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Tilther: Do You Really Need it? This Will Help You Decide!


We all know the drill: when getting started in market gardening, it’s easy to want to buy ALL the tools: tilther, tractor, BCS, you name it. However, it’s important to hold back and remember that you don’t need to invest in a bunch of fancy equipment in order to succeed. With careful consideration and a resourceful attitude, you can always find human-scale alternatives that are sustainable ways of building your farm, while supporting a healthy environment. On top of being more rewarding, relying on our hands and using manually-powered tools is also good for your wallet!

Are you looking to find a way to improve your soil structure and establish uniform seedbeds? Let’s take a closer look at the tilther, one of the first pieces in Jean-Martin Fortier’s tool collection. In this post, to help you make the best choice, we will share the pros and the cons of integrating a tilther into your system of bed preparation

What Exactly Is the Tilther?

The tilther, which was conceptualized by Eliot Coleman, is a lightweight battery-powered tiller designed to work the top two inches of your soil. It was created to help market gardeners keep their beds healthy in an efficient and simple way, especially in small spaces, like tunnels or greenhouses. The tilther is really a great tool on a small-scale farm to improve soil structure and establish uniform seedbeds.

tilther small-scale farm tool
Tilther / Credit : Alex Chabot

Composed of stainless steel and aluminum, the tool is mounted on two adjustable wooden handles. It consists of 2 inches shallow tines that are activated by the rotation of a drill which is kept in place by an L-bracket. The way the tilther works is thanks to a very simple trick: a rope activates the battery-powered drill that is integrated within the tool. The drill, however, is not included, meaning that you absolutely need your own rechargeable tool to make it work! We recommend using DeWalt’s new Flex Volt System that has 20V batteries with 3 times the power.

The tool is 15-inches wide and is designed for a 30-inch bed system, meaning the gardener has to make a round trip on each bed to properly prepare the soil for planting. Although it’s not powerful enough to be used on a large surface (where you may want to consider using a power harrow), you can rely on it in spaces where a walking tractor doesn’t maneuver as easily.

Why Use a Tilther?

As a cultivator, the tilther makes it possible to mix in compost and refine the soil all while creating a perfect tilth for direct seeding or transplanting. The tilther is really a great tool to improve your soil structure and establish uniform seedbeds. Without this practice, you can lose nutrients in the compost (i.e. nitrogen) applied on the bed and if the soil is too rough, the quality of your seeding can suffer. This is particularly true with very sensitive seeders like the six-row seeder. Skipping this process can also decrease your transplanting speed since it is very difficult to transplant into hard soil.

Considered the last step in seedbed preparation, though tilthers aren’t designed for breaking ground or loosening compacted soil, they are perfect for integrating fertilizer and to help level permanent beds. Once your soil is properly tilthed, you will be ready to start seeding or transplanting.

As the tilther is specifically designed to only work the top two inches of a soil bed, it is a common feature of no-till practices that focus on preserving soil structure and fertility – so if you’re looking to decrease your tillage, this is the tool to use! It works very gently to protect the soil and the microorganisms that help it thrive (i.e. worms, fungi, bacteria).

The tilther also has the advantage of being easy to fix on the farm. Instead of using fuel, the device is battery-powered, which makes it simple to maintain; recharging your battery is the main thing you will need to do to keep it functioning well.

Overall, if you are looking for a versatile and lightweight tool to integrate amendments and create uniform seedbeds without disturbing your soil, then you should consider adding a tilther to your tool shed. You can find tilthers at Johnny’s Selected Seeds, but just remember that you’ll have to pair it with your own drill!

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