This year we bought ourselves a new tool. We went back and forth about it because they are not terribly cheap as hand tools go! But this beast is worth every penny.
The broadfork is a two-handled tool with a series of large, sharp tines for breaking up soil. It’s fairly work intensive, but it works beautifully.
The Issue of Roto-Tilling
We do have a roto-tiller attachment for our lawn tractor, which we used to use and will continue to use when preparing brand new ground for garden. But it turns out that roto-tilling every year is not optimal in several ways.
- It ruins soil structure. It pulverizes the soils, breaks up soil aggregates, breaks up macropores (large spaces) in the soil and destroys all the tunnels your worms have worked so hard to build. All this space in your soil improves drainage, facilitates movement of nutrients and water.
- It causes compaction. Once those soils aggregates are broken up and the soil is reduced to its particles, the soil is nice and fluffy. But since there is no real structure, the soil will settle into a more compacted state.
- And then there is the problem of tiller-pan. The weight and action of the tiller causes a compacted layer just below where the tines reach, further decreasing soil drainage and the ability of roots to penetrate the soil.
- It inverts your soil. Tilling turns your soil right upside down. The delicate ecology of soil develops as it does for a reason. Certain helpful bacteria, fungi, and earthworms were at a certain depth in the soil because it had the right moisture and aeration conditions. Turn the soil upside down and you will disrupt this ecology for at least a while.
- It plants weed seeds for you. Ugh.
Broadfork to the Rescue
I won’t pretend that broadforking is as easy as roto-tilling (especially if you have a lawn tractor to drag it around). This is a 100% human-powered tool. However, it’s not back-breaking labor, either. Here’s how it works:
First, you get the broadfork into the soil as far as you can. For me, this means standing on it and wiggling it around until it sinks into the soil.
Then pulling the handles toward the ground to pull the tines through the soil. Drag it six inches further down the line, rinse and repeat!
As you can see in these photos, the broad fork doesn’t turn over the soil entirely. It loosens the soil while leaving aggregates in place. There is no way for it cause hardpan or increase compaction. It can prepare a bed, incorporate soil amendments, or be used to harvest potatoes and root crops. Another advantage we’ve found with it, is that it loosens the the root systems of established rhizomatous weeds and grass and makes them very easy to pick out their rhizomes.
My work with the broadfork left me so excited about my garden’s soil! It is beautiful, deep soil, just crawling with earthworms.
We are changing the orientation of our garden this year, from long east-west rows to wide beds that are mostly oriented north-south. We have a lot of time with the broadfork ahead of us, and frankly, I’m looking forward to it. The tool works just beautifully. Perhaps it just appeals to my Luddite inclinations, but the rhythm of it is lovely and meditative when I get to use it alone. However, when my family is in the garden with me, even a toddler can even help out a little!
OK, so this is probably the least efficient way to use a broadfork. But damned if it isn’t the cutest!
If you have a pretty large garden and know you’ll be working the soil for years to come, buy yourself a high-quality broadfork. You won’t regret it. If you have a small garden, it would be hard to justify the money spent on this tool. See if you can find two or three friends who would go in on it with you.
The broadfork is a powerful and effective tool. I’m pretty well sold on it. It’s one of those great, old ideas that is simple, elegant, and gets the job done better than the newer technology.