The Milkweed Diaries

Thursday, November 13, 2008

One Day in the Century of the Small: Broadforking

''Who knows, perhaps that's what the 21st century has in store for us. The dismantling of the Big. Big bombs, big dams, big ideologies, big countries, big mistakes. Perhaps it will be the Century of the Small. Perhaps right now, this very minute, there's a small god up in heaven readying herself for us. Could it be? Could it possibly be? It sounds finger-licking good to me.''

-Arundhati Roy, The Greater Common Good

At left: Christopher uses a borrowed broadfork to cultivate a new garden bed for garlic.

Several years ago I wrote an article for our local weekly newspaper with some policy ideas for our new City Council. To my chagrin, the editor changed the title at the last minute to "Think Big." I winced when I saw the article in print. "No! If anything I would have called it 'Think SMALL!' " I remember wailing.

I've never bought the bombast of the "bigger, faster, newer" credo of American consumer culture -- and when I started hearing about the Small is Beautiful movement, it resonated with my intuitive sense of the value of simplicity. Then, some years ago, I read Arundhati Roy's essay quoted above (the link above goes to a site where you can read the whole thing online, or you can buy the beautiful print edition here).

Yes! The century of the small. The century of the simple. The century of slowness. The century of worms and microbes hard at work in a compost pile. The century of handmade objects rubbed smooth by many hands. A time for clothespins and cast iron to replace driers and microwaves. An era when sing-alongs and craft circles and clothes swaps become more popular than video games and Walmart and designer labels. A time of small farms, small businesses, and small homes. The century of the grassroots. So may it be!

The broadfork is a great tool for this new century. It is a perfect example of appropriate technology: a small-scale, simple tool powered by human energy rather than petroleum, a tool that works at a pace and on a scale that are in step with the rhythms of the natural world.

Appropriate technology is one of the concepts illuminated in the famous 1973 collection of essays by British economist E. F. Schumacher, Small Is Beautiful: Economics As If People Mattered . Schumacher and others in the Small is Beautiful and related simplicity movements came to define appropriate technology with four characteristics: appropriate technologies are simple, small in scale, low-cost and non-violent.

Earlier this year, I wrote about one of the non-violent aspects of deciding not to till--saving the salamanders. There are much wider environmental benefits to cultivating the soil by hand -- of course there is the energy savings (or more accurately, the substitution of human, worm, salamander, and microbe energy for petro-energy), but also soil ecology and soil structure are preserved, and erosion and runoff are less likely. So it's one less contribution to the more subtle, creeping violence of human activity damaging systems of life on the planet. And to me it just feels right. Working the soil by hand, I feel more peaceful, more graceful, more in harmony with the earth and its webs of overlapping systems and patterns and cycles than I do when using a loud, fast, petro-powered machine.

So far, all of the cultivation that we have done on our 5 acres has been either by double-digging raised beds or by broadforking mounded wide rows. We've cultivated about 1,200 square feet so far in the past two years with these simple tools.

Left: Christopher takes stock of 40 foot-long wide row he's broadforked.
Below: Triumphant after double- digging our first two raised beds in 2006.

We also use heavy mulches on all of these beds year round to protect soil nutrients and conserve water, and we add compost and organic matter to the beds before every new planting. Most of our beds are polyculture gardens/ companion plantings, as well, rather than just rows of a single crop. We've been able to space plants much more closely than you would in row-cropping by using these methods, and we've grown a lot of food in these beds.

Above: planting in a double-dug raised bed, Spring 2008

No-till combined with mulches, raised beds, and soil and water conservation techniques are all elements of what is sometimes referred to as "biointensive" farming. "Biointensive" is a word that is defined in a variety of different ways by people practicing different methods, but here's more about biointensive farming from an organization whose definition pretty much matches mine. And there are lots of great links on the wiki page for "biointensive" -- including information about French intensive methods and other old biointensive traditions and further reading.

Biointensive polyculture in a "keyhole" bed in our garden this summer

I believe that all food-growing was what is now called biointensive for most of human history, just as all food was organic until relatively recently. (See Farmers of Forty Centuries for more about how people grew food for thousands of years before modern farming took a turn for the worse).

Modern, petro-powered, non-intensive farming was an invention of 20th century America -- coming out of a paradigm based on the false assumption of unlimited resources. Monoculture became the standard way growing food, and farmers started departing from traditional methods -- spreading out, depleting the soil, adding petrochemical fertilizers rather than organic materials, and wasting lots and lots of water, not to mention washing away precious topsoil. The radically different idea behind the various biointensive approaches is to conserve and even increase resources, including topsoil, soil ecology, water, and energy.

So, back to our own Adventures in Smallness and Simplicity: Christopher borrowed a broadfork from the Warren Wilson garden crew, and over the last month or so cultivated about 480 square feet for garlic beds. In these beds we planted 1,489 cloves of garlic, of thirteen different varieties. Sometime next July or so we'll harvest almost 1,500 heads of garlic.

Before we dig beds with either a broadfork or shovels, we let the areas to be cultivated sit under thick cardboard and straw sheet mulch for at least a few months -- preferably for six months or more over the winter with plenty of rain. Worms, microorganisms, macroorganisms (mice and salamanders, for instance), moisture and rotting organic matter do a lot of work for us before we break ground, and then we pick up with the broadfork or shovels where they left off.

We figure that from start to finish (clearing, sheetmulching, cultivating, and prepping) this method takes about 10 person hours per 100 square feet of garden bed. It's time and labor intensive, but only the first year. Once permanent beds are double-dug or otherwise deeply cultivated, and if they are maintained with mulch and protected from being walked on, they are much easier to re-work in future years. We've planted in some of our raised beds 4 or 5 times by now, and it requires almost zero time and energy to cultivate the beds after the first year if they've been protected. We're planning to cultivate another 500 square feet or so with these methods before spring comes.

It works. And it feels good. And as my Dad tells me my grandfather used to say, "when you go slowly, there's more time to correct your mistakes."

Long live slowness! Welcome to the century of small and simple technology! Let's bring it!


Anonymous said...

Go slow; go sustainable.
PS: That's a whole lot of garlic!

rain said...

When I went home this summer, my dad couldn't wait for me to try his new broadfork. Our enthusiasm was so great Mom's new flower bed ended up 4 feet longer than it was supposed to be!

Michael J said...


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Milkweed said...

thanks for reading mike...whoever and wherever you are! amazing how this internets stuff works, huh? i'm glad the posts are useful!