Meg’s Guide to Gardening: How to Use a Hand Tiller

It’s difficult to underestimate the importance of digging a new garden bed. The soil in most garden beds is dense and compacted, and anything planted in that soil will have to spend most of its energy pushing its roots through the hard soil. To give your plants a better chance of growing big and beautiful, loosen the soil first with a hand tiller. Loosened garden soil holds more oxygen and water and houses more of the microorganisms that plants need to grow.

The Right Time of Year
The earlier you prepare a garden bed, the better. A great time to start is the fall before the spring you intend to plant. This will give the tilled soil time to mature and feed the ecosystem that will eventually nourish your plants.

The Right Technique
Hand tillers look like simple tools, but you have to use them right to reap their benefits. Start at one end of the virgin garden plot and work your way to the other. This way you won’t miss any spots as the soil starts to crumble. Insert the hand tiller’s tines into the soil. Turn the tiller while the tines are still in the soil, lift it out and repeat. Work in one spot until you loosen the soil to a depth of 8 to 10 inches. Then move spot by spot across the garden bed. Use your arms to pull, not your back. It will take you later.

A Little Moisture
Hand tillers are designed to make garden work easier. If you’re huffing and puffing, trying to break through rock hard soil, you’re working too hard. Soften up the soil by spraying a little water on it. Sweep a fine spray over the soil until you loosen the top few inches of soil. Moist soil is much easier to loosen and turn.

Dig Again
When you’re dealing with virgin soil, digging once isn’t enough. Once you make your way from one end of the garden plot to the other, it’s time to dig again. But first, add amendments. If you’ve conducted a soil test — which i highly recommend for virgin soil — add fertilizer to the soil according to the recommendation of the test. Next spread two to three inches of aged compost over the soil. Now use the hand tiller to dig across the bed again.

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