Preparing Soil: Tilthing the Garden

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PHOTO: MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF
Tilthing doesn't work the ground deeply — after a series of repeated choplike blows, you'll have pulverized only the surface soil right in front of you. So dig down at that spot to turn up subsurface clods, and tilth them.

The question: How can you break spaded soil into fine
particles preparing soil before you plant? The answer:

Tilthing . . . most people aren’t even familiar with the
word , much less the activity. Alan Chadwick, the
founder of biodynamic/French intensive gardening, brought
this British skill (and verb) to this country along with
his other ingenious gardening methods. And every spring (as
well as before all new plantings later in the season),
MOTHER EARTH NEWS gardeners employ the technique themselves. Over
and over, they swing their garden forks at the soil,
looking almost like baseball batters who can only hit down
. . . or golfers whose swings always stop at the ground.

For that’s what tilthing is: swinging a fork into dug-up
soil to break up those pesky surface clods. Yet while the
basic idea of tilthing is simple, mastering the skill
— i.e., learning how to do it so you accomplish the
most work without wearing yourself out in the
process — takes understanding and practice. We’ll try
to explain the method as clearly as we can with the words
and pictures here. The practice is up to you.

Preparing Soil: Tilthing the Garden

First, you’ll need a garden fork. The cheap hardware
versions are OK as long as you’re gardening in easy-to-work
loamy soil. A better tool is a high-quality, thin-tined
cultivating fork, such as the ones offered by Smith &
Hawken Tool Company (Mill Valley, CA).

Make sure the soil is workable before you start preparing soil. If it’s
too wet, you’ll create more clods than you disperse. And if
it’s too dry, trying to tilth it will quickly exhaust you.
In the latter case, water the plot thoroughly the day
before you start.

When you and your soil are ready, stand in front of the bed
to be worked. If you start out right-handed, grab the fork
near its head with your right hand and partway down the
shaft with the other (don’t grab the handle — “choke
up” on the shaft). Swing the tool in an arc so it strikes
the surface with a sideways , almost glancing,
blow. Never bang down — you’ll just wear
yourself out. And don’t hit the ground hard; let the weight
of the tool do most of the work.

Tilthing doesn’t work the ground deeply — after a
series of repeated choplike blows, you’ll have pulverized
only the surface soil right in front of you. So dig down at
that spot to turn up subsurface clods, and tilth them.

You may need to redig and retilth one spot three or four
times before you’ll have busted all the lumps in the top
six to eight inches of ground. To keep from wearing
yourself out, switch directions — from tilthing
“right-handed” to tilthing “left-handed” — often . .
. say, every three or four minutes.

Once you get good at the job, you may be able to completely
work a 4 foot by 30 foot bed in 45 minutes . . . if you’ve
got fine, loamy soil. In the clay soil of our research
gardens, it can take two hours or more to work up the same
size area. Of course, how finely you tilth the soil will
depend on the crop you’re planning to raise: Brassicas
actually prefer firm soil, but carrots and other root crops
appreciate the finest-particled earth you can give them.

That’s about all we can tell you; you’ll have to learn the
finer points through experimentation and practice. There’s
no doubt that tilthing is work (head gardener Susan Glaese
says, “It’s the only chest-building exercise I’ve seen that
doesn’t come from the back of a magazine”). But once you’ve
got the knack of doing it correctly, it’s quite bearable,
even enjoyable, work.