Whats the Difference Between a Rotavator and a Cultivator?

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What's the Difference Between a Rotavator and a Cultivator?

When trying to find the correct tool for preparing and cultivating the soil in a garden, choosing the right machine for the job can be a bit confusing. This article hopes to help clear up some of the confusion between two similar garden tools designed for this work, rotavators and cultivators. In order to prepare the soil for successful planting, leveling, turfing, or seeding, it needs to be prepared and maintained. Garden soil should be churned and broken up as part of that process, and both a rotavator and cultivator can be used to perform the task. This process aerates the soil, which enables it to gain warmth quicker so plants can grow. This also makes weeding easier, exposes insects to birds, and helps improve soil drainage. Often the only real difference between the two is the name given to it by the manufacturer. The names are frequently interchangeable. Essentially, rotavators and cultivators do the same job, although there are subtle differences between the two, and it can be difficult to decide which is the best to use. They are both mechanised diggers, designed to make the work easier and quicker for a gardener.


There are different types of rotavator, also known as a ‘power digger’, that can be powered by gas, petrol, or electric, and the required power of the machine will influence the type of connection it requires. As a general rule, when trying to decide what type of digging machine a tool is, bear in mind if it has wheels that drive the machine along with the blades at the back of it, then it is a rotavator. However, do not be fooled – some larger rotavators have their blades, also known as ‘tines’, at the front. Generally, rotavators tend to be bigger than cultivators, although again, this is not always the case. Since they are usually more powerful, rotavator blades are able to dig deeper into the ground, normally about 9” compared to a cultivator’s 2”-3”. For a mid-sized plot of land, a rotavator is a good choice for preparing the soil, especially in comparison with hand held tools such as spades or trowels. Some of the larger, more powerful rotavators are suitable for use on commercial plots of land.


In comparison to a rotavator, a cultivator is generally more hand driven. Usually cultivators have no wheels and are driven along the blades of the machine, although this is not always the case. Because cultivators tend to be smaller and lighter, they are usually cheaper and more financially attractive to a small plot holder or for only occasional use. Like rotavators, cultivators can be powered by petrol or by electric. The latter is usually cheaper and quieter, but not as powerful, and the blades tend to be lighter than those of a rotavator. Most small-sized cultivators look very similar and share the same size tilling width (the digging ability), even when produced by different manufacturers. The only real difference between them is the engine type and the quality of the manufacture. Own brand engine types tend to be cheaper than more famous brands, but quality should be studied very carefully before making any purchase, as the cheapest deal may not necessarily be the best for the purchaser. Any product that comes with a warranty is especially desirable. If the product is new, most warranties will last 1 year, but some carry a 5 year guarantee, which may be subject to the company’s servicing requirements; this will probably be optional for the purchaser. Since cultivators turn the ground over at less of a depth than a rotavator, they are better for removing weeds. Of course, soil that is too greatly infested with weeds (particularly Japanese knotweed or bindweed) will need to have some initial weeding done by hand, as the machine will not be able to cope and will just choke.

Differences Between a Rotavator and Cultivator



Larger, heavier, more powerful

Smaller, lighter, less powerful

Blades at back

Blades at front

Deep digging

Light digging

More expensive


Professional/experienced user

Beginner/occasional user

Which to Use for the Job - Rotavator or Cultivator?

Firstly, before making a decision, consider the land on which either machine would have to be worked. Larger gardens, or small fields, where the soil is relatively free of weeds, are best suited to a rotavator. However, since they can be expensive, it is always worth considering hiring one or buying second hand. See the notes below on safe purchase of a second hand machine. For smaller areas or lighter digging, a cultivator may be better suited, as well as being more suited to removing weeds. Both rotavators and cultivators will have difficulty on soil that has never been managed before (‘virgin’ land). The soil will need to be broken up using a fork tool beforehand, as the blades of the machine will not be able to grip into the soil properly and will just ‘skip’ across the surface, which is both dangerous and counterproductive. When using either a rotavator or cultivator, proper personal protective equipment should be used. Both machines are noisy (a rotavator more so), so ear defenders are recommended. Gloves, safety boots, or rather steel toe-capped boots if using a machine with rear facing blades, should be worn when operating one or the other of these machines. As mentioned above, smaller hand-held cultivators are ideal for breaking up a certain amount of weeds on a plot. Rotavators, particularly larger ones, are more powerful and used for deeper digging. They are not as appropriate for a smaller space in the garden, as due to the expense and power, they can give the impression of ‘using a hammer to crack a nut’. Rotavator blades will also simply shred weed roots and send them spraying outwards, which can only increase the problem once these roots have taken into the ground. Cultivators are more ideal for light digging around plants (particularly trees and shrubs) that are well established, since the blades do not go so deeply into the ground and cannot damage the root systems of existing plants. Due to this light blade work, cultivators are also better at producing furrows in the ground for planting vegetables, such as onions or carrots. Some gardeners use them as makeshift hedge trimmers, and due to their relative lightness, they are excellent for those with bad backs who want to do some light gardening work but are unable to use labour-intensive hand tools. And of course, there will always be occasions when hand-held tools will need to be used for smaller jobs.

Purchasing a Second Hand Rotavator or Cultivator

Always do lots of research when considering the purchase of a used rotavator or cultivator, particularly if the machine can’t be viewed in person before purchase. Ask the eBay seller about any details, and check that the machine is in excellent condition and be cautious. This will ensure that a safe product is being used. Ensure that the manual for the machine comes with it, and before operation, read the manual carefully. Make sure the correct fuel is in use, as the wrong kind could break the machine and cost a lot of money to repair. Perform regular maintenance, ideally both before and after the machine is used. Small problems with either a rotavator or cultivator can cause serious injury, so the operator must always fix any underlying issues before using.

Where to find Rotavators and Cultivators on eBay

In order to successfully find rotavators or cultivators on eBay, go first to the site homepage. From here, go to the links on the left hand side of the page, and select Home & Garden, and Home & Garden again from the drop down options. This will load the Home & Garden page of eBay. From here, using the links on the left hand side of the page again, select DIY and then Hand Tools from the options. Or select DIY from the Home & Garden page again and then Power Tools from the options, as these products can be listed under both. As an alternative, the eBay search engine can be used to bring up listings relevant to the desired product. This can be especially useful as rotavators and cultivators can be listed under several different categories, including Business, Office and Industrial, Collectables and Vehicle Parts and Accessories to name a few.


Choosing between a rotavator or cultivator can be tricky, but follow the steps above when making a decision. Always do research before purchasing a rotavator or cultivator to ensure the correct product is bought. Although essentially rotavators and cultivators are very similar machines, there are subtle differences that an experienced gardener will be aware of, and be able to pick the most suitable for the job in hand. Follow the steps outlined here and a useful product that saves hours of labour can be easily purchased and used.

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