Long ago, back in the dark ages of farming, there were no chemical fertilizers. There were no tractors. There were no tillers.
There was the farmer, his land, some simple tools and hopefully a few draft animals. (For a look at a modern farmer who uses and explains antique farming methods, check out this site).
Though most of us no longer have a yoke of oxen, there are some modern versions of old tools that are remarkably efficient. As people worry about peak oil, supply line disruptions and consider gardening without electricity, some tools have made a raring comeback in recent decades.
One of these tools is the broadfork. What’s a broadfork? Here – take a look:
That, my friend, is a startlingly efficient tool for loosening soil to depths of up to 16”, depending on the design. Though most broadforks (with the exception of the Meadow Creature broadfork – check out my review here) aren’t made for breaking new ground, they can do it in a pinch if you don’t have conditions that are too rough. Hard clay, rocks and roots might become problematic with a weaker fork. Nothing will ruin your day like an expensive broken tool.
Though double-digging is probably a better way to create new garden beds, you can cover a lot more ground with a broadfork with a lot less work.
Also, don’t get me wrong: I love firing up a tiller and plowing under vast swaths of grass and weeds. It looks like you’re making a ton of progress when you till – yet the ground has barely been aerated to 6”. Additionally, you’re tearing through countless earthworms as you go. Wait a week or two and the weeds will pop right back up and you have to do it again – killing whatever earthworm refugees managed to survive your first pass – and who knows what you’re doing to the soil’s ecosystem on a microscopic level.
Now that we know the “what” and the “why” of broadforking, let’s take a look at how you do it.
How to Broadfork
Broadforking is hard work. There’s no way around that. But it’s worthwhile – and I’m a firm believer in staying tough by doing garden and farm work. Being a pansy is no way to go through life, son. The first time out is the toughest. You’ll find yourself getting totally into the feel of the tool and end up with blisters and a sore back. A few days later, you’ll be tough enough to do more. Then, eventually, it’s no big deal at all. Heck, my wife can broadfork for an hour without quitting. Hurray for farm girls!
The way a broadfork works is simple. The operator picks the tool up by the handles and drops or thrusts the tines into the soil. He then stands on the bar and starts rocking back and forth. The tines usually have a slight curve to them that helps them slip easily into the soil. After a few good rocks back and forth, the tines are buried completely in the ground. At that point, the user pulls back on the tool and the leverage breaks and loosens the soil. He then takes a step back and drops the tool in the ground again perhaps 6-10″ behind his first impact point.
I know – that sounds complicated when written down. So I had my wife take a bunch of pictures. They explain the process better than words.
First – pick it up and drop it:
Then, stomp on it and rock back and forth.
Then, once the tines are all the way in the ground, start pulling back.
And pull back some more…
And even more…
Voila! Now you’ve loosened the soil. Any weeds on top can now be removed easily.
Yanking up fistfuls of normally stubborn weeds is easy after the broadfork has done its work beneath the surface. Also, working already soft ground goes really fast. My double-dug beds are a breeze to re-loosen with the broadfork. Even here in Florida, where our soil is generally sandy, compaction happens. I once tilled a chunk of the backyard and planted a big patch of barley, only to have it grow fast… then start wilting, yellowing and falling over. I watered like crazy, threw on manure, and it still petered out on me. The yield was terrible.
I had to find out why, so I dug into the soil beneath the sad plants… and discovered the dirt a few inches down was dry and rock-hard. The next year, instead of tilling, I double dug that area, planted barley again, and it thrived with very little water or care. There’s something to opening up the soil – do it and plants find their own water and nutrition a lot better. Sure, if you had an ideal worm population and loads of organic matter, you might not need a broadfork… but when you’re trying to feed your family, you really start to appreciate the need for simple methods that don’t require massive inputs – and for simple tools that make those methods possible.
Interestingly, since I got a broadfork, my tiller (which is always breaking down) hasn’t gotten any attention. I have a feeling it might stay that way… much to the dissatisfaction of my local small engine repairman.
Finally, if you do get a broadfork, don’t skimp and get a cheap one. It will just make you mad, because it’s going to break. A good fork is going to cost you around $200, unless you can weld, then it’s very possible to make your own. I went with the Meadow Creature broadfork because it was the toughest one I could find – but I haven’t tried every fork yet. Your mileage (forkage?) may vary. I’m getting plenty of use out of mine. If I lost my broadfork somehow, or, heaven forbid, it was stolen by some sort of homesteading bandit, I’d buy another one in a heartbeat.
Heck, I’d have to buy a new one, just for the dough it saves me on a gym membership.