How to Till a Garden Efficiently and Quickly

A woman tilling a field using a rototiller.

Susumu Yoshioka / Getty Images

Project Overview
  • Working Time: 3 - 12 hrs
  • Total Time: 3 - 12 hrs
  • Skill Level: Intermediate
  • Estimated Cost: $0-500+

Tilling helps prepare garden soil for new plantings by getting rid of weeds, creating a fluffy seed bed, and warming up the soil. It's the ideal time to fold some compost into the ground to help enrich the soil. But the work of tilling a garden is labor intensive and can take a good amount of time depending on how much you want to invest in your tools; you can use simple, affordable tools, or you can use pricier motorized tools that make the work faster and easier. The better option for you depends on how much sweat and time you want to put into the job and if you can manage this physically demanding task.

Whether you are using a manual tiller or a motorized tiller, the process is the same and equally simple. Here's how to till your garden to prepare it for the coming growing season.

What You'll Need

Equipment / Tools

  • Hoe or rake
  • Hand tiller or motorized rotorary tiller
  • Pickaxe
  • Tape measure
  • Chalkline or line laser (optional)


  • Marking paint
  • Gloves
  • Compost (optional)


  1. Mark Where You Want to Till

    Measure the size of the area and mark out the area that needs to be tilled. Some people use string or wooden boards to make a border, but marking paint is the easiest and most efficient way to do it. String can create problems later if you're using a motorized tiller — you do not want string caught up in the tines of your tiller.

    To get a good straight line, you can use either a line laser or a chalk line.

  2. Remove Weeds and Fix Uneven Spots

    Give the area a thorough once over with a hoe or rake to remove weeds or uneven tufts of grass. This also exposes any roots or large rocks you will need to remove later. It helps to mark the spot where the stubborn obstacle is and then return to it when the weed removal is finished. Working in long parallel lines, similar to mowing a lawn, will ensure no areas are missed.

  3. Remove Rocks and Roots

    With the large weeds and some grass removed, it is time to grab a pickaxe and return to the rocks and roots you marked. Take the pickaxe and dig up the rocks and roots in the way. This is a very important step, especially if using a motorized tiller, as hitting a rock with a motorized tiller can seriously damage the tiller and be a big safety issue for you.

  4. Spread Out Compost (Optional)

    If you have decided to add compost to the tillable area, now is the time you will want to spread it out. Coating the area with three to four inches of even coverage before tilling will suffice. You do not need it to be perfect, but you want to ensure that the area is covered well enough with compost to ensure that it will be thoroughly mixed into your soil without any gaps.

  5. Begin Tilling in a Corner

    Start in one corner of the garden and slowly and methodically dig into the soil with the tool, loosening the soil. Then, pull the tool out, breaking the soil up as you do, and mixing or folding in the compost.

  6. Work Back and Forth Across the Area

    Slowly go forward in one linear direction as if you are mowing the lawn — never backward, always forwards — until you reach the end of the area. You then make a U-turn, slightly overlapping the previous row, and move forward once again, tilling the soil as you go. Repeat this process until you are finished tilling the entire area.


    If using a motorized tiller, do not let the tiller push ahead too swiftly or dig into the soil too deeply. You want to stay methodical and steady without going too slow. Going too slowly lets the tiller dig deeper and further into the soil than you want, possibly going into unfavorable soil or hitting debris that your first run-through missed.

  • When is the best time to till a garden?

    There is no perfect time to till, but there are times that are better than others. Tilling in the middle of winter will be extra hard due to the frozen soil, and tilling right after a storm will be a muddy mess. Ideally, the best time to till is after a spring thaw and before the spring rains really kick into high gear.

  • How soon after tilling soil can you plant?

    Depending on the time of year, you can plant immediately after tilling or wait for it to warm up outside. As your soil is freshly aerated and full of nutritious compost, it will be primed for things to start growing, which also means the area is prone to unwanted growth. One thing that does help combat this is laying down a thin layer of straw over the freshly tilled soil. When ready to plant, you can rake it away or plant into the straw, using it as an organic mulch that will decompose as the growing season progresses.

  • What tools do you need to till a garden?

    You can till a garden with a variety of tools depending on what you already own, what you want to invest, and how much you want to spend. At the bare minimum, you can use hand tools like a rake, hoe, pickaxe, and gloves. On the other end of the spectrum, you can spend around $500 on a specialized motorized tiller that will be used only for tilling but will make that job much easier and much faster. The other alternative is renting a tiller from an equipment supply store.