Breaking Down the Broadfork

Reader Contribution by Jean-Martin Fortier
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Soil is composed of layers that actually accomplish important purposes – to just till it all up destroys those benefits. Thus, the broadfork. Working your soil with a broadfork will not allow dormant weed seeds, which are hidden in the depth of you soil, to come close to the soil surface and germinate.

Maintaining soil structure — and the soil food web it supports — is such an important component of successful vegetable production that at our 2-acre market farm, we avoid tools that penetrate more than a few inches into the soil’s surface. The one exception is the broadfork.

What is a Broadfork?

The broadfork is a simple yet powerful gardening tool that serves the purpose of efficiently loosening soil without flipping it upside down. You see, soil is composed of layers that actually accomplish important purposes: Bacteria, fungi and earthworms working below the surface are all actively creating tunnels that give the soil structure.

This lively structure develops in different soil depths that have the right moisture and aeration conditions. To completely turn the soil over by using a rototiller or by double-digging disrupts this ecology for at least a while, so that you cannot rely on natural forces to help do the job.

Imagine it this way: Every time you till, you destroy your soil’s habitants. Your otherwise free labor is then too busy rebuilding their homes and won’t instead be driving biological fertility to its full potential.

Because the broadfork is designed to keep the user’s back straight, the work is not the least bit strenuous. I might even call it fun –– meditative.

Turning your soil upside down also has the detrimental effect of bringing back up weed seeds that are buried in the lower layers of the soil. Do a test: Till one bed with a tiller and don’t till another bed; I guarantee you’ll see the difference with regards to weeds popping up everywhere.

All this being said, if you want to grow super nice crops with intensive spacing, then your soil should be as loose and well aerated as possible. This is why organic farmers use different plows, like chisels and subsoilers, to loosens their soil all while bringing air into it and speeding up the mineralization of their organic matter.

This technique increases short-term nitrogen availability, but limits the transformation of organic matter into humus. See it as blowing air on your fire — it burns faster, but won’t last as long. Simplistically, that’s how modern farming has been depleting soils for the last 100 years, and it’s one component of agriculture that needs to change in the future.

How Broadforks Promote Healthy Soil

The broadfork is one answer to this problem. When used correctly, its vertical tines will let water and air penetrate the soil, leaving its profile still upright. It creates an ideal environment for root growth, all while making it possible to build soil levels and rich humus.

The broadfork is not a complicated device. Working in already loose, but not necessarily prepared soil, the grower stands on the crossbar with his or her full body weight and sinks the tines deep into the bed –– about a foot.

Then, using the tremendous leverage of the long handlebars, the soil is loosened by working the handles back and forth in a kind of rowing motion. Finally, the broadfork is moved back about a foot, and sunk back into the soil again, creating a rhythmic, almost aerobic workout.

It’s a human-powered tool that almost anyone can use effectively, because it requires minimal effort for the work it produces. Of course, I often hear from other growers that using such a tool is inefficient on a commercial scale, but I disagree. Two misconceptions need to be dispelled about using a broadfork. See the broadfork in action in the video below:


How to Choose the Right Broadfork

First, not all broadforks are created equal. Over the years, I’ve personally tried about 20 different models and I can tell you that design really matters. You should aim to get one that is made and used for professional purposes, preferably a wooden-handled one over a heavier all-metal broadfork.

I’d rather replace a broken shaft every couple years than spend a lifetime lifting extra weight. The ergonomics of the tines also play a major role it the overall efficiency of the tool. The better broadforks have parabolic curves that simplify the rowing motion.

The broadfork traces its origins back to the grelinette, a tool invented in France by André Grelinin the 1960s. It was introduced and popularized in the U.S. in the early 1990’s by none other then Eliot Coleman, master grower and author of The New Organic Grower.

Second, the circumstances of the area to be worked also need to be accounted for. A broadfork shouldn’t be use to break new ground or break up densely packed soil, like converting hardpan into tillable soil. Certain broadforks, like the one designed by Meadow Creature, are made for that purpose only. But after you establish your beds, you’ll want to have a broadfork that is lighter. The right tool under the right circumstance is the key to the whole thing.

I’ve been growing food for a living long enough to have seen the benefits of the broadfork. That’s the reason why we named our farm “Les Jardins de la Grelinette,” or Broadfork Gardens –– not just because we love working the tool, but because our bio-intensive system requires it.

Try it yourself over time and your soil will become softer while having better drainage, texture and structure. Plus, the beneficial organisms will absolutely love what you’re doing. In both the home garden and the large market garden the broadfork is simply a must-have. But beware: Your tiller might get left sitting out in the garage all summer!

Broadforks come in many shapes and sizes. Some are heavier than others, some longer, wider, taller, you name it. If tried about a dozen of them, but the one I like best is fabricated by Growers.

Jean-Martin Fortier is full time farmer and author of the best selling, award-winning bookThe Market Gardener : A Successful Grower’s Handbook for Small-Scale Organic Farming. He’s also a tool advisor for Growers & Co., a tool company dedicated to small-scale and urban farmer gear. JM worked on an educational documentary film over the summer. Check it out at Possible Media.

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