How To Till A Garden

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Tilling by hand is hard work but gentler on the soil.
Image Credit: Zbynek Pospisil/iStock/GettyImages

Tilling to prepare a garden bed has enjoyed some controversy the last few years with advocates of no-till methods sometimes arguing that tilling does more harm than good. While extreme, their claim does have some merit and it's absolutely true that the soil can be damaged by over-tilling. Careful tilling need not cause permanent harm, however, and tilling remains the most popular, most immediate way to prepare a garden bed for planting.


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Manual or Machine?

The tools you will need to till your garden depend on several factors. If you are breaking ground on a new garden, and especially if the site of your intended garden is presently covered with sod, you may opt to use a rototiller. Powered tillers are heavy and powerful enough to cut through the toughest sod. A rototiller may also be your best choice if the garden you are preparing is very large.

If you plan to till a modestly-sized plot, and especially if the plot has already been established, you may prefer to till by hand. Hand tilling may be accomplished using a shovel, a garden rake and perhaps a garden fork—all tools you already own or will want to own. Depending on the quality of the soil, tilling by hand can be hard work. The good news is that intensive hand tilling need only be done once. In subsequent years, loosening the surface topsoil with a garden fork should suffice.

When you remove sod for a garden, shake off as much dirt as possible.
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Tilling by Hand

The technique used when hand tilling a garden from scratch is known as "double-digging." The effect of double-digging is to shuffle the garden soil a little while loosening and aerating it. This is best performed when the soil is no more than lightly moist—a handful of earth should crumble when squeezed. In addition to the aforementioned garden tools, a wheelbarrow would come in handy, and a good pair of gloves to protect your hands from blisters.

Things You'll Need

  • Stakes and string

  • Garden shovel

  • Compost

  • Wheelbarrow

  • Garden rake

Here's how to till by hand:

  1. If this will be a new garden or if you are enlarging an existing garden, first define the boundaries of your plot. Use stakes and string or even a garden hose to lay out the perimeter.
  2. If the garden area is covered with lawn, begin by removing the grass. Use the shovel to cut it into manageable pieces, peel it away from the soil and shake off as much loose dirt as possible.
  3. Once any grass is removed and the garden bed is ready to till, spread a thick layer of compost over the garden. As you dig, the compost will be incorporated into the soil.
  4. To begin double-digging, first make a ditch, about ten inches deep, along one end of your garden bed. The dirt from this ditch will ultimately go to the other end of the garden, so this is where a wheelbarrow is useful.
  5. Dig a second ditch, same as the first and alongside it. Shovel the dirt from this ditch into the first one. Repeat with successive ditches until you arrive at the end of the garden. Fill the last ditch with the dirt from the first one.
  6. Smooth out the tilled soil with the garden rake. Break up any big clumps of dirt with the rake or the shovel. Remove any large stones, roots, or other debris that the raking exposes.


Rototillers make quick work of a back-breaking job.
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Tilling by Machine

Powered tillers can be heavy, noisy, hard to manipulate, and they churn the soil more than hand digging does. Over-tilling can compromise the vitality of the soil by depleting essential microbes and disrupting beneficial fungi. Earthworms are killed and their tunnels destroyed.

Still, if you are breaking ground for a new garden and you have a tough layer of sod to contend with, or hard-packed earth, a power tiller can save you hours of back-breaking labor. In many cases, after your first deep tilling, more limited tilling in future years can be managed by hand. Borrowing or renting a machine for your initial till would be advisable.

Things You'll Need

  • Stakes and string

  • Power tiller

  • Compost

  1. As with hand digging, mark the boundaries of your planned garden with stakes and string. Clear away any stones, branches or other debris from the area, using a garden rake.
  2. If you must remove sod, set the depth adjustment on the tiller to its highest setting. For your first pass, you want the tiller to merely chop up the turf layer. You don't want to mix the grass into the soil where it can re-sprout.
  3. Guide the power tiller back and forth over the garden bed until you have covered the entire area.
  4. Use the garden rake to remove as much of the grass as you can while leaving behind as much of the soil as possible.
  5. Once you have raked out most of the grass, spread a layer of compost over the bed. Lower the depth adjustment on the tiller a few inches deeper and till over the entire garden again. The compost will be worked thoroughly into the soil.
  6. Remove any stones or debris turned up by the tiller. Rake out the bed to level and smooth it. Your new garden bed is prepared and ready for planting.



A former agency art director then freelance designer, illustrator and copywriter, Bill has written for the medical, technical, industrial, food and agricultural industries. With over 35 years experience in the area of home improvement. He has produced books on multiple subjects for Home Depot, The Handyman Club of America, Hometime, Black & Decker and Popular Mechanics.