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How to Use a Rotavator

Date posted: 15 December 2014

Rotavators – also known as garden tillers or cultivators – are powerful machines that are widely used to prepare the land for seeding or planting. They are popular amongst domestic gardeners for use on allotments, plant borders and vegetable patches, and amongst farmers and professional landscapers for tilling larger areas.

What is a rotavator?

There are various types of rotavators – including light-, medium- and heavy-duty models – available to buy or rent. Smaller straightforward tilling jobs, such as cultivating flower beds or small vegetable patches on an allotment, may only demand the use of a light duty cultivator. If you are working on larger areas of soil in a garden, however, it is well worth using a more powerful medium duty rotavator to get the job done efficiently. Farmers and estate gardeners working on tougher terrain or much larger areas of earth will need a heavy duty rotavator.

What are the main benefits of rotavating?

Ground tillers basically break up the soil with their rotating blade. This process brings about a number of major benefits, including:

  • improving the soil's texture;
  • helping the soil's drainage;
  • aiding in weed removal, and therefore weed control; and
  • making the earth better able to absorb fertilisers – or allow new seeds and plants to take root.

When to cultivate

The main factor in determining when to cultivate is the soil moisture. Sandy soils can be rotavated at pretty much any time, but clay soils become too hard to till effectively if they are very dry. This is particularly important if it is the first time you are cultivating the land, or if the soil is compacted. Equally, if the soil is too wet it will just form clods when it is tilled, and these will become hard 'rocks' when they dry out – potentially ruining the soil until the next winter's weather breaks them down again.

Compacted or previously uncultivated soil needs to be watered for several hours a few days before tilling. Check that the soil has drained adequately to be tilled before you start work. To do this, grab a handful of soil from the base of a hole about six inches deep and press it into a ball. If the ball is easy enough to break apart with one finger, it is fine – but if it dents rather than breaks the soil is still too moist and should be left to dry a little more.


Get rid of as many weeds as possible before you cultivate in order to avoid spreading them across the plot. In warm, dry weather you can cut the weeds using a blade or lawn mower just a couple of days before tilling, but if it is rainy weather cut the weeds about a fortnight before tilling to give them enough time to dry out and soften.

How to cultivate safely and effectively

Ground tillers can prove dangerous if they are not used properly. It is vital to wear the right safety gear, including padded gloves and ear defenders (especially when using heavy duty tillers over larger areas) and to keep your feet and hands well away from the tines whilst moving. Never rush: work methodically, moving along slowly with the rotavator, and remaining in control of the machine at all times.

Rotavators sometimes 'jump' when they hit something hard (especially when you're tilling the ground for the first time), and it can be tiring to control the machine for long periods - so stay as relaxed as you can while you work, allowing the rotavator to buck or gyrate as necessary when it hits something, then simply direct it back on track. Remember to take regular breaks too, to avoid fatigue.

You can control how deep the rotavator 'bites' by pushing down on the handlebars more or less.

Rotavate in strips with a slight overlap with the previous strip each time. You will usually need to make a few passes over the land to rotavate it thoroughly, and it is best if you repeat the process at right angles to the original rotavated strips for maximum coverage.
To make the work easier, avoid digging deeper than about two or three inches on the first pass, then re-set the rotavator to dig deeper on subsequent passes.

Related Articles

Types of Rotavator

Effects of Cultivation on Soil Structure

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