Wheel Hoe vs Rototiller

Author: Ray Herndon

How does a wheel hoe compare with a rototiller? Hand tools are amazing, but if your garden is really big, you may ache for tools to quickly cover more ground. I cultivate 1-2 acres using a tiller on a walk-behind tractor.

But tillers have some serious drawbacks. The rototiller disrupts soil integrity and forms a hardpan layer below the surface. Hardpan impairs drainage and causes problems for plant growth. I’ve unearthed vegetables at the end of a row while turning the tiller, cut into irrigation lines and run into fences. A tiller digs into your wallet for fuel and maintenance.

The wheel hoe is less expensive, quieter, less polluting, and more maneuverable than a tiller. Recently I bought a wheel hoe through Easydigging.com, and hope it will help my soil quality. Here’s how working with the wheel hoe has compared so far.

My Big Rototiller

Grillo 22” Rear Tine Tiller on G107 Walk Behind Tractor

Grillo tractor with rear-tine tiller attachment

With high torque diesel power, this Grillo G107 is a beast among rototillers. It came from Earth Tools and has been my primary tillage tool for about 5 years. I plowed and cultivated over an acre of garden space this year using a variety of implements that attach to the Grillo, including the tiller pictured here as well as a rotary plow, flail mower, and chisel plow cultivator.

Hundreds of tillers are available at many price points. Whether front or rear mount, all use the same basic design of rotating tines that dig into the soil, roll it over and mix it.

Safety and maintenance are major differences between the tiller and wheel hoe. Powerful tillers cut through soil, but can really buck when you hit a rock. If you hit something hard enough, that power may break something like a tine or gear. Tines in motion will cause serious injury if they contact feet or hands.

The Hoss High Arch Wheel Hoe

High-Arch wheel hoe, made by Hoss

Great for quick, light weeding along the edge of each row, the Hoss High Arch can straddle young corn and potatoes, and make quicker work of hilling these crops. Mine has 4 cultivator teeth, 2 six inch stirrup hoes and left and right plow blades that can make furrows or be reversed to mound soil around the plants.

I chose the Hoss because of the variety of implements available, and capability of straddling a row of young plants. It’s well made. Other notable wheel hoe manufacturers include Glaser, Valley Oak, and Terrateck, which do not have the same High Arch configuration, but advertise different handles, grips, and mechanisms for attaching implements.

Field Comparison

The comparison was made on a large (1.5 acre) garden, with heavy clay-loam soil in an area of rolling hills, with plenty of rocks and pressure from weeds. My weeds include wire grasses, lamb’s quarters, plantain, thistles, burdock, poke, chickweed, fleabane, bindweed, milkweed and more.

Primary Tillage

I don’t recommend either tool for initial sod-breaking. The maximum depth of the wheel hoe cultivator teeth is about 1 to 2 inches; the rototiller reaches 4 to 6 inches. The rototiller powers through roots and hard soil on new ground better than I can muscle in with a wheel hoe, but neither one is great. It takes at least 5 or 6 passes with the Grillo tiller for me to thoroughly break up soil that has not been previously plowed. Heavier implements work better for the first pass. like a bottom plow or a rotary plow behind a tractor with lots of power. If you are doing it with hand tools, then a strong broadfork, a grub hoe and a mattock can do the job.

Secondary Tillage

Large tiller doing secondary tillage of cover crops

If the ground has been plowed within the year, the rototiller will churn through large areas, turning under compost and chopped green manures. The wheel hoe can’t. It’s better once the soil is soft. The wheel hoe does leave worms, tiny air pockets, and microbes more than an inch below the surface largely undisturbed, whereas the mixing motion of the tiller can destroy this soil life, and cause clay soils to settle more tightly and become more compacted, especially after a rain.

A heavy tiller like the Grillo may have turning brakes to assist, but heavier machines always have greater challenges turning around at the end of the row than a wheel hoe. There’s a greater risk of running over plants or other objects when turning the tiller.

My High Arch model is probably the heaviest and least nimble of any wheel hoe, yet it turns easily. In tight corners the wheel hoe is light enough to move into position by either lifting the tines from the ground and turning on the wheels, or pushing down on the handles to pivot on the tines. You can maneuver a wheel hoe to within a centimeter of a plant, or go between plants in the row to uproot weeds.

Light Cultivation + Weed Control

wheel hoe weeding the rows of a large garden

Using a wheel hoe frequently when weeds are very small prevents infestations. It’s faster and easier than a garden hoe for running down a long row. But if the weeds have grown thick and tall, the tiller becomes the faster choice - as long as the rows are wide enough. If weeds begin to grow tall, it’s possible to use a wheel hoe, even if you are no stronger than Mary here, who shies away from the big tiller.

My corn patch had lots of 10” weeds. This was a little heavy for the wheel hoe, so I ran the tiller between each row.

I then used the wheel hoe to weed close to the corn with the stirrup hoes. Next, I put down some fertilizer, then attached the plowshares in reverse position, and used the high arch wheel hoe to straddle the row and push soil up around the roots of the corn.

Operations and Maintenance

All attachments on the wheel hoe bolt on with a 9/16th SAE wrench and the handle height adjusts with a 7/16th. The stirrup hoes may be sharpened with a file. Linseed oil should be applied to the wooden handles annually. You don’t need any other tools to maintain it.

Over the last 800 hours or so, the tiller has required time and money for fuel, oil changes, air filters, fuel hose changes, greasing fittings, tire inflation, clutch repair, new battery, cable adjustments, etc, adding up to a bit over a hundred dollars and dozens of hours per year.

Wheel hoes cost more than other hand implements, but less than rototillers. The Hoss High Arch Wheel Hoe with my selection of attachments is around $500 new. Hoss's Standard models with fewer accessories can be nearly 50% less. You may find lighter rear-tine tillers on the market for around $800, and less for used, whereas premium models may cost over $1000. But you get what you pay for; at the low end, you should expect lower performance, fewer options, and more time, money and aggravation with maintenance. Some small electric tillers cost less, but are not really sufficient for a very large garden.

Conclusion

I use both the tiller and the wheel hoe. As time goes by I will probably use the wheel hoe more during the growing season and operate the tiller more for primary cultivation and turning under soil amendments in the garden in early spring and late fall.


Click here for other Gardening articles

Check out our Hoss High Arch Wheel Hoe and also our Hoss Classic Wheel Hoe