Will a Rototiller Cut Through Sod?

I finally bought a rototiller this spring. While I try not to overuse it, it’s really a huge time saver in our half-acre garden.

Rototillers will cut through sod, but they will only do it well at a slow pace. Rototilling sod requires several passes to be sure it’s thoroughly diced up. Trim the grass short prior to rototilling to make the sod easier to till and to avoid plugging up the tiller tines.

Knowing the capabilities of a tiller will help you avoid damage while still getting the most out of it.

Tilling Sod With a Rototiller

I used my father-in-law’s rototiller to till up a quarter acre of sod a few years ago and used mine to till up another quarter acre of sod this year. There are definitely a few tricks to it and things to watch out for. It’s one of the toughest tasks to ask of any rototiller.

First off, you need to go through and remove any above-ground objects that may get caught in the tiller. Large stones, sticks, chunks of concrete, those things can get caught, causing the tiller to stall out, and it’s hard on the belt, tines, transmission, and engine.

Things my tiller has picked up include an iron bar, a hammer, an old dog cable, and the neighbor’s phone line (fortunately they didn’t use it anymore). Just be sure as best you can that the ground is clear of things that could damage the tiller.

If you want to till an area of overgrown grass or weeds, mow it or weed-whack it down to the ground first. A rototiller can’t cut through all that plant matter very well. Even if you just want to till up part of your lawn, Go mow it as short as your mower will go. That way, your tiller can do its job better.

Don’t rush a rototiller. Cutting sod is the slowest work for a rototiller. Let the tiller decide the pace. Now, there is a trick, if you’re using a front-tine tiller. That is, the tines are in front of the engine. These all have an anchor in the back, a steel stake usually called a plow.

If the sod is very tough or the ground compacted, you can set the plow/stake about halfway down and run the tiller fast across the ground, letting the plow slice the sod. The tiller tines will hardly dig, but the plow will dig in, slicing the ground. After a few passes, the ground will loosen a bit and will till nicely.

This is gravel/clay soil with sod. The rototiller tore it up nicely.

That’s how I tilled the tougher area of sod in my former lawn/hayfield. It works on heavy clay soil too. There are more tricks with the plow and I’ll write about them in a minute.

When you till sod, it doesn’t always kill the grass very well. Grass roots are hard to kill off, especially the nasty, ghoulish quack grass we have around here. After tilling, you still need the grass to die. It does help if you till it up a lot, really grind into it. After tilling, let it sit so all exposed grass roots dry out.

You can go and rake up chunks of sod so they don’t re-grow. You’ll also probably want to re-till the spot twice a week for the next 2-3 weeks to keep churning and chopping the bits of sod that will be trying to re-grow. Plan on tilling up the sod at least 3 weeks before planting so you have time to kill off the grass.

Don’t cover it with a tarp unless you have more than a month to wait before planting. Short-term tarping will actually help the sod re-grow its roots. It takes a lot to completely kill off sod initially, but after the beginning stage, it’s pretty easy.

Tough soil is no problem for a rototiller, but tree roots and large stones are an issue.

What a Rototiller Can and Can’t Do

  • Rototillers won’t cut tree roots
  • Rototillers won’t cut through tall weeds (gets clogged up)
  • rototillers get jammed with straw or un-mulched plant matter

That’s really about it for the “never do” list. Rototillers are expensive and costly to repair. Abusing one, while sometimes necessary, can be damaging. Knowing the limitations of a tiller will help you get the most benefit from it.

I just replaced the transmission on my tiller after using it very hard this year. The transmission snapped in half from being torqued too hard and too often. Fortunately, it was easy to replace. Still, it set me back 200 bucks. I hit a lot of roots near my trees. Try not to do that.

Long grass or weeds can clug up the tines. If that happens, clear it off. Plugged tines are hard on the machine and don’t till well.

How to Take Care of a Rototiller

The biggest tip I can share it to only use rec-gas (ethanol-free) in your tiller. Since they aren’t usually used but a few times a year, pore gasoline will keep the carburetor much cleaner. Ethanol, especially when it’s been sitting a while, builds up, causing a white crystally goo-crud that plugs it up.

Pure gasoline is more expensive, but you probably don’t need much more than a gallon or two in a year, so it’s definitely worth it. Did you know that gasoline with ethanol contains water too? After all, ethanol is 10 percent water. The gas can evaporate out of the carb leaving ethanol and water, which corrodes stuff.

Next, let it warm up before running it. The fuel doesn’t burn quite right and the oil doesn’t flow onto the pistons well until the engine is warm. Give it a minute to warm up before actually using it or running it on full throttle. If you need to throttle it to start it, back it down after getting it started for a minute.

If a rototiller is working hard, don’t rush it. Let it find its own pace. Making it work too hard can cause overheating in the transmission or slippage of the belt, causing it to stretch or break.

Tillers take a lot of stress, don’t add to it more than you have to. If you’re tilling hard for a while, consider letting it take a cool-down break halfway in between just to reduce the stress on it. If the tines get clogged, stop it and clear them off. A screwdriver will help tear off tough debris.

Change the oil after 50 running hours or once a year whichever comes first. Keep an eye on the oil level and make sure it’s topped off when needed. Running low on oil causes the most expensive repair, an entire engine replacement.

Keep an eye on the air filter to be sure it’s not too plugged up. If you’re making a dust cloud, the air filter can plug up in an hour or two. Most can be cleaned or gently rinsed out with water. Just be sure it’s completely dried before putting it back on.

Most front-tined tillers have one of these mounted vertically on the back. It’s usually called a plow, because there’s not another good word for it.

How to Set and Use the Plow/Rear Stake on a Rototiller

The function of the single-post plow on front-tine rototillers is to control the tilling depth and walking speed and to cut open the soil. The deeper you set the plow, the deeper your tiller will dig and the slower it will walk forward.

Most plows have an angled point on one side. Having the point facing forward will cause it to dig a little deeper, and advance slower, tilling the soil more thoroughly. Pointing to the back will cause less drag, letting the tiller advance a little faster, but won’t slice sod as well.

If you want the plow to slice up the soil, set it point forward. Don’t tip the tiller back to dig the plow deeper. That will bring up the tines and make it walk slower. Let the plow grab in the soil, creating a fulcrum point to push the tiller tines firmly into the soil.

The plow can catch grass or plant debris. If it’s starting to get clogged, the tiller will slow down. If that happens, just let off on the throttle, tip it up, and kick the junk out of the way. The plow helps to control a front-tine tiller like the tail on a kite, so it may not be smart to run without it.

Some tillers have easily removable wheels. Removing the wheels lets the tiller dig deeper and run slower, but may cause it to be more jumpy.

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I practice what I preach. Here in rural west Michigan, me, my wife, and 5 young kids work together to grow food, raise animals, and grow aninmal feed on just 1 acre. I teach homesteading classes locally, and help people where I can.

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