Tilling Your Garden: When, How and Why

Tilling Your Garden: When, How And Why

Tilling the garden is a topic of hot debate in gardening circles.

Some people think it’s a must to do while others brush it off. Tilling is basically turning over and breaking the soil, and this does have many benefits for your garden.

Why is tilling your garden important?

Tilling your garden once or twice a year helps to remove weeds as well as pests that can damage your plants. Tilling soil also helps to loosen it up, which is what’s required for plants as it helps to encourage air circulation and water drainage.

Healthy soil in which plants can thrive should never be compacted, which is why tilling soil is so important. Luckily, tilling your garden doesn’t have to be a difficult task – you can do it manually or with the help of tilling equipment. Here’s our complete guide on how to do both.  

When Should You Till Your Garden?

You can’t just till your garden any time you like. You need to pay attention to the seasons.

Generally, the ideal time to till your garden is during the springtime. This is in order for you to be sure that your soil is dry and warm as these factors need to be present in order for tilling to benefit your soil and plants.

Bear in mind that tilling damages the soil’s structure which plants need in order to grow healthily, so you don’t want to do it unnecessarily or when the soil isn’t ready.

How can you test if your soil is dry and warm enough?

Spring might have come around, but you should still do a quick test to see if your soil really is dry and warm enough.

  • To do a quick dryness test, pick a handful of soil and squeeze it. If the soil crumbles easily when you open your fist, then it’s definitely dry enough to be tilled. If it remains in a ball, then it’s still too wet. Another test you can do to determine if your soil is dry enough is to put a trowel into the soil. If it can’t be pushed into the soil, then the soil is ready to be tilled.
  • To test the warmth of your soil, stick your finger about five or six centimeters into the soil. If you can’t keep it in the soil for up to a minute, then the soil is still too cold. You’ll have to wait a bit longer before you till your garden.

Once you have the above factors in place, you can go ahead and till your soil.

How To Till Your Soil Manually

You might think you need a tiller in order to till your garden, but you can opt for the manual route. In fact, that makes more sense if you have a small garden. So, let’s see what steps you should follow to till your garden. 

  • Remove any weeds that are in the ground in the area that you want to till.
  • Once they are removed, set down a layer of cardboard. This will create a natural barrier to weeds so that they won’t be able to penetrate the cardboard and harm your plants. The cardboard also provides a source of carbon for the soil.
  • On the cardboard sheet, you should apply two inches of grass clippings and organic compost. Always make sure that your clippings don’t have any weeds or weed seeds in them otherwise this will end up causing a problem.
  • On top of the compost and clippings, you want to add about two inches of mulch. This mulch can consist of material such as leaves and bark.
  • Wet the layer of mulch with the garden hose.
  • Leave this area of the garden to rest during the fall and winter if that’s when you’ve prepared the garden.
  • When spring arrives and your soil is both dry and warm (as we described earlier in this article) you can start the tilling process of digging the soil.
  • It’s known as double-digging and how you do it is by digging a trench that’s about eight inches deep and 12 inches wide. This trench should be dug along the length of the garden or area where you want to till the soil.
  • When you dig up the soil from the trench, put it into a wheelbarrow. You’ll use it later!
  • With the use of a garden fork, you want to loosen the soil that’s at the bottom of the trench without turning it.
  • Next, put a layer of compost in the trench. It should be about two inches thick.
  • Now you have to dig a second trench that’s separate from the first one but adjacent to it. It also needs to be the length of your gardening area.
  • Place the soil that you dig up from the second trench and place it into the first trench.
  • Just as you did with the first trench, you want to use a garden fork to loosen up the soil in the second trench and then put a layer of compost into it.
  • When you are done, you can use the soil that you collected from digging the first trench to fill up your second trench.
  • When you have both trenches completed and filled, you can put a layer of compost over the entire garden bed. Make it about two inches in thickness.

That’s it! You’ve just tilled your garden! As you can see from the above steps, it’s not that difficult to till your own garden, but it can be a little time consuming. If you’re a complete gardening beginner, you might find it takes a lot of effort.

That said, manually tilling your soil has some benefits, such as that it prevents compaction that can occur from the use of a tiller. It’s also safer as you don’t have to worry about potential injury with the machine.

Whatever the case, you can choose to use a tiller to till your garden if you don’t want to go the manual route or you just don’t feel comfortable with tilling your garden yourself.

Let’s move on to the steps you should follow when you want to use a tiller to till your soil.

How To Use A Tiller Safely And Successfully

  • First things first, when you prepare your garden to be tilled, make sure you test the soil for dryness and warmth as we mentioned earlier. This is a step that you need to do whether you use a tiller or manually till your garden as it will ensure that the ground is ready.
  • Once you’ve done your tests, you’ll need to remove any weeds that will invade the plants you want to put in it.
  • You should also add materials to the soil if it needs the extra nutrients. For example, you could add compost to nourish the soil. This is actually something that all types of soil will benefit from.
  • Now, if you have a small tiller machine, you might have to remove grass with the use of a spade before using it. Try to ensure that you leave as much topsoil from the grass as you can. If the tiller is a powerful one, you can use it without first removing grass.
  • Take the tiller and place it in one corner of your garden. You want to move it slowly along the length of the garden.
  • Carefully work your way along the garden so that all the soil is tilled.
  • If you notice that you missed some parts or there are clumps on the ground, then you’ll have to repeat the process.
  • The tiller tines might need to be cleaned during the process as they can get dirt or grass stuck to them.
  • If you notice that rocks have been pulled up to the surface during the tilling process, make sure you remove them from your garden.
  • When you do a second pass with the tiller, go over the row again but do so in the opposite direction (such as horizontally if you did it vertically the first time, or vice versa). This is important as it will ensure that you not only till the soil properly but encourage all the organic matter in the soil to be blended well.
  • When you do the second pass, make sure the tiller’s tines go deeper into the soil.

Extra Tips When Using A Tiller

If your garden has never been tilled before, you’ll probably have to do two passes with the tiller in different directions. Take your time and do it properly.

  • When making the first pass with the machine, make sure you use the right setting for the type of soil you have. So, opt for a shallow setting for hard soil and if your soil is soft, opt for a medium setting.
  • You don’t have to put in any effort to make the tiller move as it’s designed in such a way as to be self-propelling. Just make sure that the tiller moves in a straight line along its way.
  • Wear protective clothing. Protect your eyes with safety glasses and your arms with long sleeves because dirt and rocks could be thrown from the tiller’s tines. You should also wear the correct shoes. They should be heavy boots, preferably with steel toes, so that you don’t get injured. Finally, wear a strong pair of gloves, especially because you might have to clean the tiller’s tines.
  • When you reach the end of a row with your tiller, you want to push the tiller forward so you can turn it around. Don’t aim to till the soil in the row next to the one you’ve completed, but rather move over to the row after that one. This is because turning a tiller isn’t always easy to do, so giving yourself some space in which to manoeuvre the machine will help you get it around a little easier.
  • If the area you are tilling is a small one, you should opt for a front-line tiller. This type ensures that the tiller will be able to cut and turn soil and it’s most suitable for small areas. 

Why You Must Avoid Over-Tilling Your Garden

Why You Must Avoid Over-Tilling Your Garden

While tilling your garden soil is beneficial for many reasons, you don’t want to over-till it. This can cause problems, such as by compacting the soil instead of loosening it, and making it lack nutrients.

The best way to avoid over-tilling your soil is by making sure you only till it when it needs to be tilled.

If the soil is compacted, then tilling it will help to loosen it up and make it favourable for your plants. However, if your soil is healthy, then tilling it is unnecessary and you really don’t have to do it.  

How To Tell If Your Soil Should Be Tilled?  

In order to be sure that you’re not unnecessarily tilling your garden, there are some important tips to bear in mind.

  • If you’re mixing amendments, such as compost and organic matter, into the soil, then tilling will be beneficial to help to blend them correctly.
  • If your soil is very compacted, tilling will help to break it up and loosen it so that plants will be able to grow in it. 
  • If you are setting up a garden bed in your garden, tilling will turn the sod over. This helps to mix your organic matter so that you will have a bed that’s ready for planting and which is full of nutrients for your plants.

What’s The Difference Between Tilling And Cultivating The Soil?

Sometimes there’s a bit of confusion between cultivating the soil and tilling the soil – it’s mistakenly thought of as exactly the same thing, but these methods are a bit different.

Cultivating the soil refers to breaking it up and loosening it, in order to make the soil healthy as well as remove weeds that can smother plants. Based on that definition, it’s clear that tilling and cultivating share some similarities.

So then what are the differences?

Well, the biggest difference is that tilling the soil is basically a deeper form of cultivation because you’re reaching depths of around eight or more inches into the ground, whereas cultivating the soil is done at the surface level. You merely only break the surface of the soil when you cultivate it.

How Long Do You Have To Wait After Tilling To Plant In The Soil?

Although you might be tempted to go ahead and plant veggies or plants in your soil immediately after you’ve tilled it, you’re going to have to be a bit patient. You should wait between two and three weeks after tilling your soil before you can plant in it.

This is important so that when the soil settles you will be able to see if you have any high or low spots in the ground.

You should also rake and level the ground once more before you go ahead and plant in it. This will ensure a successful garden filled with lots of beautiful plants and veggies.

Related Questions

How can you remove grass that’s still present after tilling the ground?

Use a hand shovel to remove clumps of grass, then rake the ground. You might also need to use the tiller machine for two more passes over the area to properly eliminate any grass that remains as well as loosen up the soil.

When should you cultivate your soil?

There are many times when cultivating the soil is beneficial. These include when you want to clean the ground after crops have died, when you want to turn over crops and cut through their roots to boost their decomposition, and when you want to aerate the ground.


If you’ve heard about the benefits of tilling your soil and you want to do it for the first time, you might not know how to go about it or perhaps you might wonder if it’s really necessary to do it.

Some people insist that tilling the soil is good, whereas others claim that it’s a gardening chore you can skip. There’s a good middle ground here: only till your garden when it can really benefit from being tilled, otherwise give it a skip!

In this article, we’ve looked at the benefits associated with tilling your soil and when you should do it, as well as how you can do it.

We’ve outlined steps to follow if you’re manually tilling your garden or using a tilling machine, so that whichever method you choose will result in success – and help you start planting lovely things in your garden much sooner.

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