Will a Rototiller Cut Through Roots? (abusing rototillers)

I have a cheap rototiller that we use to break up the soil when it needs breaking. Lately, I’ve been working on a plot of soil that was a forest last fall. Even after ripping the stumps out, there are roots everywhere. It’s been quite the chore.

Rototillers may cut through small roots but they are not designed for cutting hard roots and purposefully cutting hard roots is considered equipment abuse. Small roots from trees or shrubs could be rototilled if they have been softened or rotted, but it’s still hard on the machine.

That being said, let me tell, you how I tilled up the roots from 38 trees early this spring.

Rototillers come in all shapes and sizes. Some of the stronger and more powerful ones, like what you’d pull behind a tractor, are more than capable of tearing up small tree roots near the surface of the soil. But, doing that can result in bent or broken tiller tines and shorn shear pins.

The rototiler I have is a small, cheaper walk-behind model. It’s an Earthquake Vector that I bought used-in great condition for $75 a few years go. It’s a 5hp front-tine tiller that’s about as lightweight as you can get for that size.

Small roots like grasses and weeds are no issue for any rototiller. I use mine to till up sod.

Now, I would never just straight up till through roots with any tiller. First, I felled the trees and paid a neighbor to dig out the stumps. We used our minivan and a chain to pull the stumps away to the side of the yard. That left the roots.

First, I went through with an axe and shovel and got rid of all the roots I could see, then we nitrogenated the soil to start rotting out the roots at an accelerated pace. That’s important. You can use a regular high-nitrogen fertilizer like 20-20-20 or urea. I actually just used my pigs.

We set up a pig pen over the area and had pigs there for two months. They put a lot of nitrogen in the soil from manure and churned it well. After that, I let things dry out. Just before planting time, a late May, I went out with a shovel to turn the soil and look for big roots. They were already starting to rot out a bit, but were still pretty firm.

I just turned the soil over with a shovel and pulled/chopped all the roots I could find. Then I came through with my little rototiller. It caught a lot more roots than I thought were there, but mostly smaller ones that were broken up and pulled out enough for me to toss aside. The roots were getting fairly soft from the nitrogen.

Nitrogen speeds up the decomposition by feeding microbes which in turn increases the microbes that eat woody material. By nitrogenating the soil you can speed up the breakdown of tree roots several times over.

I made several passes through that 80×40-foot area going left to right, then front to back. A little more raking to sift out more root chunks and it was ready for smoothing and planting. We planted tomatoes there.

After tilling through roots on the backside of my garden, I broke my rototiller.

Should You Cut Through Roots With a Rototiller?

Don’t expect a rototiller to cut through hard tree roots. If you couldn’t chop through it decently with a shovel, a rototiller shouldn’t really be used. A rototiller with a lightweight aluminum transmission will likely break from cutting through too many roots. A small rototiller won’t have the power to cut through any tree roots.

I broke my transmission in the middle of the growing season, undoubtedly from cutting through roots early on. A new transmission costs me about $230. I suppose it was worth it, but I’m not happy about breaking it.

I cannot advise attempting to use a rototiller to take out tree roots. You may be able to decide if it’s worth the risk to you. I can’t make that decision. It’s like pulling a plow with a pickup truck. It can be done, but it’s likely not good for the truck.

If roots are a problem, try to remove them first. dig and chop out any roots that are visible. Rototillers usually dig between 6 and 4 inches deep. Use a shovel to find other roots that may be there prior to tilling. Live roots are very hard and should be removed before tilling.

Dead roots are easier to remove and rototiller may be able to handle them if they are rotted out first. Adding a high-dose of nitrogen and keeping the soil moist will help rot out dead tree roots. That’s all I got for you. Do what you need to and best of luck to you in reaching your goals!

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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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