The Broadfork: Ultimate Gift for Gardeners

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Gardeners have lots of tools, but many home gardeners don’t know about the broadfork. Never heard of it? That’s too bad, because it has the capacity to reduce your work, increase yields, and improve your garden’s soil.

Broadforks are a sweet garden tool that aerates garden beds manually, rather than by a motorized rototiller. A broadfork looks like a wide pitchfork with a handle on each side. To use it, you simply put the tines perpendicular to the ground, step (or hop) onto the crossbar to push the tines deep into the soil, and pull the handles back, lifting and aerating the garden bed in the process.

My gardening friend, Christin, with the broadfork. We're converting a strip of lawn into garden space.

My gardening friend, Christin, with the broadfork. We’re converting a strip of lawn into garden space.

So why use a broadfork and do all of that manual labor, when a rototiller could do the job for you? Well, the results aren’t quite the same. I have a top-of-the-line BCS tiller, and it’s starting to spend more and more time in the shed.

 

1) Plant Earlier

Using a rototiller in damp soil is a recipe for disaster — it ruins soil structure, effectively creating small bricks that growing roots cannot penetrate. Many a gardener has experienced the frustration of another rain that arrives just when their soil has been almost ready to till, delaying planting by several days or even weeks.

Soils don’t need to be as dry with a broadfork, as there is no complete mixing and chopping of the soil as with a rototiller. Soils should certainly not be wet, but they can be slightly damp and worked with a broadfork without worries of ruining the soil structure. Thanks to the broadfork, I was able to plant my spring beds at least two weeks earlier than my neighbors, who were still waiting on drier conditions for breaking out their rototillers.

 

2) Don’t Let Weeds See the Light of Day

Weed seeds can remain dormant in a soil for years… even decades! Every time a rototiller is used, old weed seeds are brought to the soil surface, which will then germinate in the light. Since a broadfork doesn’t mix the soil, old weed seeds remain deep and in the dark. The time I spend on weeding has been cut drastically in the garden beds which weren’t tilled this year. This one benefit alone has me seriously considering converting all of my beds to a no-till system.

 

3) Preserve the Rhizophere

Agriculture is entering a new era — we’re beginning to understand that soil health is measured by much more than the sum of its nutrients, but also by the types and populations of microorganisms that it contains. Tillage disrupts the rhizophere, the band of soil containing plant roots, their secretions and associated soil microorganisms. Given the rhizosphere’s importance to plant health and nutrient cycling, it makes sense that we should preserve it if at all possible, rather than having each planting start “from scratch” to recreate it. Many commercial farmers are beginning to see the benefits of switching to a no-till system, resulting in greater preservation of topsoil, and a much-reduced need for fertilizer when planting into a rolled-down or winter-killed cover crop. That’s a win-win!

 

4) Getting Deep

Rototillers only work the top 4 to 6 inches of the soil, depending on the model. Broadfork tines have the capacity to reach much deeper (from 10 to 16 inches!), creating tunnels that make it easier for plants to grow deep. Deeply-rooted plants are better able to reach water during dry spells, and also are able to reach soil nutrient sources in the deeper layers of the soil.

 

5) Grow Against the Row

I switched from growing in traditional rows to wide beds a few years ago, primarily because of the need to terrace our steep hillside garden. From using the broadfork, I’ve been able to see another dimension to the benefits of beds — less soil compaction. The tines of the broadfork sink easily in the middle of my garden beds, but I have to force the tines into the bed edges… a surprise to me because I never set foot inside them! After seeing how compaction occurs not just where I step, but in the immediate surrounding area, I’m convinced that growing in beds has improved the productivity of my gardening. And since one or two passes with my wide broadfork easily aerates all of my beds, it encourages me to keep up the practice.

 

6) A Great Workaround

I do a fair bit of seed saving each year, including brassicas and biennials that generally require multiple seasons for good seed production. Oftentimes, I don’t know from which plants I’ll be saving seeds until they’re mature and I can select the characteristics that I want, which means out of an entire bed of plants, I may need to keep only a few to full maturity. When prepping the remaining bed for replanting, it’s much easier to work around the plants that I want to keep with a broadfork than with a rototiller, especially since their roots may extend many inches beyond the plant canopy.

I’ve also found the broadfork to be the ideal tool for working soil in raised beds with wooden edges — no lifting a heavy rototiller inside. And if you have an area that’s tricky for a rototiller, a broadfork just may be your answer.

I wouldn't be able to work as close to the edge of this stone wall with a rototiller. (And yes, that's a 6 foot drop-off on the other side).

I wouldn’t be able to work as close to the edge of this stone wall with a rototiller. (And yes, that’s a 6 foot drop-off on the other side).

 

7) Preserve the Peace

I think my neighbors appreciate that I use my broadfork rather than a rototiller in the cool of an early Saturday morning. And I love to hear the birds sing and smell the fresh soil while I work with my broadfork, rather than experience the rumble and exhaust of a rototiller.

 

8) Easier than a Rototiller?

Using a broadfork looks like much more work than it really is… really. That’s because the weight of your body is doing almost all the work. There’s no need to lift and stab the soil — I simply hop on the crossbar to push the tines into the ground, do a little side-to-side dance to work the tines in further, and then lean back holding the handles, allowing my body weight to do the soil lifting. I then slide the broadfork back about 6 inches, hop on the bar, and repeat all the way down the bed. This tool might build some core body strength, since it takes some balancing on the crossbar when you press the tines in, but if you were looking for a total body workout, I’m sorry to disappoint you.

On our hillside lot, the broadfork is seriously easier than a rototiller. Ever try to till the edge of a garden bed that has a 2-foot drop-off on the downhill side? It’s such a problem for us, that I started using a spading fork years ago to aerate the beds in lieu of the broadfork. I started seeing so many benefits materialize on those sides of the beds (less weeding!), that I even switched to spading entire beds to really explore the potential benefits of no-till. Let me tell you, the broadfork is a huge timesaver compared to using that teeny-tiny spading fork!

When you have to do this much bed preparation with just a spading fork, you break out the child labor.

When you have to do this much bed preparation with just a spading fork, you break out the child labor.

 

Other Uses for a Broadfork

Need to harvest carrots or sweet potatoes in a hurry? A broadfork’s greater width than a spading fork will cut your time in half. It’s also a great way to have some fun involving little ones in the garden — mine love taking rides on a broadfork.

 

Where to buy a broadfork

I use a 27-inch wide broadfork that aerates ~10 inches deep, purchased from Johnny’s Selected Seeds (other widths are available). I’ve also heard great reviews about the broadforks from Meadow Creature. Almost all broadforks will cost between $180 to $220, but I did come across a cheaper version for Bully Tools that is available on Amazon for ~$80 (affiliate link).

 

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