How to Choose Your Tractor or Tiller

Summary: The garden tractor or tiller come in many shapes, horsepower ranges, sizes from push type rototillers to self-propelled and a dazzling array of attachments, but what is best for your needs a rototiller or lawn tractor?


Garden tractors and rototillers come in a bewildering range of sizes, horsepower ratings and with assorted mechanical features.

Which one is best for you?

The best way to decide: see as many as you can in the flesh, ask friends, read reviews and send for catalogs. Then weigh the points of each. Ask yourself what sort of service you expect and what you need. What’s good for your neighbor may not be right for you, and vice versa.

Judge by performance, not price. You will get what you pay for. You can, perhaps, find a “cheaper” machine than the ones you see advertised in magazines. But will it do as good a job as the product of a trustworthy manufacturer? Will it be as good a buy in the long run? The chances are not.

rototiller at work

Differences In Tractor and Rototiller

What’s the difference between a tractor and a rototiller? It’s a good question and the answer is: Not very much. Both can prepare the soil and with both there are now so many attachments available that they overlap substantially. Originally the tractor was a mechanized horse-plus-plow, horse-plus-harrow, cultivator, etc. It broke up the soil. The tiller, operating on an entirely different principle, churned the soil by rotary action, readying it for planting all in one operation. But today they both prepare the soil and attachments, are much the same.

But there are big differences between tillers. For convenience let’s separate them into three categories: small, medium, and large. Machines start at a little over $100 and run on up – cheaper if you snatch one up off craigslist.

Small Tillers

Small roto tillers come in both rotor-propelled and self or wheel-propelled models. Having no drive to its wheels and being lightweight, the rotor-propelled tiller is generally pushed (by you) to the scene of operation. When you start it tilling, the rotor, to which tines are fastened, takes over and pulls the machine ahead. Properly made, this tiller does a very creditable job, for a modest outlay, and is ideal for a small place.

Self-Propelled Tillers

The self-propelled tiller usually costs a little more and is intended for slightly larger areas. Beside transporting itself to the job, it is generally steadier and easier to handle when the tines strike obstructions and difficult soil conditions. Still, it is only fair to say that it does not necessarily turn out a better piece of work than the simpler machine in the hands of an experienced operator.

Both types are intended primarily for the small property owner. Both can give long and good service if handled properly and well cared for. In my own case, one of these, which now sells for under $130 (off craigslist), turned out a superlative job year in and year out for home owners who rented it from me, one of the severest tests a piece of equipment can be put to.

Narrow cultivation in flower gardens has been a nagging problem for most gardeners. The machines were too cumbersome to maneuver in close quarters. But today you can find just what you need in some of the small, simple, tillers (check out Mantis rototillers) and tractors.

Medium Sized & Self-Propelled Tillers

Medium-sized tillers are self-propelled in almost all cases, either the tiller being self-driven or attached to a walking-type tractor. As it is larger, heavier and more powerful than a smaller machine, it naturally accomplishes a given amount of work in less time. This means that the greater cost is justified if your place is fairly large, if you have a small commercial garden or a situation that calls for fairly heavy power.

The large walking types are, of course, almost entirely for commercial operators, large estates, and parks. But, again, put to such uses, their higher cost is entirely justified.

If tillers are a little more expensive than they were a dozen years ago, there’s a good reason: they’re better. The biggest improvement in them is that the rotor speed has been slowed down. This reduces wear and tear on both the machine and the operator. But the biggest benefit is that this slower action produces a proper degree of tilth without needlessly disturbing the soil structure and leaving it unduly fluffy.

Another big improvement is the almost universal adoption of the hoe-type tine which can handle almost every kind of job – you no longer need a different set of tines for each kind of work.

For doing any number of jobs well, few machines equal the walking-type garden tractor, whether it is small, medium or large. Whatever chore you give it, there is an attachment that will handle it – snow removal, grading, pulling carts, spraying, generating electricity or sawing wood, as well (of course) as soil preparation and handling.

Horsepower Happy

But one word of warning: don’t get horsepower happy – some people do – and use a very powerful machine where you don’t need it. What you may gain if you do is more than offset by the inconvenience of greater size and weight and lesser maneuverability. A machine grossly overpowered for a given task is as big a nuisance as one that’s underpowered.

Before you buy, ask for a demonstration of various machines, different makes, different models. Pick the one that fits your needs, and your pocketbook. If you notice that wheels spin when it tackles your kind of job, it’s a pretty sure sign that you won’t cash in on the power that has been built into the motor. Find out why.

But don’t be leary of high-powered machines. There are some things that cannot be done without their horsepower and weight. For instance: heavy pulling or pushing, operating a circular saw or an electric generator (the more horsepower the better).

For Lawn Only


Though there are a few jobs which are easier to do walking behind a tractor, by and large most of them are easier with a riding tractor. This costs more. Some riding tractors are admirably adapted to both lawn and garden work; others are intended for lawns only. If you plan to use one for general garden work, make sure your weight is so placed that it gives the machine the necessary traction, that the wheels are placed so they will easily pass down rows of the width you contemplate having, that you have room to turn at the ends of rows, and that attachments and steering are easy to control in rough ground.

One of the most important ways to get the best from your tractor or tiller is to familiarize yourself with its mechanics and care. Every reputable manufacturer provides his customers with full operating directions. He does this to protect you and it would be foolhardy to disregard his instructions. At the end of the season it is wise practice to have your machine checked out by a competent mechanic. Even if it seems in fine condition, the motor probably can stand tuning up, etc.

The final decision as to which machine you buy rests with you alone. There is no single best model for all situations. Each and every machine offered by a dependable manufacturer has some big or small advantage, peculiarly its own. I sell and repair many kinds but even I can’t decide which of these features you need.

by W Spencer

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