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How-to Till, or Cultivate, a Garden

Updated on February 14, 2013
Marye Audet profile image

Marye Audet-White is an internationally known food writer, food editor for Texas Living, cookbook author, and food blogger.

Tilling A Garden for Best Production

Everyone knows that quality soil in the garden is one of the most important steps in harvesting loads of fresh, nutritious, organic vegetables. For some people, raised in the past couple of decades without the benefit of home grown produce, tilling is a confusing thing.

When do you start?

How do you do it?

And can you cut your toes off?


Prepare to Till

First check when your average last frost date is. The Old Farmers Almanac has a guide by the city, and state.

Hopefully you have all ready decided what to plant and have seeds on hand.

If Easter is late then the last frost is apt to be late, and if it is early then the last frost is apt to be early. However, for best results plant when the soil has reached the correct temperature for the plants you are going to grow. This is usually around 65 degrees. At that temperature you can stick your finger to the first knuckle into the soil and leave it there for a few minutes without feeling like you are getting frost bite.

The soil is ready when a clump of it breaks apart in your hands. It can be hard to get the garden tilled up in the early spring when there is lots of rain, so as soon as the soil is ready, or nearly ready, be ready to get out there with the tiller.And, a suggestion, at the end of the season this year, till up the ground so it will be easier to get started next spring.

You can buy soil test kits at garden centers, or send in a sample to the local agricultural extension office. This will tell you exactly what types of nutrients your soil needs. Any soil benefits from having rotted compost and well seasoned manure tilled into it. Check with the local high school Ag department, livestock associations, 4-H clubs, and even riding stables to see if you can find a free source for manure. Chicken manure is great if it is old and has had time to break down. Rabbit manure is nutrient intense and will cause vegetables to really grow.

When you have gotten the materials that you are going to till into the soil then spread them on top. When you run the tiller over it the soil will mix with the top dressing and the soil will be enriched. It is like giving the dirt massive amounts of vitamins.

Tilling Method

Tilling Your Garden

Read the instructions for using the tiller.

If you do not have one of your own you can rent garden machinery at Lowes, or Home Depot. Get the biggest one that you can easily handle in your garden area. The bigger it is, the more strength you need to handle it but the less work you will have to actually do.

Fill the tiller with the gasoline specified and start it according to the instructions. Remember, you are not pushing the tiller. You are guiding it and the action of it tilling up the earth is what is moving it forward. Most people find that standing solidly, with legs spread slightly, and leaning back a little, is the best stance for controlling the tiller. Keep your toes and feet away from the tines! It isn't a bad idea to wear steel toed boots if you have them.

Run the tiller slowly, cultivating the ground to a depth of at least six inches. Eight inches is preferable. You may need to stop once in awhile and take clumps of dirt, or long strands of grass or weeds, off from the tines to keep the tiller running easily. Always turn the machine completely off before doing this.

One you have finished tilling the entire garden in one direction, horizontally for example, then till it in the opposite direction. You can add more of the compost or manure when you do the second tilling, if desired.

Once the garden is tilled in both directions, rake over it to break up large clumps of dirt and take out any rocks. Let it set overnight, and then rake it again the next day. The garden is now ready to be planted.

It is alot of hard work, but your hard work will pay off when you are eating those completely ripe tomatoes of summer, and leaving extra zucchini on your neighbor's porch. To get even an earlier start, consider building your own greenhouse.

There is nothing like home grown vegetables, both for the sustainability of growing your own food, and the completely nothing-like-it taste that you get from them. Knowing how to till, and till well, can mean the difference between a successful garden and one that produces very little.


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    • C.R. Stone profile image

      C.R. Stone 6 years ago from East-Bolton

      Great hub. I was wondering if you think pig manure would work well? We have two pot bellied pigs and enough manure for a pretty large garden after the winter months. Also, any tips on how to keep the dogs away from the manure. Thanks, and again, great hub.

    • profile image

      Vegetable Gardening 7 years ago

      Great hub about tilling! You want to till your soil when it’s just moist - not too wet and not too dry. If it’s too moist, it will for clumps and dry into unworkable chunks. If it’s too dry and won’t break up nicely and be difficult to work.

    • sledge55 profile image

      sledge55 8 years ago

      very nice article really indepth !

    • chantelg4 profile image

      chantelg4 9 years ago from Northern Ontario

      Great article, can't wait for the last frost. Another 2 months to go!

    • Zsuzsy Bee profile image

      Zsuzsy Bee 9 years ago from Ontario/Canada

      Super duper hub Marye! I'm getting soooo antsy to get started. Do you know a chant to make the winter go away?

      regards Zsuzsy