Rotary tillers

Rotary tillers prepare soil in flower beds, gardens, landscape beds, and turfgrass seed and sod beds. More specifically, tillers break up heavily compacted, unworked soils to allow for better water percolation and air movement to plant root zones.

Rotary tillers also are the tool of choice for incorporating soil amendments and fertilizers to modify existing soils. Having just completed a major baseball-field renovation project, Brian Caldwell, a college grounds superintendent in Kentucky, says, "Our tillers helped to drastically cut job time and effort and gave us excellent soil-preparation results. This made our overall task more cost efficient." Caldwell's group used both hand-operated and tractor-mounted tillers on its project.

Another area in which grounds managers heavily use rotary tillers is that of soil cultivation in established planted areas. Light to moderate tilling-for weed removal when you can't use chemical controls-helps control weed problems without harming established plantings. You also can perform light tilling to break up crusted soil surfaces after heavy rainfalls or irrigation to allow more efficient air and moisture movement to plant root zones.

Finally, a typical use of rotary tillers is to deep-tine till and break up native ground for converting it into beautifully landscaped gardens.

Types of rotary tillers Front-tine and rear-tine tillers are the types most commonly used for landscaping and gardening tasks. For larger-scale operations, tractor-mounted tillers are appropriate.

Front-tine tillers are most popular for smaller landscaping and gardening situations. These tillers are usually somewhat smaller in nature and are easier to handle during operation than pull-behind units. Horsepower ranges for this type are commonly from 2 to 8 hp, although certain models may have larger power plants.

Front-tine tillers are versatile. You can use them, with care, in tight places without causing unwanted damage to plant life or property. In fact, you usually can control tilling operation to within an inch or 2 of plantings and other desirable objects.

Rear-tine tillers are usually larger by nature. You use them for larger jobs in landscaping, gardening, renovating and constructing. Because the tines are rear-mounted, work areas are limited to more open spaces away from buildings, sidewalks and other objects. Rear-tine tillers are typically more heavy-duty with power ranges from about 3.5 hp and up, depending on the manufacturer. The unit's size and type of tine determines its tilling width. Widths range from 6 inches on small stationary- and adjustable-tine tillers up to 48 inches or greater on the larger heavy-duty tillers, depending again on the manufacturer.

Larger-type tillers are usually tractor-mounted and range in size from 36 inches up to 13.5 feet. These tillers are usually not appropriate for most landscaping and gardening operations. However, they are excellent for large landscape and construction projects.

Tips for tiller operation Your tiller's mode of operation depends on many factors. Size, tine-type or location, tilling width, power rating, the task you will be doing, soil type and the desired soil results all effect the method and rate of tiller operation.

Most front-tine tillers have a depth-stick feature you can adjust to the desired working depth to control the tilling rate and penetration. Harder compacted soils demand a slower tilling speed, and you should set the depth stick shallow so you don't overwork the equipment or the operator. You must make numerous passes over the same area until you've reached the desired soil condition and depth.

For incorporating soil amendments or deep-tilling established beds, adjust the depth stick to a middle-to-deep setting. This allows the tiller to penetrate to a desired depth without moving forward too quickly. The size and diameter of your front-tine tiller blades determine the tilling depth you can accomplish. Usually 4 to 8 inches is desirable for this operation.

A self-propelled/drive action usually controls the rate of operation of rear-tine tillers. These units commonly offer variable ground speeds along with variable tilling speeds for operating in all different soil conditions.

Most rear-tine tillers, like front-tine tillers, have a depth-stick attachment for controlling tilling depth and balancing the tiller. In many cases, the rear-tine tillers offer greater control and ease of operation. However, most rear-tine tillers also have safety shields over the tilling unit. Thus, some do have limitations on tilling depth, along with operating-area restrictions, which you should keep in mind when purchasing a unit.

Features to consider in choosing your tiller Choosing the proper equipment for the type of work you perform is important, not only for the job you're doing but, more importantly, for making the proper purchase decision. Improperly choosing equipment can cost you time, money and frustration if you can't accomplish your desired tilling goals.

With more than 15 years of experience in the green industry, Roger Dick, owner of Advanced Irrigation and Landscaping Service (Springfield, Ohio), considers all aspects and situations where he will use tilling equipment. Dick says, "I have purchased and used both front-tine and rear-tine rotary tillers. I also carry a variety of sizes and models to cover any type of tilling operation that may arise." Dick adds, "Cost, value, service and reliability are all factors that I consider when purchasing any new equipment."

Some of the more important features to consider when making a purchasing decision include: * Tiller type or location. Is the tiller a front-tine or rear-tine tiller? How, where and for what tasks will you use the rotary tiller? Manufacturers have developed new tiller technology to provide self-cleaning tines for better soil cultivation. This technology also places less operating pressure on the tiller itself. Some manufacturers offer innovative technology where the tilling tines rotate in opposite directions. This ability is designed to reduce tilling time and prevent the chance of tiller "kick back."

* Size: heavy- or light-duty. Both heavy- and light-duty tillers offer features that help make operation more user-friendly. You must consider the type of work for which you will use the tiller, as well as ease in handling for the operator.

Consider tiller controls for both location and operator access. Awkward placement of handles, switches and levers can cause operator discomfort and could present a safety hazard. Adjustable handles, both for up-and-down and for side-to-side adjustment, let the operator choose the most comfortable position. The side-to-side adjustment allows the operator to safely control the tiller and not trample the newly tilled ground.

Also evaluate tilling-width availability or adjustable tine widths. Many new light-weight models now feature adjustable tine widths along with other accessories such as spikers and edgers. Also consider size and weight on both light- and heavy-duty tillers for storing and transporting your tiller.

* Power plants and drive systems. Consider the engine manufacturer, the horsepower ratings and the type of engine provided, either horizontal or vertical shaft. Another important factor to consider is the availability of an electronic-starting system. Drive-system concerns should involve the type of drive that operates your tilling unit. Belt drive, chain drives and gear/shaft drives are generally what's available. Also, having a choice of a variety of gear selections-both forward and reverse-is important for making operation more user-friendly.

*Cost/Brand name. Many people prefer to purchase equipment based on the reputation of a brand name. Others prefer to make their purchasing decision based on cost and value. The budget and how much money is available for capital equipment purchases will always have an effect on which tiller you purchase.

* Durability and reliability. In most cases, a combination of factors determine the durability and reliability of your rotary tiller. Obviously, well-built tillers cost more, and reputable manufacturers tend to be safe bets. However, the amount and type of equipment maintenance you perform also contribute to durability and reliability. If you use a thorough and proper maintenance program, and don't abuse your equipment, it will give you far more operational hours than equipment you neglect.

* Tiller safety features. Manufacturers offer numerous safety features. Some of the more important ones to consider are: safety-switch starting system and control-lever location, self-cleaning tines, anti-kick-back features, protective engine and tine guards, and noise-reduction features.

The purchasing process The type of process you use for purchasing your new rotary tiller should depend on many of the factors previously discussed. Some suggestions to consider for your step-by-step purchasing procedure are: * Evaluate your equipment needs-specify the equipment you want. * Consider the money you have available for the purchase. * Research the various manufacturers of the tilling equipment you are considering for purchase. * Let your employees test the equipment on-site. * Ask your employees to evaluate the equipment. * Make a decision on the particular tiller you want to purchase. * Negotiate with your supplier for the best price. * Purchase your new rotary tiller.

David Willoughby is assistant professor and coordinator for the Turfgrass Management Program at the Agricultural Technical Institute at the Ohio State University (Wooster, Ohio).

When operating any piece of power equipment, safety considerations should always be a priority. First, before you ever begin tiller operation, always check all mechanical features on your tiller. Check the oil and fuel and look for any loose components. Make any necessary adjustments. This may avoid an accident or possible injury to the operator.

Other important safety factors to consider are: * Always operate your tiller from the intended operator's position.

* Always make sure all safety equipment and guards are in place and working properly.

* Always take care when operating your tiller in raised beds and on hillsides or inclines to avoid tiller rollover.

* Never try to remove jammed objects from the tines or make adjustments to the machine while the tiller engine is running.

* Always check the area where you will be working. Avoid foreign objects such as irrigation heads and lines. Also avoid any other type of utilities that may present a potential problem.

* Keep small children and pets away from the tiller work area.

* Always work in a well-ventilated area.

* Never fuel your tiller while the engine is running.

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