Cultivating vs. Tilling: How Do They Differ?

One very essential element to a successful garden is making sure you have healthy soil. Cultivating and tilling the soil are both age old practices that help gardeners get the healthy soil they need. Don’t get overwhelmed with the task of cultivating and tilling your soil. These practices are not only easy, but extremely effective at creating the healthy soil your gardens need to thrive. Although many home gardeners will use the words “cultivating” and “tilling” interchangeably, they are in fact two separate practices. Not only do they require different tools, but they are completed at different times during the season. Learning the difference between cultivating and tilling will help you ensure that both practices are happening within your garden. This article will outline the differences between cultivating and tilling, as well as teach you why they are both essential for your garden.   

What Is Cultivating?

The surface of the soil in your garden will naturally compact and become hard over time. This happens due to exposure to the elements. Cultivating is simply breaking up the top few inches of your soil, so it will soften. Cultivating should be practiced only when you notice your soil is becoming hard and crusty. When you notice water running off the surface of your soil without absorbing it is a good sign it is time to cultivate. Another indication cultivation is needed is if you notice lots of weeds beginning to take over your garden. You should only cultivate the top few inches, if you go any deeper you could damage the roots of your plants. It is easiest to cultivate dry earth. If the soil is damp or wet it may only further compact the soil, rather than loosen it.

Why Do We Cultivate?

Loosening the surface of your soil benefits your soil in two ways. The first benefit is it allows sunlight, air, water and nutrients to be more readily accessible into your plant roots. Cultivating your soil at the beginning of the season is important. It keeps the soil lush and fertile so that tender seedlings can germinate and grow. If the soil is to hard, your tiny new pants won’t be able to break through to the surface. Cultivating the soil throughout the season makes sure that the essential water and air reach the plant so it can thrive. The second benefit is that the loosening the soil will naturally remove weeds from the soil. Removing weeds eliminates unnecessary competition between weeds and your plants for water and nutrients in the soil. Not to mention that having a garden free from weeds is looks more professional and visually appealing.

Tools for Cultivating

Cultivating your soil has been a practice among gardeners for a long time. As such, it does not require super fancy tools or equipment. Most handheld spades, or claws are more than adequate for cultivation. Although you can use a hoe or a shovel to turn over the dirt, it is hard to keep it shallow. Remember you only need to cultivate the top few inches of soil, any deeper and you run the risk of hurting the roots of your plants. Using a shovel or a hoe to cultivate your soil may be difficult to control how deep you work. Hand held tools work great, but if you prefer a  more automated approach you can use a mini-tiller. These come in both gas and electric varieties. Many mini-tillers are designed to till and cultivate your garden, however experts agree that mini-tillers are best used just for cultivation.

What Is Tilling?

While tilling and cultivating are similar, they are not the same. It is important to understand the differences between the two so that you can till and cultivate your garden efficiently. Tiling is used to prepare your soil for planting. Similar to cultivating, tilling mixes and turns over the soil to add air and nutrients. However, it differs from cultivating because it mixes the soil much deeper. A typical tilling depth is 8-10 inches deep, and can actually go deeper if the soil needs extra TLC. Tilling not only mixes the soil, but it breaks down any plants within the soil and turns it into mulch to help enrich the earth. Cultivating is usually not powerful enough to mulch plants. Often gardeners use tilling to incorporate extra components to their soil such as lime, sand, or compost.

Why Do We Till?

Tilling is an important step to prepare your garden for planting. You should start tilling your ground as soon as the snow and rain have slowed down enough for your soil to be dry. Ideally you’d like to till the ground around one week or more before planting. This will mulch up any plants leftover from the previous season and begin to aerate the soil. Tilling the soil before planting allows nutrients and moisture to already be incorporated into the soil before the seeds are planted. This creates the best environment for new gardens. It is also important to till your garden at the end of the season. This will breakdown any plant life left over at the end of the season giving it plenty of time to decompose. It also prevents erosion from water runoff during the spring as well as deters unwanted pests during the winter.

Tools for Tilling

tilling, cultivating

Unlike plowing, which turns over soil into rows, tilling requires mixing your soil completely. Sometimes a garden tiller is called a rototiller. I would not recommend trying to till your whole garden by hand, no matter how big or small your garden. While cultivators are designed to cultivate and till the ground, all tillers are designed exclusively to till the soil. They are too powerful and do not have enough control to try and cultivate around plants without harming them. You can find tillers in a variety of sizes and in a large range of prices. Small or mini-tillers are used for tilling small gardens and may take a few passes in order completely mix the soil. Medium and large tillers can till the earth in just one pass. However, they can be pretty expensive and are generally used for larger gardens that are .25 acre or more.

In Conclusion

Cultivating and tilling your garden are two important practices for any gardener to implement. Tilling is done at the beginning and the end of the planting season to mulch leftover plant life and prepare the soil for planting. Cultivating can be done throughout the growing season to keep soil workable and full of nutrients. It is important to use the proper tools to cultivate and till your garden so that you can efficiently mix the soil without harming plants.  Now that you know the difference, work both practices into your gardening routine for healthy soil. Your plants will thank you!

Related Article: Finding the Best Garden Tiller – Our Top 10 Picks and Reviews

Amy O'Brien

I am a mother, homeowner, and a DIY kind of gal. Whether it’s backpacking in the mountains or throwing a BBQ in my backyard, I love bringing my family to the great outdoors!

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