How To Use A Tiller To Remove Weeds The Right Way

Wondering how you can use your rototiller to get rid of the weeds in your garden? It’s exciting to plant a new garden bed, but when you look over at your planned site & it’s full of weeds, it can be super discouraging. 

So why not use your tiller to clean the weeds in a fraction of the time? 

Sounds great, right? 

Well, not so fast. You can definitely use your tiller to get rid of the weeds much quicker than manually pulling them out. But there are a few things to watch out for, or you could actually end up spreading the weeds throughout your garden!

In this guide, we’ll take a look at everything you need to know to get rid of those pesky weeds so you are ready to move on to the fun part – planting!

What Type of Weeds Do You Have?

Before starting the project, figure out what type of weeds are growing in your garden. Annual weeds are much easier to remove with a tiller than weeds that resprout from the roots when buried. 

If you have a large number of perennial weeds, you’ll want to follow up with a weed barrier or cover crop, to prevent the weeds from growing back after tilling

Tilling over perennial weeds is more difficult, but with careful maintenance is it still much less work than trying to pull them by hand or with a hand tiller.

Does it Matter What Type of Tiller I Use?

Yes. The age and types of weeds, slope, soil type, soil depth, and moisture content will determine which tool is best for the job.

collage of three types of tillers - front tine, rear tine and vertical

A cordless cultivator is well suited for loosening weeds around existing plantings. This gives you the most control over tiller depth and position, so you don’t damage the roots of your vegetables or plants. 

Front tine tillers are good for medium plots of land, where you still need a good deal of control but have a well-defined area to clear.

Rear tine tillers work best in large open areas, fields, and on smaller farms.

If you are removing weed seedlings from a backyard plot, a smaller tiller is fine. The weeds will be at the surface and easy to cut through. 

But if you are removing smaller weeds from a mature field, you’re going to need a different tool. Use a drag harrow to uproot young seedlings.

For mature weeds in the field, you’ll need to bring out the heavier equipment with strong steel tines to reach deeper into the soil. Some roots can be pretty thick and could damage a lightweight cultivating tool. 

Rototilling to Remove Weeds: Step by Step

man tilling a new garden bed breaking up weeds along the way

1. Check the Weather and Condition of the Land

Before you start, consider the weather conditions. You don’t want to use your rototiller just after rain or during a drought. 

Soil should be moist, not overly wet or dry. Tilling on very wet soil can cause damage to the soil structure. 

Wind can cause an issue on dry days. When the soil is too dry, it is harder for the blades to operate and turn the soil. 

Tilling in dry weather can also kick up a lot of dust. Always wear a mask to prevent breathing in crop dust and debris. 

2. Prepare the Area

The next step is to cut down the vegetation as close to the ground as possible. You can do this with a string trimmer or weed wacker for taller weeds. You can use a lawnmower for grassy areas.

As you are going over the area, keep an eye out for large objects. You should remove sticks, rocks, and any larger obstacles, so they don’t get caught in the tines or fly up and cause unintended damage.

3. Till The Soil To Loosen The Roots

Put the tiller on low and work through the plot of land in straight rows from one end to the other. The first pass should be done slowly and methodically, especially if this is the first time you’ve worked the ground this year.

Keep a firm grip on the handles, and be aware of your surroundings. You may encounter wildlife, such as mice or rabbits, especially if you are tilling over an old vegetable garden.

At the end of the plot, turn around and continue to the other end of the garden plot. You may need to stop occasionally and remove larger roots from the tines since they can get tangled in the tines. 

Continue moving from one side to the other until the entire area of land is tilled.

4. Till Under Annual Weeds

Smaller annual weeds can be tilled right back into the soil. The seedlings will die and add nutrients back into the soil and help your new plants grow.

I like to do this at least twice before planting, separated by a week or two.

The first tilling will turn under the first set of weeds in the spring. This will also bring up some buried weed seeds under the soil. Let them sprout, then till again.

5. Rake Excessive Vegetation

Depending on how thick the weeds were, you may want to rake and remove any excess vegetation that may get in the way of your new plants developing their root systems.

You’ll want to evaluate the state of the garden plot at this stage as well. 

We’ll take a second pass with the rototiller in step 5 if the ground still needs more work. Or you can manually remove the remainder of the weeds with a hand tiller if you choose. 

6. Remove Mature Weeds

If you had larger, mature weeds in step 4, remove them from the area and take them to the recycling center. I like to keep an empty plastic garbage can or yard waste bag handy while I’m out in the field. This makes it easy to haul them back over to the house when I’m done.

Throw away or burn mature weeds – Do not compost them.

University of Minnesota – Yard and Garden News

Don’t compost mature weeds. The weed seeds will spread through your compost and eventually your garden! 

7. Repeat The Process If Needed

If there are weeds remaining, take a second pass with the tiller. This time run the tiller in the opposite direction to ensure no large clumps remain.

When You Shouldn’t Use A Tiller On Weeds

field of poison ivy

There are a few circumstances when using a tiller is not recommended.

Rhizomatous plants should not be tilled as tillage breaks up the roots into smaller pieces. The plants will then spread throughout the field. Plants with underground rhizomes include poison ivy, hops, and Bermuda grass.

Perennial weeds can also be especially problematic if you are unable to remove the entire plant or root system. 

Be careful in tilling in areas with underground irrigation systems. A tiller can quickly tear up a sprinkler system costing hundreds or thousands of dollars to repair.

Can You Use A Tiller To Remove Ivy?

Using a tiller to remove Ivy is not recommended. Ivy is a very tough, deep-rooted plant that can be extremely hard to remove. While it might remove the top of the plant, the deeper roots will be left behind or get tangled in the tiller tines. 

Ivy also commonly roots near trees and under shrubs. You may damage the roots of your other plants by using a tiller too close to them. It’s better to remove ivy with a shovel and hand trowel so you can strategically dig up the roots. 

Other Tips For Removing Weeds With A Tiller. 

garden and rows of spring lettuce

Tilling works best on large flat gardens or fields that are generally free from rocks. 

During the growing season, you can use a tool like a cordless cultivator to weed in between wider rows. Just be mindful of nearby plants, so you don’t accidentally catch their roots in the tines.

Set the depth of your tiller according to the size of the weeds. Seedlings can be set to a shallow depth, while older weeds will require a depth of up to a few inches. 

In areas of invasive weeds, you can plant a cover crop after tilling to crowd out any remaining weeds. 

In Summary

Tilling is an excellent way to remove weeds from a large garden area. It can save countless hours of backbreaking labor. But it is only the first step. 

Once you remove the existing weeds, you’ll need to follow up with a preventative measure to keep the weeds out of the garden. A weed barrier or mulch does a good job in moderate areas.

And just remember to plan ahead. The whole process takes a few weeks. And this is time well spent. If you do a good job removing weeds at the beginning of the season, this will free up time for you to enjoy watching your plants thrive throughout the next few months.