Food & Water featured

Ode to my broadfork

May 7, 2021

This baby will lift the impossible concretions of Carolina red clay, even if it’s pretty dry. It’ll bring water and air to roots and worms so long entombed they’re shocked by the concept of oxygen.

There aren’t many tools a 120-lb woman with arm and spine problems can use almost as well as a healthy dude twice her size, but according to our personal tests, this is one of them. I place it. I stand on it, and rock from foot to foot. I step off and haul it back, and lo and behold, it lifts and separates.

Yes, I have discovered it’s possible for me to over-broadfork. Bits were sore. But not until after several potato rows without pause, which is frankly a ridiculous pace. I love a tool that makes it difficult to come up against my limits.

This one came from Johnny’s and I haven’t broken it yet, which is saying something. I break a lot of stuff. No, it wasn’t cheap. My gardening friend and I went halvsies, which just about made it affordable. I highly recommend getting a gardening friend, if possible before getting a broadfork. You have time, because I’m sorry to say it looks like my particular model is out of stock at the moment.

Sure, there are other tools I love. Good shovels are indispensable for moving the many layers of barn litter and mulch that form the foundation of our bed system. I have a really excellent hoe for weeding and a really crappy hoe for furrowing, and each does its job well (luckily for the crappy hoe it’s an easy job). But nothing can do what the broadfork does, which makes it worth its weight in quarters, if not gold.

Even more than broadforking, I love having broadforked. Why? Because having broadforked I can then water, and the water goes right where I put it instead of running into the path. I am not into hauling extra water, or spending extra time watering; I am into jobs that make other jobs easier. I want the water to find paths and channels down into the root zone and hang out, and after broadforking, that’s what it does.

I can imagine the roots doing the same. At first, tiny and tender and white, they probe the soil, part clay and part mulch. They find a crack and run down along it, thickening, strengthening, holding on tight. They leave the sun-cooked zone, heading for deep, cool recesses where moisture remains even on a hot day. Broadforking makes planting easier on the humans, and then it makes growing easier on the plants.

broadforked lettuce patch

If you look at the picture above, you’ll see the most successful lettuce crop I’ve grown since I moved to the south. Maybe it doesn’t look like much to you, especially if you’re gazing from Alaska where lettuce grows like a weed, but to me it is a triumph. Down here, growing lettuce seems to be entirely a matter of minimizing stress. This is pretty difficult as the temperature swings from 35 degrees at night to 80 during the day, and the weather swings from desiccated to drenched. I never give it enough attention.

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Deep roots, however, improve everything. I’m certain it’s not a coincidence that my first successful lettuce crop just happens to coincide with my first year of competently and thoroughly broadforking. I’ve even used the fork gently and carefully after planting, to pretty good effect.

Why not just till? Doesn’t that fluff things up nicely? It’s definitely true that rototilling makes the finest seed bed. And every gardener is different, and everyone has to do what they physically can. Personally, my messed-up upper body cannot hang onto a tiller for any length of time. It’s just too punishing. I can shovel and broadfork all day with less pain than ten minutes behind a rototiller will give me. Not every machine reduces suffering over hand tools.

Sometimes tilling does the job too well. It breaks the soil up too fine, allowing it to settle and compact even worse after the fluffy stage passes. It sometimes creates a sort of scraped, compressed layer at the bottom of the tines like larger machinery, a “plow pan” that screws up the deep drainage that keeps roots from drowning in wet weather. And it brings up the weed seeds and chops up the worms. No thanks.

Doesn’t mulching just take care of this whole business? Yes. Maybe. Sort of.

I’m highly in favor of mulching. It increases the organic matter in soil, suppresses weeds, holds water near the roots and provides nutrients as it decomposes. I haul a lot of it, and because I do I can truthfully assure you that mulch is heavy.

In several years of working on it, I haven’t yet managed to bring my whole garden up to the 8-12” of mulch that would create a perfect root zone. We’re getting there, but we’ll get there faster if the soil underneath has some channels through which to work that material down and in. The broadfork and the mulch work together, and I adore things that work together.

I’m not saying you have to have this broadfork, or any broadfork. I’m just extremely grateful I do. People have their opinions. So what’s your favorite tool?

Kara Stiff

Kara Stiff

I have a BS in Sustainable Agriculture from the University of Maine, and I worked on sustainability issues in Native Alaskan communities through Cooperative Extension before moving to North Carolina. My goal with my writing and in my life is to inspire others to think critically about their choices in order to build communities that are happier, healthier and gentler on the planet.

Tags: Building resilient food and farming systems, gardening, gardening tools