Garden rotavators (also commonly referred to as ‘tillers’ or ‘cultivators’) are incredibly powerful pieces of machinery for garden and allotment work. They are used to churn up the soil, breaking up the ground and aerating it for fresh use.
If you’re planning on planting new seeds or bulbs, or on laying new turf, it’s best practice to first rotavate the soil. There are a number of machines available, all of which suit a different purpose. Given the number of variables involved with most gardens, you’ll probably need to opt for one machine over another depending on your specific needs.
We’ve compared a range of features including power, size, cost, tilling depth and longevity to bring you our favourite models suited to every need. Remember that you’ll need to consider the size of the area you’re working with, your mobility, the soil you’re working with and any budgetary requirements when deciding upon the ideal model for you.
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We’ve compared both petrol and electric models side-by-side, though you may have a personal preference. Generally, petrol machines are better for larger areas with limited access to mains electricity, and where you need more power and manoeuvrability (such as allotments). Electric models are better suited for smaller areas where this isn’t the case, such as home gardens.
With all that in mind, let’s take a look at our best picks…
A premium petrol unit for experienced gardeners with heavy duty needs
Cost: Price not available
Our best garden rotavator is the Fox Hunter petrol unit which is a professional machine intended for heavy use. This will be ideal for those who have large spaces that need to be cultivated, though probably a little over-the-top for your average garden enthusiast.
The unit is petrol-powered with three gears: forwards, backwards and neutral. It has a heavy-duty gear-box, as well as a clutch handle and fingertip throttle control that take a little getting used to, but it’s actually pretty fun once you get the hang of it. Just like driving a car!
With a cultivating width of 40cm and a tilling depth of 175mm to 350mm, this is the machine to buy if you need to cover large areas of land in as little time as possible.
It does take a while to put together and as a big unit, you’ll need to make sure you have ample storage space. The manufacturer also does not recommend using the product for continuous business use – so if you are planning on using your rotavator as a professional gardener, you may need to look elsewhere.
However, if you need a heavy-duty petrol rotavator for the bigger-sized jobs then look no further.
Note: We’ve checked and there are spare parts available for this machine online, which is always good to know before you spend a lot of money on a single piece of machinery.
- Wheel-mounted with easy-grip handle bars. Although the machine weighs 76kg, its manoeuvrability is still good.
- Very powerful with a significant tiller depth capacity of 35cm. Great for larger spaces.
- Petrol powered which is great for those spaces where access to electricity mains is limited.
- A hefty unit at 1.5m x 1.1m x 0.5m – will require significant storage space.
- Not recommended for professional use, which is slightly disappointing for a premium machine.
Not as powerful as petrol alternatives but still great considering the price
Our value pick was always going to be an electric unit given the price disparity between the two types. And of course, while this tiller offers great value for money, it’s also a little restrictive in terms of its capabilities. That’s why we only recommend this unit for small garden spaces or vegetable plots that require minimal cultivating power.
With that said, this a hard-working machine, capable of tearing up your soil in the right conditions. The strong steel blades make up for the reduced electric power capacity and the unit can even handle some clay soil surfaces with ease.
With a max depth capacity of 220mm and a cultivating width of 320mm we’d recommend that you don’t buy this unit for use with large spaces. It’s just too limited and will require more effort than it’s worth.
The requirement for two hands on the unit at all times (owing to the safety switch) seems a common yet valid complaint, though it’s easy to see why the manufacturers have built this requirement into the device. These are dangerous machines when used incorrectly and it makes sense that users should have full control at all times during use.
Oh – it’s also worth mentioning that the cable length on this unit is 10 metres. So while it’s a pain using mains electric devices sometimes, this should be more than enough provided you’re only using it on small jobs.
- Excellent value for money with solid capabilities for the price.
- Tilling depth of 220mm should be enough for the needs of most gardening enthusiasts.
- 10 metre power cable for ease of mobility round the garden.
- Not powerful enough to tackle larger jobs.
- It doesn’t have wheels and so can feel a little unstable during use. Also not as easy to move around the garden.
- Safety switch can become cumbersome to use.
A petrol unit with a lower cost – but less advanced capabilities
The T-Mech 52cc is another powerful petrol rotavator with a powerful engine that can achieve max speeds of 9,000RPM – much higher than many of the electric units which struggle to break 1,000RPM.
This unit lies somewhere between our best-pick and our value option – with a mid-range price that’s suitable for small to medium-sized allotments and vegetable gardens. It’s more powerful than an electric unit but sits within a price range that’s affordable to many gardeners.
One thing we absolutely loved that helped this product stand-out is the inclusion of a toolkit that helps to save on overall costs. The kit includes ear defenders, leg guards, gloves, goggles and associated tools for machine repair-work if this ever becomes necessary.
At 17kg this is definitely much more lightweight than our best-pick, with less cultivating power. It will work up to depths of 150mm (less than half that of the Fox Hunter) and a cultivating width of 200mm is pretty restrictive.
To extend the life of the engine, the manufacturer advises using 2 stroke oil at a 40:1 ratio – this means using 40ml of oil to every 1 litre of fuel. See this video on how to easily calculate the 40:1 ratio when mixing your fuel. The tool comes with a mixing bottle to make this process easier.
In summary, a solid unit for the price – but you’ll need to cover a lot of ground with such limited cultivating power.
- Very powerful with the ground it covers, though we felt it should dig deeper than it does.
- Includes a toolkit for best practice use of the machinery.
- Lower cost than many other petrol units.
- Very lightweight and easy to move around on its wheels at just 17kg.
- Very limited cultivating width and depth – opt for a heavier-duty machine if you have a lot of ground to work with.
- Some users have reported missing parts with some models, but this has generally been resolved successfully by customer services representatives.
An electric cultivator with a 24-month guarantee that does an incredible job
Cost: Price not available
Garden Gear’s 6 blade electric tiller is probably our preferred pick if you’re looking for an electric model.
It weighs just 12.1kg which is what you want for a hand-held machine. There are two easy-grip handles and the attached wheels can be retracted for the tougher jobs where you need to get deeper into the soil.
The cultivating width of 40cm is amongst the best we’ve seen, twice that of the T-Mech 52cc. At 220mm, the cultivating depth is also better than you might expect – meaning this unit should be able to handle most outdoor areas of a small to medium size.
The product comes with a 24-month guarantee, which might be reassuring to a lot of customers, given that rotavators have been known to break down easily. If you’re not one for mechanical repair jobs, this product might just be the right one for you.
- Great for small and medium sized outdoor spaces.
- Utilises a two-point safety switch to help avoid accidental start-ups.
- Comes with a 10-metre power cord and cable-tidy.
- 24 month guarantee offers added protection against breakages.
- Although it does have easy-grip handles, it’s not the easiest to use if you lack mobility.
- At 380RPM – it is not the most powerful of rotavators.
A ‘handy’ tiller with the means to cope with some pretty big jobs
Last on our list is the Handy 1400W garden tiller with a huge 430mm working width and 200mm working depth. That’s the widest of all the units we found and likely to get through some serious work in the garden.
As the name suggests, this is an electric machine which plugs into the main via a 10-metre cable. It has wheels and carry handles that have a built-in safety switch for safe operation.
Whilst it’s not the cheapest option available, you are getting serious value for money with this unit and 1400W is amongst the more powerful of the electric options. You also have to consider that it doesn’t have any of the pitfalls associated with petrol units – bad smells, additional costs, re-filling requirements etc.
This is a tough machine that will last a decent number of years with occasional use. We’d definitely recommend it for small and medium garden spaces and vegetable patches.
- Quick to put together on arrival – usually takes no more than 45 minutes.
- Surprisingly powerful for an electric rotavator.
- Has no problems when bricks, stones or other objects get caught in the rotors.
- Very generous working width of 430mm.
- Not suitable for heavy-duty work or large spaces.
- Mains powered so requires a local electricity source.
How Does a Rotavator Work?
Garden tillers use a set of sharp blades or rotors which spin and break through the surface of the soil. These work in a similar way to lawn aerators but they go much deeper, churning the dry surface soil and bringing fresh, damp soil to the surface.
As well as improving the drainage, this helps to clear vast areas so that they are fully level in anticipation of fresh planting or the laying of a new lawn.
Some models have wheels which can help to manoeuvre them into place before starting. Generally, once you switch the machine on, the rotavator will pull itself along by its rotors which dig into the earth.
They are powered either by petrol or mains electricity, depending on your requirements.
How to Use a Rotavator
Rotavators are fantastic bits of kit that really help to reduce the strain of gardening. This is especially true if you’re older and less mobile than you once were – these beauties can really take on the brunt of the workload. And when you consider the alternative is back-breaking work with a pitch fork, they really are worth their weight in gold at times.
Check the moisture levels of your soil
If your soil is dry it can become very hard – especially if your land is made up of clay soil. Sometimes if land has never been tilled before, or it has become compacted, it can be particularly tough to tackle.
For this reason we recommend digging into the soil. If it’s tough to even scrape away the first few inches, it’s likely that the ground has become dry and compacted. Don’t till the ground in this state, it will only cause further issues as the resulting soil will be in no fit state to do anything with until the following year.
To deal with dry, compacted soil, water the land extensively for at least a couple of hours, a few days before you plan on tilling the surface. Come back after this time and check the soil once again using the technique above. If it’s still too dry, rinse and repeat until the moisture levels have reached the ideal level.
Kill and remove any weeds
Secondly, rotavating your soil will bring a lot of weed seeds and roots to the surface, where they’ll have ample sunlight and oxygen to grow.
Although it’s tempting to simply level the land you’re working on and worry about them later, it’s important that you look to deal with these before rotavating. As always when it comes to weeds, prevention is better than the cure. Simply chopping weeds into hundreds of smaller plants is definitely not the best way to go!
We’d recommend firstly using a strong weed killer to kill all the weeds from root to stem. This will ensure the weeds are dead before being pulled, which can sometimes leave the root behind to grow back.
Leave the land for a week or so, then pull any remaining weeds from the ground using a fork or weed puller. One week should be ample time to allow the weed killer to be absorbed into the soil and washed away. Remember that these substances will prevent the growth of new plants – so it’s important to leave enough time between this process and the planting of new bulbs or plants.
Use the rotavator to churn the land
Finally, you’re able to get to work on using a rotavator to churn up the land. You’ll need to follow the instructions for your particular model carefully, as each machine works differently. Petrol models will need to be filled up safely before starting.
You probably want to pick up some steel toe capped boots, ear defenders, gloves and goggles for safety. While these machines do have safety features and a stop button built in, these are some dangerous machines. Keep all body parts away from the sharp end of the machine while it is active, and never leave it running unattended.
Starting from one corner, move along the length of your patch of land, as if you were using a lawn mower. The machine should pull you along as it churns through the ground, but you should still have some control of its movements at all times. You’ll need to keep the rotavator in-line but try and not to control its movements too much, or it will become tiresome very quickly.
To prevent overheating and the tilling of land in improper conditions, pay attention to how the machine is moving through the land. Very dry ground is likely to be too tough for a rotavator to churn through the soil. If the ground is too wet, you’re likely to create a sloppy mess that will get caught in the rotors and cause the unit to overheat. If this is the case, wait a few days after some dryer/wetter weather and try again.
Work adjacent lines over your allotment or garden, carefully rotavating slightly over the top of previous lines to ensure you’re covering the entire space. The aim is to leave no land untouched.
Most units will have a depth setting that you can use to choose your desired rotor depth. Typically, this should be deeper for newer plots of land (2-3 inches) and shallower for established areas (1-2 inches).
If you want the space to be fully levelled you may need to go over it again, though it should be easier second time round. Working vertically to the horizontal lines you have already ploughed will really help churn up and aerate the soil.
Do I Need to Rotavate Before Laying Turf?
Yes – you should rotavate the surface of your garden soil before laying turf.
You should be looking to lay your grass on a minimum 4-5 inches of soil. We recommend using a rotavator at a depth of 2-3 inches to loosely turn the soil. This will help to aerate it in preparation for the turf.
Before laying your garden lawn, you will need to compact the soil after it has been cultivated. This helps to provide a firm, level surface for your rolls of turf.
You can use a garden roller filled with water to help compress the soil fully. Then, lay out the rolls across the length of your tilled soil.
Difference Between a Cultivator and a Rotavator
They are very similar machines and will achieve similar results, but usually at a much different scale. The main differences are:
- Cultivators are generally lightweight and hand-held, whilst rotavators are much heavier units that are mounted onto wheels or tractors.
- Rotavators generally have a greater depth capacity than cultivators.
- Rotavators are more for professional use; as such, they’ll generally have a greater price tag.
- Cultivators will usually have blades towards the front, while rotavators will have them at the back.
Though all models are different, we’d recommend cultivators for small plots of lands such as gardens, while a rotavator may be more suited to a larger area of land suitable for farming.
I'm an avid gardener and home DIY enthusiast from Yorkshire in the North of England. I'm passionate about helping our readers get out into their gardens - by making the most of the outdoors and ensuring they get the best possible deals on their gardening equipment. I also believe strongly in the preservation of our beautiful garden wildlife.