conditions. 

You should note that large tillers are a tad tricky to turn around, which is why we recommend using them only in open areas.

How to Till a Garden – A Step-By-Step Guide

Now that you have plenty of background knowledge about garden tilling, it’s time to dig right in!

Step 1: Prepare Your Garden Before Tilling

If you intend to plant a spring garden, then you must get the soil ready for tilling in the fall. This should be enough – all you’ll have to do is determine the spot where your new garden will grow and get rid of any weeds.

Next, you’ll have to wet the soil and add a layer of cardboard over its surface. The cardboard will act as a barrier against the weed. After that, spread one to two inches of organic compost and grass clipping over the cardboard layer.

Now, it’s time to add organic mulch over your compost. Simply drape one or two inches of leaves, bark, or other mulch, then wet the whole mulched area with a watering nozzle and hose.

When you’re done, leave the soil alone for the entirety of fall and winter, then revisit it when the weather becomes dry.

Step 2: Get Your Tiller Ready

To make the most out of your tiller, first check that it’s functioning properly. Be sure to troubleshoot any potential problems that might occur. For instance, there has to be clean oil in it, the gas should be fresh, and the blades must be sharp. It’s a good idea to sharpen the blades at least once a year.

Remember that if you’re tilling a lawn area, you should mow it first to get rid of vegetation.

Step 3: Start Tilling Your Garden

Before you begin your work, consider marking down the area you’ll be tilling to stay organized. After that, start at one corner of that area with your tiller, slowly pushing the tiller in front of you in neat rows.

It’s important that you don’t go too fast. Instead, give the machine enough time to break down and churn the soil. You’ll also need to pay some extra attention when tilling a new garden. In that case, it may be better to make two passes on each row to better reach the sod layer.

Step 4: Take a Closer Look at Your Soil

When you’re done, check your soil to make sure that the results are satisfactory. The grass and weeds must be chopped up properly and the compost must be blended in thoroughly with the soil.

After getting the desired effect, turn the tiller off and proceed to plant your garden.

Benefits of Tilling Garden Soil

Tilling garden soil is essential for the well-being of your soil and plants. Here are three reasons why you should do it at least once a year.

  • Promises weed control.
  • Mixes nutrients in the soil efficiently.
  • Helps you organize your garden.


Learning how to till a garden is a skill that every gardening enthusiast should master, so that they can grow colorful flowers and fabulous plants. At a first glance, it might sound tricky, yet it’s really as straightforward as mowing the lawn.

Hopefully, after following our step-by-step guide, your garden should be ready for a full springtime bloom next year!