How to Till a Garden Without a Tiller

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Last updatedLast updated: March 27, 2021
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There are quite a number of ways to till a garden without a tiller. Our forefathers certainly mastered that fine art and managed to grow their food without the help of gas-powered tillers.

That’s why you don’t have to buy a motorized tiller just because you do need to break new ground. It can actually be advantageous to rely on gentler methods of manual tilling because they allow you to turn over the soil without destroying its structure and life.

You’re right in thinking that tilling without a tiller is going to take forever, as it sometimes may when you use manual methods. But, don’t give up just yet because some of these methods are pretty ingenious and can actually be fun!

Plus, there are still many benefits to tilling your soil including:

  • You break up the compact top layer into a softer texture for plant growth
  • Tilling breaks up and buries organic matter, controlling weeds and increasing its organic content
  • Deep tilling also buries pests and helps keep their population down
  • If your soil is dead, tilling allows air and bacteria to circulate and bring it back to life
  • Tilling allows tubers such as potatoes to elongate and grow bigger

When Is the Best Time to Till Your Garden?

The best time to till your garden is during the spring, 2-3 weeks before planting. This is the time when the soil is sufficiently dry. You can also till later in the fall after mulching so that the soil has time to recover biologically during winter.

That doesn’t mean you should till your soil every year. The soil itself will let you know when it’s ready for the shovel. Try these simple tests to gauge the condition of the soil before tilling:

  • To check for animal life, dig a hole 6-10 inches deep and observe the interior for 4 minutes. If you count less than 10 bugs, the soil could be poorly aerated and needs tilling
  • To check the soil structure (also called its tilth), remove soil from the 6-10 inch hole you just dug and break it apart. If it forms rounder aggregates that tend to retain their shape under slight pressure, it’s a healthy soil. If they are hard and irregular aggregates, you have a problem with the soil structure
  • To tell if the soil is dry enough for tilling, squeeze a handful of it into a ball and then press your finger slightly against it. If it crumbles away, then it’s ready for tilling.
There are a few other soil tests you can perform to check how healthy it is, such as water infiltration and compaction tests. All these help you know when is the right time to till your garden.

There is such a thing as over tilling, which results in the loss of soil structure, organic matter, and reduction in yields. It is important to read your soil carefully and learn when it needs tilling. You don’t actually have to till your soil every time you need to plant or weed, as we will see in a bit.

Best Ways to Loosen Soil Without a Tiller

Tilling is the process of turning over and breaking up soil aggregates, a job that powered tillers and rototillers perform very well and with less effort. While you can always order one of these hungry machines, you can still till your soil effectively using these alternative methods.

1.   Till with a Manual Hoe

How to Till a Garden Without a Tiller

Using a grubbing hoe is one of the oldest methods of turning the soil over manually. Also called a garden hoe, it is used to break up hard soil into clods and mix up the soft soil. The multipurpose tool also serves other functions such as digging trenches and hilling.

When using a manual hoe, you place your less dominant hand near the top of the handle and the other about halfway down with your thumbs facing towards the blade. Then, you raise the hoe to hip or chest height and swing it down into the soil, pulling it back towards you in one fluid motion. You advance slowly while digging and pulling, creating a narrow swath ahead of you as you till.

When using a hoe, remember not to raise it above your head as this just wastes more energy and gets soil into your hair and clothes. You don’t need to slide your hands up and down unless you need to impart more force into your swing.

A manual hoe can allow you to dig quite deep, usually more than 8”. Once you master the technique, it’s also faster and less exerting than using a shovel. If you are tilling rocky soil without a tiller, use a fork hoe instead to make your job easier.

There are many types of garden hoes designed for different uses, so it might be worth going through this review of the best garden hoes to learn more about them.

2.   With a Wheel Hoe

A wheel hoe is a tilling implement in the form of a large wheel and tines attached. By simply pushing the wheel hoe forwards, you force the tines through the soil and achieve much faster and easier tillage compared to using garden hoes.

Given the manual force needed to push a wheel hoe through the soil, these implements are best used in soft soil. Compact soil presents a challenge for wheel hoes, especially when tilling virgin sod.

Wheel hoes are still one of the best ways how to loosen soil without a tiller, and they also work great for other tasks as well such as furrowing, weeding, and planting.

When it comes to wheel hoes, heavy-duty construction and versatility are key features. One unit that meets these criteria is the Earthway High Wheel Cultivator, which comes with a huge 24-inch wheel and a set of three implements. This gives it superb handling and versatile functionality even on rough soil.

Wheel hoes are one of the most eco-friendly tilling implements because they don’t go as deep. This way, they won’t harm the soil’s natural biomass and will preserve soil structure in its lower layers.

3.   Use a Garden Weasel

Garden Weasel is a top brand of gardening tools, but in this case, that name refers to the company’s patented Garden Weasel Cultivator. The rotary, scissor-like tines of this implemented are designed for rolling back and forth on the garden to break up and mix the top layer of the soil.

The Garden Weasel is really very simple and easy to use. The rotating tines perform shallow cultivation and break up the soil beautifully, while at the same time burying organic matter. You should wet the soil before using this implement to improve its efficacy.

The Garden Weasel gives you a fine-textured garden, which is perfect for a seedbed. If you have already mulched your garden, this tool can help you to mix up the soil and organic matter thoroughly. That’s why the Garden Weasel is among our top picks for the best hand tillers.

4.   With a Shovel

How to Till a Garden Without a Tiller

If your soil is a soft, dry kind of sandy soil, tilling with a spade is a simple and effective way to mix up your soil thoroughly. However, using a spade is labor-intensive and definitely requires a strong back, especially if your garden is compacted or wet.

One of the best ways to use a shovel for tilling your garden is with the double digging method. We will explore this technique a little later, but it basically involves removing the topsoil to expose the subsoil, breaking up the subsoil, replacing the topsoil, and adding organic matter.

When you’re not double digging, a shovel is also useful for turning over the topsoil and mixing it up with organic matter. To do that:

  • Use your foot to drive the shovel 6-8 inches deep into the soil and turn it over. Start from the perimeter and circle around to the center to avoid stepping on any tilled ground
  • Break up any clods with the edge of the blade
  • Use your hands to uproot weeds or tree roots, and pick up any large rocks
  • When you’re done, use a rake to level the soil and mix it up evenly

Probably the best kind of shovel for tilling is a rounded point shovel with a hardened steel blade. The pointed edge makes it easier to dig, while the tough steel prevents it from bending or breaking under stress. If you don’t have such a one, check out our review of the best garden shovels.

5.   With a Pickaxe/Mattock

When you’re tilling rocky soil without a tiller, the tool you need is a pick axe. A pickaxe or mattock is a heavy, medieval-looking tool perfect for tough soils such as clays. It has two parts on its head; the pick and the chisel. Both of these are used for different purposes, but the pick generally works on the hardest ground.

A pickaxe is one of the strongest tools in the gardener’s arsenal, making it perfect for digging out grass and tree roots.

Another major advantage of tilling with a pickaxe is that it goes deep into the soil, typically 6-10 inches in one swing. Thus, it is perfect for breaking up compacted topsoil and subsoil.

Unlike using a garden hoe, a pickaxe needs you to swing it high over your head and slide your dominant hand up the handle as you bring it down into the soil. This allows you to put a lot of force into your swing, but it also means you use a lot more energy. For softer soils, raising the mattock to chest height should be sufficient.

When tilling using a pickaxe, remember that the head has two sides, so you need to swing with a slightly sideways motion to keep the other side of the tool away from your back. Luckily, tilling with a mattock is also an excellent upper-body workout.

6.   The Ruth Stout Method

At the moment, research is leaning towards minimalist tilling for maximum soil health. Many gardeners are warming up to the various no-till methods of gardening, and one of the best is the Ruth Stout method.

The problem with constant tilling is that after tilling, the loose soil tends to aggregate, dry up, and harden again. It also disrupts the living organisms in the soil, eventually leading to dead and dry soil.

The life of the soil is its biomass, which is why Ruth had such success with her method.

The Ruth Stout no-till method involves maintaining a heavy layer of vegetable matter such as straw or hay in the garden, all year round. The vegetable mulch decays and adds a thick layer of soft organic matter to the soil, which enriches it and allows it to hold more moisture.

In time, living organisms burrow into this top layer of humus and topsoil, restoring the soil structure. Ruth was inspired by nature to develop this method – think about the floor of tropical forests and how delightfully soft and fertile it is. However, she did need to add some cotton meal or soy meal to fertilize the soil.

By leaving the soil dormant for years, you give it time to replenish itself. However, if it is a tough clay, tilling might still be necessary now and then to allow aeration and water infiltration. Other no-till techniques include Back to Eden, Hugelkutur, and the No-Dig method.

7.   Tilling with a Rake

How to Till a Garden Without a Tiller

Tilling your garden with a rake only works when you already have a soft garden (obviously), which means you need to have previously dug it up with a shovel, garden hoe, mattock, or something similar. A rake helps you to turn the soil by combing through it several times, giving you a soft “breadcrumb” consistency.

Tilling a garden with a rake is especially effective when you are adding large amounts of organic matter into the topsoil. A rake with long tines sends organic matter deep into the soft soil and helps remove any rocks, thus preparing especially fine seedbeds.

After you have dug your ground and have the right kind of rake for the job, all you need to do is:

  • Dig the rake’s tines into the surface of the soil and pull it towards you, thus combing through the soil particles
  • You can use the edge of the rake to break up any large lumps
  • Pick up rough debris such as stones and roots out of the garden to improve the texture of the soil
  • Add mulch or fertilizer as necessary, then run the rake through the soil a few more times until it is evenly mixed up
  • You can use the flat edge of the rake to level the soil when you are done

For this kind of job, you need a heavy-duty bow rake that will allow you to put in the necessary force needed to break up soil clods. We have a review of the best bow rakes that you can dig into to find the right one.

8.   With a Drill-Powered Auger

We have drill attachments for everything including dish scrubbers and egg whiskers, so why not a garden auger? This is an attachment that connects into a handheld drill which you can use for turning the soil and drilling planting holes.

Unless you have a super-powerful drill, this method will likely only work with softer loams, clays, and sands. The important thing is to make sure that you have the right drill-powered auger for the job. It needs to be tough to resist wear and be optimized for spiral hole digging.

One such heavy-duty auger is this multi-purpose auger drill bit. This hardened-steel auger can bite up to 16.5 inches deep with a 1.6-inch diameter hole, which makes it perfect for breaking up the subsoil and achieving deep tillage.

9.   Tilling with a Garden Claw

A garden claw or cultivator works like a small one-handed rake. You simply pull it through the soil to break it up and remove weeds.

Tilling with a garden claw is one of the least invasive ways of manual tilling and is actually used for soil aeration in several no-till methods. You can use a garden claw to till if the soil is already soft enough and you just want to prepare a garden bed for planting, or when you need to mix in some mulch and fertilizer.

10. Tilling Manually with a Pitchfork

Grab your pitchfork and get down to business, because this is one of the most brilliant gardening tools you can use for tilling. The sharp tines of the pitchfork help you to get under the soil effortlessly and turn it over, mixing it up thoroughly with any mulch and fertilizer you put in.

To use a pitchfork, you just need to hold the pitchfork in front of you with the tines lined up at a slight horizontal angle. You can then use your hands to push it down into the soil as deep as you want and turn it over. Repeat the process as you walk forward in rows to cover the whole garden.

Remember that the pitchfork works just like a shovel, only much easier to use. If the ground is hard and dry, watering it for a few days before tilling will soften it and make it easier to till. Otherwise, you might need to use a garden hoe or mattock on it first to get it ready.

11. With Multi-Prong Hand Tillers

How to Till a Garden Without a Tiller

Multi-prong hand tillers such as the Garden Weasel CLAW look like a manual auger with twisted tines, which allows you to dig deep into the soil and break it up effectively with a firm twisting motion.

These tillers are designed to be tough, but what puts the original Garden Weasel a notch above its competitors is its heavy-duty construction. Made from carbon steel, it allows you to loosen the soil up to 6 inches deep and work tough clods easily.

The problem with multi-prong hand tillers is that they require a little bit more elbow grease to work, but they do result in a very fine soil texture and can go as deep as 6” in one dig.

12. With a Drill-Powered Till

The drill-powered till is another kind of drill attachment that you can use for tilling your garden effortlessly. You don’t even have to bend down when using the unique Drill Till because it is long enough to use standing up.

In fact, the Drill Till is a set of 3 tools in 1 convenient gardening package. These can be used for different purposes for drilling, tilling, planting, digging holes, and more. You simply need to attach them to your cordless drill and till away.

How to Till Soil with the Double Digging Technique

The double-digging technique is important enough that it warrants its own section on this review. We will go through the step-by-step process of double digging and how it helps your garden. For this process, you will need a shovel, a wheelbarrow, and a strong back.

  • Dig a trench 6-10 inches wide using your shovel along one side of your garden perimeter
  • Put the soil from the first trench onto your wheelbarrow or else save it aside if there is too much of it
  • In the same trench, dig up a shovelful of soil and turn it over in the same place. If the soil is too hard, you can use a garden hoe or pitchfork to do this instead. Repeat the same process along the whole trench.
  • Dig a second trench immediately next to the first one, placing its subsoil into the first to fill it up. Then turn over the soil at the bottom of the second trench as you did with the first one
  • Dig a third trench immediately next to the second one, and use its subsoil to fill up the second trench. Here, too, make sure to turn the soil at its bottom.
  • Repeat that process with subsequent trenches until the whole garden is done.
  • When you come to the last trench, use the soil you had saved from the first trench to fill it up
  • When you’re done, you can now spread a layer of compost or mulch on top of the turned soil

As you can see, double digging turns up the subsoil and guarantees maximum aeration and mixing. It allows water, air, and nutrients to penetrate deeper into the soil. Double digging is necessary when cultivating new gardens and where deep topsoil is required. H

Double digging is a two-edged sword, so you shouldn’t do it too often. Usually, it is only necessary to double dig every 3-5 years.

Final Thoughts

Isn’t it interesting to see just how many ways there are to accomplish what is otherwise a very simple process of turning over and mixing soil? At the end of the day, all these different methods aim to achieve some form of deep cultivation, ideally about 8-10 inches deep, while burying organic material.

Of course, powered tillers make it much easier and faster to till your garden, but they can be expensive to get. And they positively ruin the soil structure, what with their rotary tines. Once you learn how to till a garden without a tiller, you might actually prefer it to the powered units and find it much more relaxing.

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