A Sampling of Rear Tine Tillers

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The 3-HP Yellowbird is the smallest of the tested rear tine tillers. It seems ideal for small gardens. Controls (inset) are positioned at the folding handle's joint.
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The 5-HP Ariens stands up well on a strict "work performed per horsepower" evaluation. Controls (inset) are conveniently located.
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The Troy-Bilt is characterized by a practical design and quality workmanship. Controls (inset) are located close to the operator on a panel between the handles.
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The largest at 8-HP, the Sears CRT Task Handler is well balanced and powerful. A clutch safety release (Inset) is on the handle.

A rototiller is a big investment. Many folks
find that they can get along just fine renting or borrowing
the machines when they need them, usually no more than
once in the spring to till the garden
and again in the fall to chop up crop wastes and
expose belowground insect larvae, etc.

However, the more involved a person becomes with wholistic
gardening, the more practical it often becomes to own a tiller. After all, the machines can cultivate between rows throughout the
growing season (producing an orderly and weed-free garden
without hand hoeing), retill areas as crops mature and are harvested (allowing
for easy succession planting), and more.

But often just how much machine the potential tiller owner needs is a difficult decision. And
the decision is important, because rototiller prices tend to rise in proportion to the
power of the tools. Buying too
large a tiller can result in
unnecessary expense and inconvenience when maneuvering the big machine around a small garden. Purchasing too small a tiller can result in extra labor, and–worse yet–the need to rent a large model to break up soil before the “little tiller” can handle it!

There are any number of good tillers on the
market, but in preparing this article we decided to limit
ourselves to a sampling of rear tine tillers spanning the most popular
horsepower ratings. The list of machines isn’t complete, then, and
isn’t meant to imply that tillers not included are in any
way inferior to those listed. It is, however, intended to
give you an understanding of what you can expect from the
four specific models tested and the
potential of other machines with similar
horsepower ratings.

The Yellowbird

The little Yellowbird (sold by Precision Valley
Manufacturing Co.)
is–as far as we know–the smallest rear tine
tiller on the market. Weighing a scant 75 pounds without
its blades in place and sporting a 3-HP Briggs &
Stratton engine, the Bird is a fine tool for gardeners who
have small plots and/or often need to till in confined
areas.

Of course, the machine’s light weight and limited
horsepower may be disadvantages when one has a
large garden or needs to cultivate unbroken sod. However,
we found that even the latter task can be
accomplished with the small tiller. In our tests the Bird
was able to work a previously unbroken pasture to a depth
of 4 1/2 inches, although eight passes with the machine
were necessary to do so.

Our gardeners/ testers also noted that they often wished
the Yellowbird had handlebar-mounted speed and throttle
adjustments (the wheels and tines turn at set speeds, while
the throttle is controlled at the engine), the ability
to operate in reverse (which can be important when
reworking difficult patches of ground), and the
option of disengaging the tines while keeping the wheels
turning for transport. (The little tiller’s single forward
speed also left something to be desired when traveling from
garden to barn, garage, or basement.)

On the other hand, our evaluators praised the narrow (14″)
tines, which–in conjunction with the tiller’s light
weight–made working in between established rows of
plants (without accidentally wiping out crops) a breeze.
The gardeners found the folding handle to be convenient,
too–allowing for easy storage and auto trunk
or station wagon transport–and appreciated the
reversible depth-adjustment bar which can either ride
smoothly in the tilled soil or, when attached backwards,
hook itself into the earth and force the tines to dig in.

The Yellowbird, all in all, is especially designed for
people with smaller “backyard” gardens and–for such
folks–represents a good swap of power for agility and
convenience.

The Ariens

The 5-HP Tecumseh-engined Ariens tiller (Ariens Company) constitutes a
“middle ground” in both power range and weight (about
275 pounds) between the little Yellowbird and the
“big boys” described below.

MOTHER EARTH NEWS’ evaluators were very much impressed with
the Ariens’ overall performance. They did, however,
criticize its lack of a “high-range” forward speed
(available on other Ariens models) for going to and from
the garden, and wish that it weren’t necessary to bend over
to engage the tines or wheels (admittedly a small
criticism).

The tiller’s good points far outweighed the bad,
however. It features a reversible depth bar, as does the
Yellowbird. And, unlike the smaller machine, its tines
can be disengaged while the wheels are in
operation; you can walk the tiller across your lawn
without worrying about accidentally taking out an 18″ swath
of carefully nurtured bluegrass (actually, the tine width
can be adjusted from 12″ to 19″). Perhaps the best feature
of the Ariens, though, is its ability to use the
power put out by its relatively small five-horse engine.
The machine was able to reach a depth of 4 1/2
inches–starting on unturned sod–in four passes.
If your garden is of reasonable size and if you’ll
occasionally have to tackle hard-to-work soil, we think
you’ll find the Ariens to be an excellent choice
for the money.

The Troy-Bilt Horse

The Troy-Bill (Garden Way Manufacturing Company, Inc) has, as a result of its great (and deserved)
popularity, become almost everyone’s image of a rear-tine
tiller. For our tests, we chose the 7-HP, Kohler-engined
“Horse” model. Weighing in at approximately 286 pounds, the
machine is only a little heavier than is the Ariens, but
gives an impression of far greater size.

All of our testers had used Troy-Bilt machines prior to
meeting the Horse, and many of them had actually
owned tillers manufactured by the New York firm.
Despite such familiarity, though, there were a few
criticisms.

For one thing, several of the people who used the tiller
were disturbed by its front-heaviness, finding that the
tool “wanted” to tip forward. Furthermore, those who’d
enjoyed the reversible depth bar on the Ariens and
Yellowbird, and the ability of the Ariens to keep its
wheels running while the tines are disengaged, were
disappointed that the Troy Bilt lacked these two features.

Finally, the Horse incorporates an “automatic clutch” that
causes the machine to shift into “neutral” automatically
when the tines encounter hidden rocks or unusually hard
ground, a feature which prevents the tiller from running
away with its operator. On the unit that we tested,
however, the safety mechanism appeared to be too
sensitive and shifted the machine into neutral at the
slightest lurch. (This problem could certainly be handled
by a not-too difficult adjustment.)

Again, however, the tiller’s good points overshadowed its
bad ones. Everybody was impressed by the quality of the
Troy-Bilt’s construction, and even more by the fact that
the design allows adjustments and parts replacement to be
easily handled by the owner. The machine has a good range
of speeds, too, being able to hunker down at 0.5 MPH for
hard work or roll along at 1.72 MPH when the job’s done and
it’s time to go home. And, in our “unbroken sod” tests, the
Horse opened an (adjustable) 20″-wide, 4 1/2″-deep seed bed
in three passes.

Perhaps the single best quality of the Troy-Bill tiller,
however, is the manufacturer’s commitment to
wholistic gardening, as represented by the incredibly
detailed owner’s manual (which not only covers almost any
maintenance chore that the owner might have occasion to
perform, but even gives detailed instructions for
everything from tilling on slopes to green-manure cropping
and wide-row gardening) and the information-packed,
five-issue-a-year owners’ newsletter put out by the
company. Garden Way really does seem to try to
make its customers feel part of the “Troy-Bllt Family.”  When the careful instructions that the firm provides
are heeded, the sturdy machine should give years
of versatile and productive service.

The Sears Task Handler

When we contacted the folks at Sears, Roebuck and Co. to ask
whether they had a tiller that would fill out the
“heavyweight” side of our evaluation, they had to put us
off for a few weeks. It seems that the company did
have a unique new model in the works, but hadn’t as yet
finished testing it. Before long, though, the prototype
8-HP (Briggs & Stratton-powered) unit arrived … and
quickly proved itself to be well worth the wait!

The most noteworthy features of the Sears Task Handler are
its counter-rotating tines (CRT). While all the other
tillers tested for this article have blades that spin
“forward”, as do the wheels, the new Sears design
incorporates “diggers” that turn in the opposite direction
from its tires. Therefore, the tines pull against
the wheels, and the struggle between the opposing forces
really lets the tiller churn up earth! Moreover, the tilled
soil is actually lifted and thrown back upon the tines …
in effect double-tilling a very fine-particled
seedbed.

Our testers found little to criticize about the CRT. They
did note that the machine is too large to be useful in
close quarters, but most felt that few people would even
purchase such a tiller for use in small or cramped
spaces. The choke control was called “frail” by one of our
evaluators. But since our unit is a one-of-a-kind
test model, that feature might be beefed up before the
machine reaches production. (On the other hand, we can’t
speculate on the long-term reliability of this very new
design. It held up well for us. )

And everyone who tried the tiller was astonished at how
well balanced the 300-pound machine is!
Furthermore, the Task Handler is clearly the best “digger”
of the bunch, able to churn up a beautifully prepared
21″-wide, 4 1/2″-deep bed–on previously unbroken
sod–in one pass. The handlebar controls
were well liked, too, especially the convenient safety
clutch-release … but the machine’s ability to make short
work of any job that you’d conceivably ask of a tiller is
far and away its best feature. If you’re the sort who has a
big garden (or, perhaps, who tills other folks’ plots for
part-time cash) and deals with difficult soil types, you’re
not likely to find another tiller that’ll help you do your
work more quickly or more easily.

In Conclusion …

There you have it, a rundown on four representatives of
the rear-tine tiller world. As noted above, any
of the machines in this evaluation is worthy of
recommendation if the scope of your gardening
activities matches its abilities. Study the information
here and in the accompanying chart before making a purchase
and–if possible–try to borrow a number
of different machines to “test run” before you lay down
your hard earned bucks. You’ll end up with a garden
helper that’ll be a pleasure to use for years to come!  


A Quick Look at Four Rear Tine Tillers

Yellowbird
– Engine Make: Briggs & Stratton, 3 HP
– Accessories: power cultivator, furrower, front weight, drag bar
– Drive System: worm gear
– Price: $529

Ariens Series 901000
– Engine Make: Tecumseh, 5 HP
– Accessories: tine/hood extension, engine guard, furrower, front blade, more
– Drive System: belt/worm gear
– Price: $764

Troy-Bilt Horse
– Engine Make: Kahler, 7 HP
– Accessories: dozer blade, hiller/furrower, tire chains, three tine types, more
– Drive System: belt/worm gear
– Price: $1,039

Sears Task Handler
– Engine Make:  Briggs & Stratton, 8 HP
– Accessories: snow blade, v-bar cultivator, depth stake cultivator
– Drive System: gear/chain
– Price: $1,299

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