Two Troy-Bilt Tillers

– Posted in: Tools and Equipment

We grew vegetables for years without a tiller

I am not the vegetable gardener in this family. My husband, on the other hand, has been growing vegetables since he was a teen. When we finally moved here, a decade into our marriage, he brought along the front tine rototiller he had purchased as a single working young man, years before we met.

That tiller didn’t last long here. It was hard to start, difficult to maneuver, and when it broke, well, finding parts for a twenty-year old tiller wasn’t easy. (Getting rid of it was easy, though. “Free tiller, as is. You haul.”)

Until this year, we’ve never had another tiller, though we’ve never stopped having a vegetable garden. At first, we plain couldn’t afford one. And as our sons grew older and stronger, they could work along side my husband, each wielding a mattock to break sod.

Yet while my husband of necessity has had plenty of experience working on machinery, he’s never really enjoyed it. I think he figured by the time he got done servicing and repairing a tiller, he could have the garden cultivated by hand. Or pretty close.

Let’s get a tiller

But earlier this year I was offered the opportunity to test any piece of equipment under a certain price point that Troy-Bilt sold on their website, and then blog about it. Not only am I not the vegetable gardener here, I don’t do power equipment. (Well, I do use a vacuum cleaner. Does that count?)

So I asked my sons, now about the age their father was when he got his first tiller, what piece of equipment I should ask for. Myself, influenced by Carol’s enthusiastic endorsement of her chipper, I was inclined to get something along those lines, either a gasoline-powered chipper shredder or a Chipper Shredder Vac. Not only did we have dead vegetation from the garden like Carol did, but also fruit tree prunings and other occasional tree trimmings to chip or shred. And for several years my kids have hauled leaves home from two different houses. How much easier if we just vacuumed them up and brought them home pre-shredded?

Deep down inside, I knew faster compost wasn’t a high priority with the PEOs (power equipment operators) in this family. To a man, they suggested the rototiller. Whatever we got, I just wanted it to be used, and if it took any kind of strength to start or operate, I knew it wouldn’t be me using it. So I told my contact we’d like to try the Pony tiller.

Does this tiller have what it takes?

The Pony tiller was out of stock, so Troy-Bilt sent us the Pro-Line FRT Garden tiller, which has a Honda engine instead of a Briggs and Stratton. I figured this tiller would get a work out, and I hoped it was up to the job. For one thing, it was designed for gardens up to 1500 square feet, and we already had 2500 square feet under cultivation. For another thing, our soil is clay, rocky clay, and we live on the side of a hill. But it did say “professional strength, … specially designed for … large scale or commercial groundbreaking applications.” We are a big enough family to qualify as a small business in terms of scale, and we try to always get the industrial-strength or commercial model of whatever we buy, be it broom or vacuum cleaner or bona fide power equipment. Even then, we sometimes wear things out before the warranty expires. So, I did wonder how it would do.

Parts missing

Between the time I asked for the tiller and when it was time to start tilling, circumstances changed around here, and it turned out my husband would be doing the tilling. He started to put it together, and found that several parts were missing:

  • Keyed washer (1)
  • Wheel gear lever knob (1)
  • Height adjustment flange screw(1)
  • 3/8″ flat washer (2)
  • Cotter pin (1)
  • Cable tie (2 of 4)

My contact apologized profusely and had the missing parts sent.

By the time the tiller was ready to go, it was the last full week of April. The tiller started with a pull cord. We were both pleasantly surprised at how easily it started. One pull, one easy pull, and it was purring. My husband decided to till a section of the garden that had been cultivated by hand last year. It was roughly 35ft x 75ft, but a 16ft x 16ft piece of it had never been tilled before. I thought it would be a fair test, easier than breaking sod but rougher than ground that had been machine-tilled before.

The Pro-Line FRT tiller took him flying

Oh. my. word. Every time my husband hit a rock, or anything else the tines couldn’t dig into, the combination of both the tines and the wheels moving forward would cause the tiller to lurch powerfully forward. My husband is not a big or heavy man, and I saw him literally pulled off his feet by this monster. I can’t believe Troy-Bilt advertises this tiller as capable of being operated with one hand. Even with two hands firmly gripping the handles, he had to really work to keep from being tugged airborne. (This is not supposed to happen with rear tine tillers, but it did.)

The Troy-Bilt Pro Line FRT Tiller

The Troy-Bilt Pro Line FRT tiller in action. Every time it hit a rock or stiff clay it surged forward. If the operator isn’t expecting this, he can be pulled off his feet. (Photo by Cadence Purdy)

Then it broke

Later, when he had gone over the whole area at a shallow depth, a weld on the handlebar cross-brace failed. My husband said because the cross-brace came off from the handlebar cleanly, that is, the weld itself broke, that indicated it was not a good weld.

Image of a failed weld

A properly made weld should be stronger than the metal it joins. This weld broke cleanly off the tube; it was not stronger than the metal. This indicates that it was not welded properly in the first place.

Once that broke, the cross-brace broke off of the other handlebar because of the unbalanced stress put on it. That time the weld didn’t break. Instead part of the metal tubing was torn away. That’s because a good weld is stronger than the metal it joins.

Image of a good weld

After the first weld failed, the stresses on the rest of the handlebars caused it to pull apart. In this case the weld was stronger than the metal it joined. You can tell because it pulled a small chunk out of the upright tube instead of separating cleanly.

Because the first weld failed, the tiller couldn’t be controlled by the handlebars and couldn’t be used. I had been afraid something like this would happen. Our circumstances never seem to be typical and things happen that aren’t supposed to be able to happen.

Goodbye, FRT; Hello, CRT

I got back in touch with my contact. Almost two weeks later, Russ from Afton Equipment pulled into our driveway with a new tiller. But it was not the same model. He didn’t have the Pro-Line FRT in stock, and so brought us the Troy-Bilt Pro-Line CRT Rototiller.

FRT, CRT: what do those letters stand for? Turns out they stand for Forward Rotating Tines and Counter Rotating Tines. The tines on the first tiller rotate in the same direction as the wheels, while the tines on this new tiller would rotate in the opposite direction as the wheels.

Now we’re in business


This is the only photo we have of the CRT tiller in action. Sorry. (Photo by Cadence Purdy)

The engine started just as easily as the first tiller. And when my husband started tilling with it, there was none of the pulling and jerking that had occurred with the FRT. It was a much better tiller for breaking up clay and sod. However, the tines are not as long and it won’t till to as great a depth. (A full comparison of the two models can be found here.) We might miss those two inches of tilling depth later on, when the soil has been tilled for several years. But I don’t know if I could have watched my husband fight with that FRT tiller till we got to that point, so I think the model switch was for the best.

Before and After

Image of garden soil after one pass with the tiller

After one pass with the tiller, the soil is still rough. (Photo by Cadence Purdy)

Image of the garden after it's thoroughly tilled

It takes several passes with the tiller, gradually increasing the depth with each pass, and traveling at right angles to the previous pass, to get the job done. You can see how much smoother and finer the soil texture is now. (Photo by Cadence Purdy)

More information on choosing and using a tiller

Garden Blogger Reviews of Troy-Bilt Equipment

About the Author

Kathy Purdy is a colchicum evangelist, converting unsuspecting gardeners into colchicophiles. She would be delighted to speak to your group about colchicums or other gardening topics. Kathy’s been writing since 4th grade, gardening since high school, and blogging since 2002.

In the end, this may be the most important thing about frost: Frost slows us down. In spring, it tempers our eagerness. In fall, it brings closure and rest. In our gotta-go world–where every nanosecond seems to count–slowness can be a great gift. So rather than see Jack Frost as an adversary, you could choose to greet him as a friend.

~Philip Harnden in A Gardener’s Guide to Frost: Outwit the Weather and Extend the Spring and Fall Seasons

Comments on this entry are closed.

pbischoff June 4, 2012, 6:38 pm

my tiller lost compression in my nearly new machine after 5 hr an it won’t rev up

Garden Tiller Reviews Guy February 7, 2011, 10:08 am

That really sucks when you are all ready to get stuck into a job only to find there are parts missing off machinery you are going to use. It always amazes me that when a company hands out a machine to be reviewed they don´t make sure it is in working condition.

Anyway I have heard from people who owned the Troy-Bilt TB144 who suffered the same problem as you did, the machine literally broke apart under them. Having said that I know people who have owned the Troy-Bilt TB154E and have nothing but good to say about it. Even how well built it is and easy to use.

Seems like Troy-Bilt have had a few design problems with a couple of their Garden Tillers. Lets hope they can sort them out and regain their good name.

Mark November 24, 2010, 11:34 am

I’ve tilled 500-600 gardens for other people for well over the last 20 years and would never use anything less than an 8hp Horse Troy Bilt tiller. The smaller tillers are way too light and sometimes the wheels just sit and spin when trying to incorporate compost or other debris. The debris just gets clogged up between the shroud and the wheels. With the Troy Bilt Horse model, the first pass is always to break apart the soil or to till under garden debris and the second pass gives you an almost perfect manicured looking planting bed with no footprints as you walk alongside the tiller. I’ve never had a problem tilling with one hand on the second pass. This year I plan on buying a 10hp Big Red with electric start. My wife and I just purchased a 3 acre hobby farm with a 1/4 acre garden (130 ft x 100 ft). So the top of the line Troy Bilt tiller will come in handy for such a large garden. The Horse Troy Bilt tiller may seem like a bit of over kill for some of the smaller gardens, but it is well worth the price over the years for the shear ease of tilling. Don’t let the size intimidate you, it is quite easy to maneuver.

Ellis Hollow July 12, 2008, 6:35 am

dlyn: Heavy clay soils are more susceptible to the shearing action that could cause poor drainage due to ‘plow-pan’ or ’tiller-pan’. But also keep in mind that with your coarser-textured soil, it’s hard to keep up organic matter levels to maintain soil structure, water retention etc. And every time you till or plow, you incorporate air into your soil and literally burn off organic matter.

susan harris July 9, 2008, 8:15 am

Great job and ditto the thanks for those photos. And let us know if you accept that offer of paid links. While easy money is tempting, paid links are against Google’s written policies, so there are consequences.

Kathy Purdy July 9, 2008, 1:37 pm

Susan, I chronicled my decision against paid links here, and I haven’t changed my mind. But I think my contact form is broken, and that is why Graziella decided to use the comments.

dlyn July 8, 2008, 10:39 pm

What’s the prevention for creating that problem? And what soils are most susceptible? We use a regular plow on the veggie garden, following up with the rototiller. We have good drainage, gravel ground. Anything for us to worry about?

Ellis Hollow July 8, 2008, 8:54 pm

Close to 30 years ago, I started a garden in an old hayfield at a camp armed with the biggest Troy-Bilt available. In tight soil and heavy sod, the whole one-hand think is a joke. But the only thing I had to do is change the oil and change the tiller blades after I wore them out. (They rotated in same direction as drive wheels.)

But after a few years of cover crops and compost, it’s amazing how such a heavy piece of equipment can indeed be operated literally single-handedly. If you look closely at those promotional videos (at least the last one I saw a few years ago), what’s going under with ease is a rye cover crop in a plot with good tilth.

I think folks need to be careful with tillers. You’ve got to avoid over tilling and ruining soil structure. You can really beat the heck out of a soil and need to take measures to counteract the negative effects of tilling. Cover crops and adding organic matter are at the top of the list.

Overuse in some soils can also create the equivalent of a ‘plow-pan’ — a smooth compacted area below the tilled area that inhibits drainage.

As far as I know, the Troy-Bilt I used way back when was actually built in Troy. I don’t know if that’s still the case or not.

Kathy Purdy July 8, 2008, 10:30 pm

Craig, my husband said essentially the same thing, that after he tilled it a few times, it would be easy enough to do one-handed–but it sure wasn’t the first time! You raise a lot of good cautions concerning tilling. I think Ted B. expressed similar concerns earlier.

dlyn July 6, 2008, 10:35 am

Hi Kathy – just wanted to stop in and thank you for your efforts in getting me on your site – it paid off finally and from my point of view at least, is well worth it. In response to this post, I always wondered if Troy-Bilts would stand up to our conditions. Not clay but rocks in abundance and no amount of picking gets rid of them. My husband is our veggie gardener too and he uses a pull behind tiller on our ancient Club Cadet lawn tractor – and then finishes the job by hand with a garden fork as he plants.

Kathy Purdy July 5, 2008, 9:48 pm

I’m glad you all enjoyed the review and the view. I think the camera compresses the distance and makes the far hill seem closer. But, yes, we love our valley even if it ensures we get all the late spring and early autumn frosts!

Gail July 5, 2008, 1:37 pm

Good review, fair and real! Kathy your land is wonderful. The view in the Now We’re in Business photo is spectacular.


Catherine, MyGardenTravels July 5, 2008, 12:32 pm

I’m not strong enough for the big tillers, but the little Mantis has been working great for me for the past 20 years. When I need a big job done, I call a local man who comes in with his big Troy Bilt tiller. You have such a pretty landscape for a garden.

debra July 4, 2008, 7:44 pm

Kathy, kudos to you for sharing this episode in the Purdy Life on the Farm with us. I loved reading it. Now why would I ever love reading about machinery or equipment? It’s your storytelling ability, my friend. Well done! xoxo Deb

commonweeder July 3, 2008, 3:18 pm

I love the views of your landscape too. Aren’t we lucky to live in such a beautiful country? We’ve paid a neighbor to rototill in the past, and this year I extended the garden using sheet composting which seems to be working. Our scale is small since there is just the two of us, but a review like yours is a great help to people. Honesty is all.

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mss @ Zanthan Gardens July 2, 2008, 10:57 pm

Great review. With a garden that size, I’m surprised your guys hadn’t found a way to get their hands on a tiller before this.

BTW, love the photo of the tiller in action–not the tiller so much but the beautiful view beyond. Wow!!!

tedb July 2, 2008, 7:39 pm

Put me in the spading fork and hoe camp, but I also have loamy sandy soil. I like the excersise and the quietness. I also worry overtilling and messing up the internal pore structure of the soil and creating a hardpan layer just below the depth of the tines. However, these remain just theoretical problems.

layanee July 2, 2008, 5:39 pm

Don’t love tillers but a good and fair review of this one. Love that last picture of the farm at the bottom of the hill with the tillmaster surveying the soil.

Carol, May Dreams Gardens July 1, 2008, 9:57 pm

I should clarify that my shredder is an electric model, so it is relatively quiet, as quiet as something that grinds up leaves and twigs can be. I once had an gas-powered shredder and I hated it. Hard to start, loud, I sold it.

Kathy, that is quite the garden! It is about time you had a tiller for it.

Leslie July 1, 2008, 8:16 am

I have used various methods in the veggie garden over the years; Ruth Stouts’ no dig, tillers, raised beds and am back to the no dig methodboth in the ground and in the old raised beds. It latest advocate is Lee Reich with his “Weedless Garden”. As biologist, I find that this makes a lot of sense and works well for me. But my soil is the opposite of yours – basically sand. I would suggest that you think about giving it a try

beryl July 1, 2008, 5:13 am

Just one more thing, I even find that I don’t use the vacuum cleaner so often, when a brush and pan can often do the same job.


beryl July 1, 2008, 5:12 am

That’s interesting about doing things manually, because after having used electric equipment in the kitchen, mixers etc. I now find I prefer a good sharp knife, or mixing cakes by hand. In fact I have not replaced my electric mixer and use a mandolin type of slicer for vegetables.

So I am not alone. It’s also more eco friendly, since only my own hand power is in use.

margaret July 1, 2008, 2:21 am

I have lived with my Kubota tiller for about 17 years. It has asked nothing of me, and churns the soil with seeming glee whenever I take it for a spin. The tines have add-on’s (an extra set) so you can till a medium or a really wide swath. My nurserymen friends nearby borrow it every year, and it does them proud, too. It’s a great beast of a thing.
I have lived w/my Troy-Bilt Shredder (macho 10HP) for maybe 5 years, and have used it just three times. Oops, not a happy marriage. If you have a truck perhaps it can come live with you and this will be the reason we finally meet! Seems I am not after all a shredder person, and you seem to want for one, as Carol has succumbed to this kind of worker-bee and whispered its virtues in your ear.
It’s looking for a good home…

David July 1, 2008, 12:59 am

Once again, Kathy, a wonderful, thorough review. Thank you for making it so readable, and thanks to Cadence for her fine illustrations.