Broad Fork

How would you describe your soil? For my garden I like to use cobbly sandy loam and I also use not prime farmland. Two phrases you wouldn’t ever associate with a productive vegetable patch. I found those two bits of information from the USDA Soil Survey. If you can tough through their not so user friendly application, you might find some amusing data as troubling as mine. Some of the problems I have observed in my garden include:

  • Lots of tree roots from numerous nearby pine trees.
  • Lots of large cobble-stone sized rocks
  • Tight airless soil 6-10 inches below the surface

bfkFor these three reasons I decided my garden needed a deep till. On average, agricultural topsoil is only about 6 inches deep; that’s about as deep as you can work the soil with normal garden tools and rototillers. Tillers have the extra downside of creating a hard compacted soil zone called hard pan. This is a major problem on farms using tractors and has done much to contribute to the reduced plant health and subsequent decline in nutrition. What I would like to see in my space is a solid 20 inches of top soil, the kind you can push your arm up to its elbow in. That might sound like a lot, but its still a far cry from the 240 inches (20 feet) found by early American pioneers in some parts of the country.

One of the tools I’ve been wanting to use to help solve this problem is the Broadfork. I had an opportunity to visit a friends urban garden where he had two different forks for me to try. The one I chose comes from Meadow Creature, and it’s a real monster with four 16″ inch steel claws and a heavy all steel construction.

The broadfork allows you to deeply till and aerate your soil by hand without excessive mixing and bringing up of the subsoil. It looks like a large double handled pictchfork, but it’s a whole lot heavier and the tines are very long and sturdy. The tines can vary in length from about 12 to 16 inches long, some are for lighter soils and others for very tough soils. The tool can cut a good sized swath about two foot wide. Using it is pretty simple, step on the crossbar and use your body weight to bury it as deep as you can get it, then pull backwards while the teeth  rip upwards.

broadforkMy broadfork posing with some of the buried treasure it found.

And what a workout! Every spring I seem to do some major work in the garden and it sure makes me wonder if it just might be a little too big. I’ve been working every weekend for a month to get all the beds prepared in time for planting and I am just about done now. My process is to first broadfork the whole bed lengthwise, add my soil amendments and then broadfork it a second time crosswise. That first tilling is tough, my soil wants to resist the intrusion and I locate a lot of rocks and roots. The second till is much easier, but I still seem to harvest a second crop of cobblestones.

Be aware that the fork I chose to use was designed for working in difficult soils. Once the soil has improved in both depth and tilth, and a lot less cobble stones, I will switch to a much lighter and easier to use fork with five or six tines. In excellent soil these tools are fast and nearly effortless to use.

~Sean