No way could any manual tiller tackle the clay the builder left us at our new house. Front tine, rear time, 4 cycles, turbo boosted - no matter what kind of tiller my neighbors bought, borrowed, or rented, it would throw them around the yard and barely make a dent in the soil. For "serious" tilling and amending of new garden areas, we called on "Digger Dick" and his tractor. But after Dick had tilled my beds for several years, the soil was looking pretty good. I started thinking that maybe I could handle a little tiller in nice, loose dirt like that.
I knew I didn't want or need a big tiller. I just wanted to turn the soil of my vegetable bed in spring, cultivate around shrubs to reduce weeds, maybe tear up some ground to plant bulbs in fall for a naturalized effect. And I wanted a tiller that I could handle easily. A pint-sized tiller sounded like just the ticket. Although there are some competitors, the big name in the mini-tiller market is Mantis. I'd been getting their brochures with my gardening catalogues for years. I wanted to learn more. I turned to my fellow DGers, and discovered that many of them gave the Mantis glowing reviews.
Gas or Electric?
I found I had an important choice to make - gas, or electric? Although gas powered engines are often more powerful than their electric counterparts, Mantis promised me that their gas and electric models would perform equally well. Their 2 cycle gas tiller  uses a mixture of gasoline and oil. They warn against leaving fuel in the tank between uses, so I'd have an extra maintenance step. Also, I'd have to deal with a pull-cord to start the tiller.I hate pull cords, although their literature assured me it would start with one easy pull, every time. I looked at the electric option.
As far as I could see, the only drawback to the electric model was having to drag the cord around with you. On a big property, finding a long enough extension cord might be an issue. But in our yard, 100 feet of cord would take me anywhere I needed to go. I considered that I'd have to be extra careful not to run over the cord with the tiller blades. Then I realized the electric engine would be quiet enough that I could till in the cooler morning hours without disturbing the neighbors. Sold! I also bought a bright orange, heavy duty extension cord.
My tiller arrived, and I couldn't wait to get out in the garden with it. But power tools deserve respect. I read the directions, assembled it carefully, and read the operating instructions again. We'd had a soaking rain a couple days earlier, so the soil was perfect for tilling! I carried my tiller to the garden, trailing my bright orange extension cord, and took a deep breath of anticipation. I got it set and pushed the button.
Wow, those tines bite right down into the soil! I soon found that the more shallow "cultivate" setup makes for easier handling than putting the tines on in the "digging" orientation.. To dig deeper, I just make an extra pass. The trick to tilling with the Mantis is to drag it backwards, slowly, and give it time to chomp its way down into the soil. I started out using the low speed setting and took frequent breaks, until I built up my "Mantis muscles."
Now, I have to admit my Mantis is nothing like a full size tiller in its abilities. Frankly, I think of it as a "power hoe." It would take me all day to prepare my vegetable garden with a digging fork or a hoe, however, With the Mantis, I can get it ready for planting in a couple of hours. If there are a lot of tangled weeds, I do go through and pull them first. The Mantis can chew through them, but I've found I spend a lot of time stopping to take apart the tines and unwinding weeds if I leave them in the bed.
The toy-like size of the Mantis can make you careless. Remember, it's a power tool. Electricity has to be respected. And there's enough torque in those tines to do serious damage. Sturdy shoes are a must, and safety glasses are a good idea. So far, I've managed to keep from tilling up the extension cord. When I'm tilling, I flip the cord over one shoulder and make sure to keep twitching it well out of my path. When you start getting tired, stop and take a break. When you're tired is when you'll run over the cord (or your toe).
Sometimes weeds, or rocks, or sticks get jammed up in the tines. Never reach down to knock anything loose without turning off the engine. With my electric Mantis, I always unplug the cord before messing with its business end. It's tempting to do "just this one thing," but that might be all it takes to lose just this one finger. I try to keep that in mind, because really it only take a few seconds to unplug and reconnect the cord.
Have Tiller, Will Travel
I was so delighted with my new tiller, I wanted everybody to try it! The folding handle really does make it easy to toss into the car. I brought it over to friends' gardens... I even offered to bring it down to a DG plant swap last spring. (I was told to save my cargo space for plants.) I'm thinking it might work well for planting big clumps of daffodils back in the woods at my brother's new place this fall. I'm going to need a longer extension cord.
I'm delighted with my decision to get a mini-tiller. It's a garden shed addition well worth considering!
For more information, see the Mantis web site. They'll be delighted to send you a video and brochure. Google "mini-tiller" to find details on alternatives by other manufacturers. (My only connection to Mantis is as a customer.)
 For those in the Frederick, MD area, "Digger Dick" has retired and turned the business over to his son. You can now call on "Big Ben" for garden tilling. Dmail me if you can't find his number, and I'll hook you up.
 Mantis and Honda have teamed up to produce a version with a 4 cycle gas engine.
Photos by Jill Nicolaus. Move your mouse over the images for captions.