Midwest Gardening — Gardening Basics

Cultivating the soil in your gardens is very important for your plants. And there is a difference between cultivating and tilling.

The basic principle of cultivating the soil in your garden is simply to break up and loosen the soil in the garden.  But do you really know why?  and how?  and when?  and what is the difference between cultivating and tilling?


Cultivating is actually a combination of two things, removing weeds from the garden and loosening the soil to improve the retention and penetration of air, water and nutrients.  Both are accomplished at the same time.

Midwest Gardening — Gardening Basics

Why You Need to Cultivate:

  • Sun and wind dries the soil surface into a crust. Cultivating breaks up the soil surface, allowing easier penetration of air, nutrients and water deep into the soil where plant roots can access them.

  • Air that is able to penetrate the soil surface is also important to the micro-organisms in the soil that perform all kinds of important tasks improving the soil and creating nutrients for the plants.

  • Cultivated soil makes it easy for newly germinated seeds to sprout through the soil surface.

  • Although cultivating will bring some weed seeds to the soil surface to germinate, cultivating will also pull up and expose young weed sprouts. These young seedlings will die when left exposed on the soil surface. Weed seed germination is also interrupted by cultivating.

  • The removal of weeds decreases competition for water and nutrients, leaving everything for your plants to feed as needed.

  • By improving moisture penetration and therefore retention, cultivating reduces the need for supplemental watering.

  • A cultivated garden looks neat and fresh.

How to Cultivate:

  • Loosen the soil only a couple of inches deep when you cultivate. Cultivating too deeply only encourages the surface to dry out faster. Hand tools are ideally suited to the job.

  • Do not disturb plant roots, causing damage to your plants. Cultivating between the rows and not getting too close to your plants will prevent damaging roots.

  • Specific methods of cultivation are explained along with appropriate tools below.

When to Cultivate:

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  • Only surface cultivate as necessary, over working of the soil is of no benefit. If you can clearly see that the surface has crusted over and that many weeds have sprouted, it is time to shallow cultivate.

  • Do not cultivate when the soil is wet, it will only cause further compaction. The soil should be quite dry, more dry than you think it should be is better than too moist.

  • Before you seed a bed. In particular, small fine seeds will have an easier time sprouting in cultivated soil.

  • Before planting flowers and vegetables.

  • Whenever you top dress the soil with compost or organic fertilizers, shallow cultivating will loosen the top crust of soil and integrate the added nutrients, reducing runoff from rain. Let the earthworms and micro-organisms do the work of fully integrating the nutrients into the soil.


Deep tilling or double digging poor soil is deep cultivation necessary when preparing a new bed or when adding large amounts of organic amendments every few years.  Tilling will cultivate the soil 8-10 inches deep, perhaps more if you are preparing a new bed in poor soil.  Shallower tilling of 4-8 inches is necessary when you are mixing soil amendments into a garden bed.  This is ideally accomplished at the end of the growing season.  Fall tilling allows you to amend the soil with rough organic amendments that will decompose slowly the following season, an ideal feeding situation for your plants next season.  However, do not till in fall unless your intention is to add relatively large amounts of organic amendments to improve the soil.  Some gardeners prefer not to upset the natural building of micro-organisms and earthworms other than when preparing a new garden bed.  But digging in soil amendments every few years in fall can be done to a rather shallow depth, allowing the soil critters to do most of the work. Then spring till to prepare for planting.  See the article about preparing the garden for winter for more details.

Why You Need to Till:

  • Soil becomes compacted over a period of years from rain and foot traffic.

  • Air pockets created by the loosened soil allow for air and water to be held for the plants to use.

  • The air is also important to the micro-organisms in the soil that perform all kinds of important tasks creating nutrients for the plants.

  • Loosened soil makes it easy for roots, and root vegetables, to spread out and grow in the soil. This is especially important in clay soil.

  • Preparing the garden bed for spring planting.

  • Shred and turn under a cover crop.

Not all gardeners agree about the necessity, frequency and depth of cultivating and tilling.  All the above are generally accepted practices.  Recently some small farmers have adopted No-Till Methods to disturb the soil as little as possible.  This may be more important in acreage farms to reduce erosion problems.  Weeds are taken care of with either herbicides or cover crops.  But it may not be practical for backyard gardeners without proper no-till drills or chisel plow equipment.

Cultivating Tools:

There is such a wide variety of cultivating tools available that you will be able to select what suits your best.  Think about how you like to work, up on your feet or down in the dirt.  Do you like a heavy substantial tool or do you prefer lightweight for small hands?  Is your garden closely planted or spacious?  Is your soil light and sandy or heavy with clay?  Are your plants large and sturdy or small and delicate?  As you think about these questions, the answers will help you select tools that are best suited to you, your gardens, and your plants.

You will likely want a little bit of an assortment of tools for different situations.  When you first start gardening or if you only have a small garden, just a few basic tools should be necessary.  Buy only one trowel, one hoe or fork and one pointed spade.  But buy the best you can afford that is well suited to your needs.  As your garden space grows larger, you can start adding variations on the basic tools.  The more you garden, the better ideas you will have of which specific tools will be most useful to you.


Midwest Gardening — Gardening Basics

Getting down to the basics, a spade is basically just a shovel.  You can get a square edged or pointed shovel (spade), scoop shovel, long or short handle with or without a D-Handle.  The blade or scoop can be wide or narrow.

  • Round point spades are best for digging planting holes, hand digging/tilling the garden, and moving soil. A tread across the top of the spade makes it easier to push with your foot. A long handle with no D is most versatile. A top quality spade can handle most any digging chore.

  • Short handled round point spade should be the second spade to add to your tool collection. A short handle will give you better leverage for certain situations, for example digging out and lifting a large perennial root ball for dividing. A D-Ring handle may be preferred for a more controlled grip.

  • Border spades are narrow spades, with a square nose, round point or sawtooth edge for tough digging in clay or rocky soil or through roots.

  • Square nose spades are handy for making straight edge cuts in sod or for edging.

Hand Tools

Midwest Gardening — Gardening Basics

  • Hand Trowels are essential for a great deal of the planting you will do. You will use a trowel to dig holes for small bedding plants, seedlings and bulbs, and for running small furrows for seed planting. Hand trowels are also available in a variety of lengths, widths and grips. Long narrow trowels are also available with inches marked on the blade for easily planting bulbs to the correct depth.

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Midwest Gardening — Gardening Basics

  • Hand Forks are quite commonly called cultivators or three pronged forks. Like the long handled cultivator, they are used for breaking up the soil surface and dislodging weeds. But the small hand sized tool is best for working in small spaces and where close attention around plants is necessary. Many garden tools are made ergonomically, and there are some mid sized forks out there that look like they would be easily gripped and controlled, better than a hand fork or long handled cultivator. You might want to check them out. And of course, there are narrow or wide forks, usually three pronged.

  • Miscellaneous and multi purpose hand tools are widely available. You can find fork/hoe combinations, Dutch push-pull weeders, small pointed furrow hoes, and a some things that I don’t even know what they are but I know I would find a use for them if they were in my shed.

Manual Cultivators

Manual cultivators are not motor powered and are operated from a standing position.  However, there are some manual cultivators whose parts are mechanically driven while you push it along the soil.  The cultivation is usually wheel or gear driven, putting quite a bit of “power” into your cultivation without expending so much energy.  The tool you select will depend on the size of your gardens, the condition of your soil, and perhaps your personal power or energy availability.  Long handled manual cultivators can be found with ergonomic fist grips on the upper part of the handle. A fist grip can make cultivating tough soils easier by giving you a little extra leverage and control.

Midwest Gardening — Gardening Basics

  • Three pronged cultivators or forks, or even more commonly called a hoe even though it really isn’t a hoe, is one of the essential tools to get started with. The long handle cultivator will be used for spring garden preparation, smoothing the bed, cultivating, weeding, spreading compost, spreading manure, etc. I carry mine around all summer, there is always something I want it for.

  • Hoe, a true pull hoe, is a long handled cultivator with a downward curved flat blade. The hoe can be used for cultivating, and is great for weeding. You may also use it for smoothing beds and spreading compost or manure. A hoe is an excellent tool for hilling up soil around plants or to hill up potatoes. You can also get a wheeled hoe with a double plow type handles that can make a big job a little easier. These are ideal for row planted larger gardens or community plots where tool portability is important.

Midwest Gardening — Gardening Basics

  • Dutch Hoes are still available, with some variations on blade design. A basic Dutch hoe has a stirrup head with a flat bottom that is sharp on both edges, that may swivel or oscillate. It is operated with a push pull motion to cut down weeds. Dutch hoes are not used all that much anymore because they have only one use, weeding. Although it is an excellent weeder, many gardeners may prefer multi purpose tools.

Midwest Gardening — Gardening Basics

  • Mechanical, non motorized cultivators can save a lot of work compared to manual cultivators. They are ideal for mid sized gardens that don’t justify motorized tiller/cultivators. The most widely known tools of this sort are ‘Garden Weasel’ tools. I have to say, these are great tools for small and medium sized gardens. The ‘Claw’ has deep forks in a circular head that is inserted in the soil, then you just grasp the handle and twist, ideal for deep cultivation when prepping in spring. Aslo great for aerating and mixing compost. Available in mini sizes to pro. The ‘Weasel’ cultivator has three rotating heads of star tines that quickly cultivates and weeds with little effort.

Midwest Gardening — Gardening Basics

Midwest Gardening — Gardening Basics

Midwest Gardening — Gardening Basics

Garden forks are more commonly referred to as pitch forks.  Like spades, you will find them long or short handled, with or without a D-Ring, and in various widths for working in different sized gardens and for handling different sized material loads.  Your fork can and should be used a lot for simple aeration of your garden.  Simply inserting the fork deeply between the plants will aerate with little soil disturbance.  You will probably also use a fork for moving straw, mulch and compost, or just breaking up soil.  A garden fork is also great for lifting perennials for division.  A Potato Fork has wide flat prongs and a large head for easy lifting of potatoes.


You will probably want a rake for smoothing the surface after cultivating to create a level bed.  It also does a good job of loosening just the soil surface over large areas and gathering plant debris.  Get a steel head garden rake with short tines, not a leaf rake.

Motorized Tiller / Cultivator

Midwest Gardening — Gardening Basics

At some point when your gardening has gotten out of control, you may want an engine powered deep tiller / cultivator.  it is a great piece of equipment that will make quick work of deep tilling.  but for most back yard gardens, you could have the work done manually by the time you get the tiller out, fired up and turned back and forth in tight spaces.  But maybe someday!


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