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Mini-tillers: More power, less effort

Last reviewed: January 2008

Mini-tillers aren't just for ardent gardeners. The best of these machines can handle more pedestrian chores such as tearing away crabgrass and whisking away weeds far more quickly and easily than a spade or hoe.

Several new models add faster starts and more digging power, courtesy of a four-stroke engine like the kind on mowers. They also run cleaner, since four-stroke tillers produce fewer exhaust emissions than the two-stroke models they're replacing—a prime reason why most two-stroke tillers do not meet stricter California emissions standards. Yet at about $300, most of these cleaner machines cost about the same as older, dirtier models.

You'll also find plug-in electric tillers, along with tiller attachments that replace the bottom half of the shaft on some string trimmers. But weeks of testers' tilling, sod-busting, and weeding revealed that some of these machines work far better than others. Here are the details:

Some take more strength and care

Spending just $90 for a tiller attachment may seem appealing if you already own a string trimmer that can power it. But the trimmer-powered tillers we tested were slow, heavy, and hard to handle.

You'll find electric tillers tempting if you love push-button starts and hate handling gasoline. But the ones we tested for this report were slower and less powerful than most gas-powered tillers. We also found it all too easy to drag an electric tiller's power cord over young shrubs, flowers, and other short, fragile plants.

All gas-powered tillers are noisy

Mini-tillers and trimmer-driven machines we've tested in the past produced a racket at or above the 85 decibels at which we recommend hearing protection. Electric tillers are quiet by comparison; the quietest emitted just 68 decibels at ear level, making it quieter than many vacuum cleaners.

How to choose

Mini-tillers have grown in sales as lot sizes and gardens have shrunk. But they aren't for everyone. You're likely to prefer renting or even buying a larger tiller for yard projects beyond 300 square feet or for rocky soil. You may also prefer the added control of hand tools for jobs smaller than 100 square feet.

See Types to determine which type meets your needs. Then keep these points in mind as you shop:

Determine how you'll use it

The best of these machines excel at tilling, sod-busting, and weeding. But you may be willing to trade some performance in one or more of those areas for a lower price or an electric's push-button starting.

Look for convenience

Features highlights labor-savers that make some tillers easier to use. Those that count most include a four-stroke engine for gas models, along with easy tine removal and wheels for all tillers.

Also be sure that any tiller is reasonably easy to lift and rolls smoothly on its wheels. Check, too, that the handlebar is wide enough to allow both elbows to clear your sides when you pull back on the machine—something you'll do often while working as the tines pull the tiller ahead.

Consider repairs down the road

Half of all tillers are sold by Home Depot (Honda, Yard Machines), Lowe's (Troy-Bilt), and Sears (Craftsman). Some of these retailers have service agreements with local dealers, as do brands such as Hoffco, which are sold by manufacturers.

Before buying, ask which dealer will provide your service. Then, as with other power equipment, call or visit the dealer to get a sense of whether you'll be treated as well as customers who bought their machines at that dealer.

Think twice about add-ons

With some tillers, you can buy dethatchers, edgers, aerators, and other attachments for roughly $40 to $100 each. As with tiller attachments for trimmers, however, we've typically found these add-ons less effective than dedicated machines.

Keep it safe

Wear goggles and boots, along with hearing protection when using a gas tiller. And keep children and pets away while you work.