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Sod Cutters vs. Rototillers

If you own a home with a front or backyard, you’re likely familiar with regular lawn maintenance. But what happens when it comes time to install new sod? Any kind of upgrades or home renovations are a thrill for us lawn and garden lovers. Laying new sod is one of the projects that brings out the excitement of being a homeowner.

One of the steps before laying new sod is removing any old grass that might be present. Maybe you’ve seen a neighbor, your dad or an aunt hard at work with a shovel removing old sod. Don’t panic yet though—fortunately, this project doesn’t have to be as labor-some. 

Sod cutters and rototillers are two very helpful tools that make sod removal much easier…and faster! Although these tools can seem rather daunting, they’re actually not all that hard to use. Additionally, you don’t have to purchase them; you can rent them for a small cost from a local hardware store.

What are sod cutters?

Sod cutters are a piece of equipment that removes sod. A few ways it can be used is to remove sod before laying new sod, to remove sod and plant it somewhere else, or to remove sod and create a garden or work on a hardscape project.

Man Using Sod Cutter On Lawn

Sod cutters work by removing sod from the ground with the sod’s roots and a small layer of soil. This keeps the grass from regrowing. It has a roller at the base of it that allows users to push it along the landscape. Sod cutters also have blades at the bottom that slice through the soil as a means of removing the sod.

In most cases, the blades are adjustable so that you can cut at varying heights.

The Benefits of Using Sod Cutters

Compared to manual labor, sod cutters are not only easier to use, but they work quickly, effectively saving time.

Sod cutters also give users more options compared to other sod removal methods. While sod cutters slice the sod into neat pieces, rototillers rip the sod and churn it into the soil. The use of a shovel is also more likely to damage the grass. If a homeowner wants to transplant the sod in another location, sod cutters may be the better option.

Sod cutters can seem scary or intimidating, but they aren’t all that hard to use and don’t cost much for the duration of rental.

Types of Sod Cutters

There are two main types of sod cutters for homeowners: the walk-behind cutters or the manual kick-plow cutters. Most homeowners go for the walk-behind cutters because they’re easier to use and get the job done faster. 

A third type of sod cutter is a tractor sod harvester. This is typically used by professionals who work at sod farms or for much larger areas. If a homeowner has a lot of land, this may be the best choice but again, most homeowners stick with the walk-behind cutters.

When selecting a sod cutter, the homeowner should choose the option best suited for his or her lawn and situation. It’s often better to select sod cutters with front-drive wheels in place of wheels that require manual labor to push them. Although the user still guides the sod cutter in the direction they want to go, it’s a lot less labor to push the sod cutters with front-driving wheels. 

Another tip is to select a sod cutter with a blade located between the front and back wheels. Some sod cutters have blades located more towards the back of the machine, which offers less consistent cutting.

Lastly, it’s helpful to use a sod cutter with its controls placed closer to the handles where you’ll be guiding the sod cutters. This makes it quicker to operate. Sod cutters can sometimes vibrate and be hard to maneuver, so maybe look for a sod cutter that comes with anti-vibration handles.

Pictured above from left to right: A manual sod cutter and a walk-behind sod cutter.

How to Use Sod Cutters

Instructions to use sod cutters can slightly vary depending on who you rented from and the sod cutter’s manufacturer. Always follow the manufacturer’s instructions closely before use. It’s always smart to read the instructions entirely before using the sod cutters.

In general, motorized sod cutters, or walk-behind sod cutters, will require you to start the engine, shift it from neutral to a low-gear and to pull back on the throttle. 

  1. Start by planning out exactly where you want to remove the sod. Remove any lawn ornaments, irrigation heads, rocks or large sticks.
  2. Check the oil level and amount of gas in the sod cutter. Follow manufacturer guidelines and add more oil if needed.
  3. Wear protective equipment like glasses, a pair of gloves, closed-toed shoes, full-length pants and a jacket.
  4. Move the sod cutter to the location where you want to start. Raise the blade, make sure it’s in a neutral gear, and push the sod cutter to the starting point.
  5. Lower the blade back down. Once your hands are completely out of the way of the blades, start the engine.
  6. Do a small test run. Shift into low gear and gently pull back on the throttle.
  7. Push the cutter forward a few feet, shift the cutters back into neutral and check to make sure the cut is deep enough. Most motorized sod cutters should cut about 4-inches deep. Follow manufacturer guidelines to adjust.
  8. Shift the sod cutters back into a lower gear and continue to gently push the sod cutters. You’ll want to remove the sod in rows.
  9. At the end of each row, you’ll want to sever the strip from the rest of your lawn. Raise the handles of the sod cutter to push the blade down and make this cut.
  10. Between each strip, you’ll want to shift into neutral and place the sod cutters at the beginning of the next row.
  11. A helpful tip is to roll up the strips of sod at the end of each row so you can clearly see where you’ve already cut.
  12. Once the sod cutters are placed at the start of the next row, shift back into a lower gear and continue pushing.
  13. Be sure to shift to neutral before turning the sod cutters off once you’re finished.

Learn more here.

What is a rototiller?

Rototillers are another method for sod removal. Most rototillers are motor-powered and use rotating blades to rip up or till the soil. They essentially break up compacted soils while killing off old sod. A homeowner will not be able to use the old sod again if he or she uses a rototiller. 

Rototillers can be used to remove sod, weeds or other unwanted plants. They’re also useful for removing tree roots.

Types of Rototillers

The three main types of rototillers are front-tine, mid-tine and rear-tine. The front-tine rototiller is often the more common type that homeowners use. 

With front-tine tillers, homeowners have the option to adjust the tine width with three or so different settings. This is helpful when spaces of varying width need to be tilled. The wheels on a front-tine tiller are frequently located in the back which makes it easy to maneuver at turns. 

Mid-tine rototillers can be harder to find. Mid-tine tillers have tines located underneath the machine as opposed to at the front or back. This promotes more balance. 

Although they’re classified as mid-tine tillers, they’re still front-tine tillers because they are still propelled primarily by the tines.

Lastly, rear-tine tillers, as the name suggests, have tines located at the back of the machine. This is useful for breaking up harder, compact or rocky soils. They’re often larger and harder to maneuver, but more heavy-duty for larger projects.

Pictured above from left to right: A front-tine rototiller, mid-tine rototiller and rear-tine rototiller.

How to Use a Rototiller

Instructions to use rototillers can slightly vary depending on who it’s rented from and the rototiller’s manufacturer. Always follow the manufacturer’s instructions closely before use. It’s always smart to read the instructions entirely before using any new machinery.

  1. As with sod cutters, start by clearly planning exactly where you want to till. Check for any lawn ornaments, irrigation heads, rocks or large sticks and remove them if they’re in the way.
  2. If the land is hard or too dry, consider watering the soil enough to make it damp. Do not till in muddy or wet conditions. The soil should be slightly damp to make it easier for the rototiller to work through.
  3. Wear protective equipment like glasses, a pair of gloves, closed-toed shoes, full-length pants and a jacket.
  4. Before starting and moving forward with the rototiller, set the tiller and press the clutch to allow the blades to dig in first. Adjust if needed and wait until the grass is coming up completely. Adjust by following the manufacturer’s instructions.
  5. Once the tiller is set at the ideal depth, slowly push it forward to begin tilling.
  6. Till in rows by going up and down the length of the lawn. Make sure there isn’t a gap between rows.
Sod Cutters vs. Rototillers

Now that you have a better idea of what sod cutters and rototillers are from the above information, it should be easy to understand their differences and similarities.

The Differences Between Sod Cutters and Rototillers 

  • Sod cutters remove the sod without damaging it in case you want to transplant it or use it as compost.
  • Rototillers rip the sod up and till the soil, which also helps mix and release beneficial organic elements in the soil
  • Sod cutters have a sharp blade underneath the machine that neatly slices the sod out of the ground.
  • Rototillers have blades underneath the machine that break up the soil.
  • Sod cutters completely remove the sod and its roots so it cannot grow back.
  • Rototillers rip the grass up without removing anything, so grass may still germinate in the future.

The Similarities Between Sod Cutters and Rototillers

  • Both are easy to use and available to homeowners
  • Both can be rented from a local hardware store
  • Both can be used to remove old grass and create room for new projects
  • Both have blades as the main tool for removing old grass
  • Both are available as walk-behind tools and the kind you manually push
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