garden tilling

How To Till A Garden

Ready to till your garden so you can plant it?  Believe it or not, there is a “right way” to till a garden.  Doing things this way opens up the soil so seeds can germinate, and plants can put down deep roots.

Gardens can be tilled manually with a pitchfork and a rake.  They can also be tilled using a rototiller or a disk towed behind a tractor.  If there is grass covering a new garden plot, you must kill it before tilling it in.  You should do the main tilling two weeks to a month before you plant.  After another pass with the rake immediately before planting, the garden plot is ready.

You can till a garden with a few common tools.  If you want to do so with less labor, use a rototiller or disc.  Read on to learn the details.

How To Till A Garden

The Purpose Of Tilling A Garden

Compacted soil is very hard for plants to grow in.  Tilling a garden loosens the compaction and aerates the soil.  This makes it easier for seeds to germinate and put down roots.  Root hairs are fragile in seedlings and cannot force their way through heavy soils unless the soil is broken up for them.  Even transplants will need to put down roots and will benefit from being planted in tilled soil.  In addition, turning the soil warms it up for the plants by exposing more of the soil to the sun.  Finally, tilling allows you to mix compost in your topsoil to keep the soil loose and aid in moisture retention.  The compost is also a slow-release fertilizer for your plants.

The Depth You Should Till

When tilling, you should till to a depth of eight to ten inches if you are tilling manually.  If you are using a rototiller or disc, till to a depth of twelve inches.  It may take more than one pass to get the soil tilled to this depth, especially if there is grass on it.

When You Should Till

For spring planting, you should till as soon as the soil is thawed, and you can work it.  For fall planting, you should till as soon as your spring and summer vegetables have stopped producing.  Do not till the wet ground.  It will further compact the soil and make things worse than if you had not tilled at all.  If you squeeze a handful of dirt, and it clumps in your hand, it is too wet to till.

How To Till A Garden

How To Till A Garden For The First Time

If you are tilling a garden for the first time, your garden plot probably has grass or other plants on it.  The grass must be killed before you till, or it will outcompete your plants for food and water and ruin your garden.  Rototilling or discing an area with grass in it usually breaks the grass into little pieces.  Depending on the species of grass, each little piece will become a new grass plant and will smother the seeds and plants you try to grow.  The three most common ways to get rid of the grass are to dig it out, solar sterilization, and herbicides.

Digging The Grass Out

This is labor-intensive but makes a nice seedbed.  Layout your garden as big as you want it to be.  At one corner of the plot, start digging.  Use a sharpshooter spade or something else with straight sides.  Dig down one spade depth and in one spade width.  Put the dirt and grass in a wheelbarrow as you will need it later.  Continue down the edge of the plot digging up one spade deep and in one spade wide.  Here you have a choice.  You can move to the next row and continue digging one spade deep.  You would then put the grass, roots up, from the second row into the first row, followed by the dirt.  Continue doing this until you dig out the last row.  Use the dirt from the wheelbarrow to fill in the last row.  Make sure you put the grass in, roots up, before the dirt.

Double Digging

The other choice is digging an additional spade deep on the original row.  You would then move to the next row.  Put the grass you dig up in the second row, roots down, in the first row.  Put the dirt you dig up into the first row, as well.  Continue doing this until you dig up the last row.  Use the dirt in the wheelbarrow to fill in that row.  This way of digging results in loosening the soil and aerating it deeper.  It also allows rain and irrigation water to penetrate the soil deeply.  This encourages the roots to grow deeper while loosening the soil enough for them to do so.  The deeper roots grow, the better.  This is because it enables the roots, and root vegetables, to access the groundwater and nutrients in the soil better.


Solar Sterilization

Layout your garden plot.  Water that area well.  While the grass is still wet, cover it with a clear plastic tarp or other strong clear plastic.  Put rocks down along the edges, then cover the edges of the plastic with dirt, sealing them.  The sun heats the ground and the moisture on the grass.  The soil becomes too hot for vegetation, and the grass dies.  It takes about a month to kill all the grass this way.  Solar sterilization works best in the summer, as the sun is stronger then. Not only will this kill your grass, but it will also kill any grass and weed seeds under the plastic.  It also kills bacteria, fungi, insects, nematodes, and mites.  When the grass is dead, you remove the plastic.  You can then till the grass under with a rototiller or tractor disc.  It is difficult to till grass under by hand.

Some people want to use black or white plastic instead of clear because they think they will absorb the sun’s heat better and make the plants hotter.  According to Texas A&M professor Joseph Mosabni and his doctoral student Jose Franco, black or white plastic does not get the soil hot enough to kill the grass or other plants.  The clear plastic produces steam from the water sealed into it and that sterilizes the soil.  Solar sterilization works best in heavy soils that retain water.  Lighter soils may not retain enough water to make the steam each day, which is essential to the process.


This is the fastest way to kill grass and weeds on your garden plot.  It is also a bit controversial.  Glyphosate, the main ingredient in RoundUp® and many other products, is the most used broad-spectrum herbicide in the United States.  The Environmental Protection Agency maintains that glyphosate is safe when used as labeled.  However, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, a division of the World Health Organization, considers glyphosate a probable carcinogen.  If you do use it, make sure you wear closed-toed shoes, long sleeves, and long pants to minimize the chance of it getting on your skin.

Some glyphosate products have a pre-emergent added to them.  Make sure you buy just the herbicide without a pre-emergent.  Pre-emergents will kill the seeds you plant in your garden.  Herbicides only work when the plant is actively growing, and the soil is warm.  The grass absorbs the herbicide through the grass blades and transfers it to the roots.  There it interferes with an enzyme needed for growth.  Spray the grass with the herbicide, following the label directions.  Wait two weeks and if the grass is not completely dead, spray again.  After two more weeks, it should all be dead.  Glyphosate becomes inert when it hits the soil, so will not contaminate your garden if you use it.  Once the grass is dead, you can till it under with a rototiller or tractor disc.  It is difficult to till grass under manually.

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How To Manually Till Your Garden

The best tools to till your garden manually are a pitchfork and metal rake.  You can also use a shovel or spade.  Push the pitchfork or shovel in the dirt as far as you can.  Twist the pitchfork or shovel to break up the soil.  Do this across the garden plot.  Do this again in a direction perpendicular to the first pass.  Repeat as needed until all the large soil clods are broken down to a depth of 8-10 inches.  Rake the garden soil to further break up the soil. Rake it again in a direction perpendicular to the first time. 

How To Use A Rototiller or Tractor Disc To Till Your Garden

Rototillers can usually be rented at equipment rental places and make tilling go faster.  However, the big rototillers can be difficult to control, especially if you are a small person.  The smaller rototillers do okay on the bare ground but are not tough enough to till up grass or other plants.  If you have a large garden space, using a tractor and disc may be your best bet.  Some farmers will come till your garden plot for you with their tractor and disc for a fee.  Both rototillers and tractor discs work by cutting into the soil, lifting it up, and dropping it behind them.  You will need to till one way, them again perpendicular to the first way.  This makes sure the ground is truly tilled well.  You may have to make several passes to till to a depth of twelve inches.

How To Till A Garden
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Till In Organic Matter

After you till you should put a layer of three inches of compost on the garden plot and till it into the dirt until it is well mixed in.  As mentioned above, organic matter improves the soil.  Make sure the compost is completely done or it may burn the seedlings and transplants.  If you can see individual leaves, straw, manure, or other components of the compost, it is not done composting.  Finished compost should look and smell like rich dirt.  After tilling in the compost, form your rows and rack the tops of them until they are flat.  You should finish the tilling at least two weeks before you intend to plant, so the soil can settle a little.

Just Before You Plant Your Garden

Just before planting, go over the rows again with the rake.  When the earth gets wet, a crust forms on the surface.  Seedlings have a hard time penetrating this crust.  Raking just before planting breaks the crust up so the seedlings can grow.  It also leaves behind a very fine seedbed, which the roots can easily grow into.


Tilling Between Rows Of Your Garden

Your tilling is not done after you plant.  Weeds compete with plants for water, light, and nutrients.  You will have a much better yield in your garden if you till between the rows manually or with a small rototiller to make sure the weeds don’t get a foothold.  Pull the weeds when they are small and they are much easier to get out of the ground.  Tilling the valleys also keeps the soil where you spread fertilizer and put water down from crusting over.  Crusting makes it more difficult for the soil to absorb water and nutrients.

In conclusion, tilling prepares the garden plot so seeds and plants can grow there.  There are three main ways people can do this.  If you have grass in your garden plot, it will have to be killed before you can plant the garden.  Till in compost to aerate the soil and fertilize the plants.  It is a good idea to finish tilling about two weeks to a month before planting.  This allows the soil to settle a little before planting.  Right before planting, rake the seedbed to break up any clods and break the crust on the surface.  Continue tilling between rows to keep weeds away.
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