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How to Till a Small Garden Without a Tiller – 14 Ways of Tilling That Are Not Tractors

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How do you till a small garden without a tiller? Even if you’re on a small plot, chances are you still want to till your soil.

Tilling makes it easier to plant seeds and seedlings, you can turn compost and fertilizer into the soil, and till weeds and plants that have finished growing into the soil.

The alternative to tilling is a no-dig garden or no-till garden.

No-dig gardens can be great but they come with certain drawbacks. Positives are that you’re leaving your fertile topsoil in place and you can build more beautiful topsoil with organic fertilizers and compost.

However, sometimes, it’s nearly impossible to garden in a no-till way. On our previous property, our soil was shaly rock. No about of no-dig methods were going to help me plant a tree!

Besides, it was almost impossible for a plant to penetrate the ‘soil’ layer (if you could even call it that!) and establish itself. Without tilling, plants simply would not grow. And the water just ran off, which was unacceptable considering we were in a drought and water was a very limited resource!

After tilling, water soaked into the soil and we were able to till soil-amending materials into it, creating a much better growing environment.

Enter tillers. What can you do to till your garden without a giant, tractor 3-point tiller? As someone on Facebook answered: “Really slowly, believe me.” That’s, without a doubt, true. But NOT impossible.

Here are 14 ways to till your small garden without a tiller.

14 Ways to Till Your Small Garden Without a Tiller

Here are 14 ways that allow you to till your small garden without a tiller.

  1. Manual wheel hoe
  2. Garden Weasel
  3. Garden hoe or push/pull hoe
  4. Pick axe or mattock
  5. Shovel
  6. Use the Ruth Stout method
  7. Use raised beds
  8. Employ animals, such as pigs
  9. Multi-prong hand tillers
  10. Drill-powered till
  11. Drill-powered auger
  12. Garden claw or cultivator
  13. Pitchfork
  14. Rake

1. Manual Wheel Hoe

Manual wheel hoes are the boss when it comes to no-till gardens.

I’ve also included a video that shows you how these manual wheel hoes work.

The Most Versatile Tool for Your Vegetable Garden
Hoss Tools’ manual tilling wheel hoe in action

2. Garden Weasel

Garden Weasel Claw Pro
Garden Weasel Pro

Garden Weasel has great tools to help you till your garden without a tiller. These tools don’t cost anywhere near as much as tractor-powered tillers or gas tillers and will get the job done, although with more manual labor than the other tools.

The Garden Weasel’s claw, the C.L.A.W. Pro, specifically mentions it works in heavy soils, including clay soils. Use your Garden Weasel Claw to cultivate, loosen, aerate and weed your soil.

It comes with a lifetime warranty and works in any size garden.  It’s super easy to use, with a bit of muscle. 

Garden Weasel’s cultivator is another great tool for tilling a garden without a tiller. It breaks the soil up easily and is self-cleaning. And you can stand up while you use it! You use it a bit differently, with a back-and-forth motion. It’s best to wet the soil before using this manual tiller. 

3. Use a Hoe for Manual Tilling

The Best Garden Hoe for Heavy Weeds
The best garden hoe for heavy weeds

A manual hoe doesn’t cost much and you’ll be able to till the top layer of your soil effectively. Albeit, only the very top layer. You’ll have to use a lot of muscle power to hoe deeper into the soil.

Manual hoes are a great tool for loosening the soil for planting though, and you can use them for planting seeds, covering seeds, and weeding.

Use a push-pull hoe if you’re just looking to get rid of weeds and till only a small amount of the top of your soil. Here’s a good video of the difference:

4. Use a Pick Axe/Mattock

Mattocks are my favorite garden tool. I’m forever lugging mine around everywhere. I slash weeds with it, dig holes, till soil, whack fence posts in, make garden edges, remove grass… A mattock’s uses are unlimited!

What I particularly like about mattocks is that you get a lot of power into whatever you’re doing, because you’re swinging it from above your head. I’m not a particularly big, strong woman, so getting that extra swing is very helpful, rather than having to try and stomp a shovel into the ground.

You can get long and short mattocks. I have one of each, and also a super lightweight hoe called a Japanese Weeding Sickle. Right now, I’m obsessed with this sickle! I love how lightweight it is and its sharp edge is great for digging small holes and breaking up soil clumps.

This little tool is invaluable in the garden, and they’re unbelievably cheap! See my favorite one below in the Resources section.

One tip for mattocks…

Choose one with a good-quality wooden handle. Fiberglass handles really jar your whole body when you hit a rock or something hard! It is truly unpleasant. Wood is strong and it tends to absorb shock much better – mattocking is hard enough without jarring impact!

The small mattock is used for getting weeds out and digging smaller holes in gardens where the soil is good. They’re good for precision work, where you don’t have room to swing the full-sized one.

To be honest, since I got my Japanese weeding sickle (pictured below), I haven’t used the small mattock at all! It feels clunky and heavy compared to the ultra-lightweight sickle, and it does the same job.

My big mattock will never be replaced. If I had to choose just one tool for the garden, it’s the big mattock!

Mattocks are great for tilling soil. Yes, it’s hard work, but they definitely achieve the purpose of tilling a garden without a tiller.

5. Shovel

The 5 MOST ESSENTIAL TOOLS for Growing a Vegetable Garden
The most essential tools for growing a vegetable garden

Shovels will definitely get you there. How hard it is to get you there depends a LOT on your soil.

If you’re on sandy or loose soil, a shovel will be perfect. If you’re on clay or rocky soil, I wish you all the best. A mattock-shovel combination might be good for you. Loosen the soil with the mattock, then shovel it with the shovel.

6. The Ruth Stout method

The Ruth Stout gardening method definitely achieves the purpose of tilling a garden without a tiller, but really only because it doesn’t till at all. It’s a no-dig method, which you can definitely consider if it suits what you’re looking for.

“Can you really have a productive garden without plowing, hoeing, weeding, cultivating, and all the other bothersome rituals that most gardeners suffer through every growing season?

“Sure,” says Ruth Stout, a prolific author and writer at 80 years young. The reason that Ruth can throw away her spade and hoe and do her gardening from a couch is a year-round mulch covering, 6 to 8 inches thick, that covers her garden like a blanket.”

I do believe that you can achieve your purpose this way, but in many cases, using this method takes a LONG time before you have improved your soil enough.

At our previous property, the soil was all rocks and gravel. No amount of mulch would have fixed that in the short term because we couldn’t dig without the use of a crowbar. And even that was extremely hard!

For us, in that situation, tilling was the only way. It was the only way to get water into the soil. The only way to actually plant something. The only way to improve the soil, in short.

After that, we worked with just mulch.

Tons and tons of it.

So, there is definite merit to this method. If you do only one thing in your garden, it should be mulch (like EZ Straw Mulch, for example).

7. Raised Beds

If you don’t want to (or can’t) till, build on top of it!

I’m not a huge fan of raised gardens (I explain why in this article), but they can work in some cases. And sometimes, it may be the only way really great in some cases. If your soil is so poor that you cannot grow straight into it, grow on top of it in a raised garden.

In the same spirit, you can look at straw bale gardening, core gardening, and the Mittleider method.

8. Animals

This one is a little tricky. It can definitely work, but there’s a fine line between “tilling” and “destroying.” Pigs, for example, will definitely take care of any weeds you want to get rid of. They will also “till” the soil to an extent.

However, pigs can “till” and compact the soil to such an extent that nothing will grow there any longer.

Chickens will scratch the top layer and fertilize with their poop. They are very effective at cleaning up an area, but their tilling doesn’t usually go deep enough to plant in unless you’re sowing a cover crop (which is in itself a great way to improve the soil!).

What they all have in common, except for possibly the chickens, is that they compact the soil. Compaction is one of the hardest things to solve as far as soil problems go, and you’ll likely have issues with water absorption, aeration, and more.

The advantage is that they fertilize the soil for you, which adds nice organic matter.

Goats are another great animal for cleaning up a bush plot. They’ll make short work of most weeds and unwanted (and wanted, for that matter!) vegetation.

In Australia, goats have been used to prevent bushfires in National Parks because they are so efficient at cleaning up! Goats are like mini bulldozers.

9. Multi-Prong Hand Tillers

Hand tillers are like a rake but with longer prongs and are generally made tougher as well. You can use them to “spike” into the soil and loosen it up. You won’t get as deep as with some of the other tools, but it’s great for loosening the top layer for planting.

10. Drill-Powered Till

You can get a till attachment for your drill, which turns your drill into a multi-functional power tool.

This particular one is described as:

“Whether for tilling, weeding, planting or digging, this smart home gardening tool kit is here to make your life easier! Designed for use with a cordless drill, this all-in-one gardening tool allows you to dig holes, plant seeds, remove weeds and roots, till your flower bed or aerate your soil, fast and effortlessly!

The downside of this is that you need a powerful drill. It’ll bog down any “normal” drill that is not heavy duty.

People also mentioned this particular one’s hex end wasn’t heat-treated, which resulted in some people’s till attachment wearing out. It might also struggle a bit in heavier soil. The other people loved using this till and, hey, if it works, it’s brilliant!

11. Drill-Powered Auger

This attachment digs actual holes. You can use it to drill a hole for a plant or tree, or for post holes, for example. You can also use this to “drill” throughout your garden, which loosens the soil. You can then use a shovel to turn it.

12. A garden claw or cultivator

A claw can work well for the top layer of your soil, but it’s not a tiller as such.

It is, in essence, a small, curved rake and works similarly to a rake, but a bit deeper. Great for getting weeds that aren’t too tough or creating a loose layer of soil for planting seeds. 

13. Pitchfork

Pitchforks work brilliantly if your soil is very loose already. It’s easy to turn and fork mulch and organic matter into the soil. Totally useless if your soil is heavy or compacted though!

14. Rake

The rake is the final tool for tilling your garden. It’s great for smoothing the soil and getting it even. A final till-over!

Tilling a Garden WITH a Tiller

If these manual tilling tools don’t seem like quite the thing, you can of course use power tillers. In a big garden or on a farm, the most efficient way is to use a tractor-driven tiller.

However, a tractor won’t fit into a small garden.

The other ways of tilling a small garden, without a tractor but with a tiller are below. These tillers significantly reduce the amount of manual labor you’ll have to put in. If you can use one of these, I recommend them over the manual methods below. If these are not an option, scroll past because I have included a whole list of methods to manually till your soil as well!

1. A tow behind tiller (goes behind an ATV)

2. A Rear Tine Tiller

3. A front-tine tiller

4. A smaller gas tiller like the Mantis

5. An electric tiller, either corded or battery-powered

These last options will most likely suit any sized garden. They are optimized to fit into very small spaces, and they’re increasingly easy to turn around and maneuver.

I hope you’ve gotten some new ideas and inspiration for how to till a small garden without a tiller, let us know which tool you’ve decided to buy and which ones you’ve used before!


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