In all but the smallest yards, you need some kind of machine for creating new beds and borders, aerating the soil before planting, and easier weeding. A gas tiller gives you the freedom to go anywhere without worrying about extension cords or loss of power as batteries run down.
We have weighed the features of the latest models offering easy starting and reduced emissions, and our short but comprehensive guide outlines the key features to consider. We've also made a few recommendations. Our top choice, the Mantis four-cycle gas tiller, is a very compact machine that has the performance, versatility, and control for any task.
Considerations when choosing gas tillers
Two-cycle (also called two-stroke) motors have long been popular in powered garden tools because of their relative simplicity (hence low cost), light weight and high performance potential. However, their high revving nature means they're not very fuel-efficient, noisy, and produce more pollution than their four-cycle (four-stroke) counterparts. Two-cycle motors also require you to mix oil with the gas — and you need to be careful, because getting the ratio wrong will affect performance.
Though cleaner and quieter, four-cycle motors are more complex, expensive, and heavier. On the other hand, the oil goes right in the sump. While it needs to be checked regularly, it's not a continual chore every time you add gas.
Which is best? It's very much a personal choice. We'd probably choose two-cycle on a light-duty gas tiller, and four-cycle for more power and durability.
Front- or rear-tine tillers
You have a choice of front- or rear-tine tillers. Front-mounted tines, usually more-or-less directly under the engine, denote light- and medium-duty machines — though advanced tine design can make them very efficient. Heavy-duty gas tillers designed to work large acreages tend to be rear tine.
The tine design can also vary. Flat metal disks with short tines are not for heavy digging. Well-defined, highly contoured shapes are better suited to deep jobs. High-end gas tillers may also offer dual-rotation tines that can go backwards as well as forwards. This is useful for cutting through hard, compacted soil.
Tilling width and depth
More tilling width means less times up and down a plot, but a narrow machine is easier to turn in tight situations — like weeding around established shrubs. Variable width gives you the best of both worlds.
Maximum tilling depth gives an indication of intended use. If it's only a few inches, it's a gas tiller designed for maintenance and turning over existing beds. If it's eight or ten inches, it's probably capable of creating new beds from lawn or other tough digging tasks.
Most motors are pull-start, and modern designs are relatively easy to get going. Electric start motors are available but are generally found only on larger machines.
Storage and portability
Smaller models often have folding handles for storage. Wheels are common but aren't always included. If your model lacks wheels, look for a carrying handle. Never "walk" a machine across paving or tarmac on its tines. You will likely bend them, which will reduce efficiency.
The cheapest gas cultivators cost around $150, but you'll need to pay $200 for a tiller and between $250 and $350 for a good quality, general-purpose tool. Larger, heavy-duty models cost $700 and up.
Q. Is there any real difference between a tiller and a cultivator?
A. Most manufacturers use both descriptions for the same machine, but be careful. If it's only called a cultivator, it probably doesn't have the power to break new ground.
Q. Does my gas tiller motor need to be CARB compliant?
A. It depends where you live. Although the CARB standard began in California, it now covers an increasing number of states (16 when we wrote this guide). This is not usually a problem with four-cycle motors, but if you're looking at a two-cycle model, you'll need to check your local laws.
Gas tillers we recommend
Best of the best: Schiller Mantis Four-Cycle Tiller/Cultivator
Our take: A high-performance tool built to churn through soil with ease.
What we like: Surprisingly small and light machine powered by superb Honda engine. Efficient reversible blades dig to ten inches deep or just till the surface. Five year warranty (lifetime on tines).
What we dislike: Not much. No wheels. A few owners have had trouble with starting.
Best bang for your buck: Earthquake Two-Cycle Mini Cultivator
Our take: A low-cost machine for garden maintenance duties.
What we like: Manageable and nimble for turning over an existing plot or weeding between rows and around established plants. Reliable Viper motor. Adjustable wheels provide depth control and good mobility.
What we dislike: Some starting problems. Inconsistent build quality.
Choice 3: Southland Four-Cycle Tiller/Cultivator
Our take: Competitively priced all-rounder offers above average capabilities.
What we like: Good versatility provided by adjustable tilling width: 11, 16, or 21 inches. Tilling depth to 11 inches. Tines are self-sharpening. 150cc motor delivers plenty of power.
What we dislike: Poor assembly instructions. Single speed with no throttle control.
Bob Beacham is a writer for BestReviews. BestReviews is a product review company with a singular mission: to help simplify your purchasing decisions and save you time and money. BestReviews never accepts free products from manufacturers and purchases every product it reviews with its own funds.
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