The Milkweed Diaries

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Exciting New Tool and Further Reflections on Not Tilling

Last week our broadfork was delivered, mysteriously arriving in several pieces brought by different carriers (the base came via Fed-Ex and the oiled ash handles by USPS). It's a big 7-tined, 28-inch-wide beast of a tool.

Before now, we had been borrowing a smaller broadfork from a neighbor, but now we have our very own!
The 727 Broadfork from Johnny's

We ordered this fabulous tool from Johnny's Selected Seeds, a worker-owned company based in Maine. CF, a consumate tool nerd, spent a lot of time researching different broadfork options, and decided that this one was the best quality and price. Johnny's broadforks are designed by Eliot Coleman of Four Season Harvest and New Organic Gardener fame.

So why are we so excited about this tool? The broadfork, also known as a U-Bar, is an old French gardening tool known in French as a Grelinette. By any name, it is a low-tech, human-powered tool that deeply aerates the soil while preserving soil structure and microbial life. We are using the fork to cultivate permanent beds without tilling.

With tilling, there is a short-term microbial die-off which might actually add to short-term soil fertility, but degrades the soil over the long term. Soil structure and living organisms in the soil are disturbed, and soil health is compromised.

CF works the fork.

Unlike a tiller, the broadfork does not harm the microscopic web of life in the soil, and it is also far less likely than a tiller to kill worms, mole salamanders, and other critters that contribute to healthy soil.

Here's an article from The Modern Homestead on why broadforking is better for the soil than tilling, and another on tilling vs. broadforking to create new garden beds. The Modern Homestead (Harvey Ussery, proprietor) has a lot of great info on tools and methods for human-scale food production, as well as information on soil ecology and how to preserve it. A disclaimer: several of the methods Ussery suggests are counter to my experience of what works in the garden. For example: I have not found that plants thrive when planted into un-cultivated ground through holes cut in cardboard sheet mulch.

To cultivate new beds, we use the broadfork in combination with sheet mulching. The sheet mulching encourages microbial life and worm activity, especially if you load on the organic materials --we use rotted leaves and straw piled on top of cardboard. With heavy sheet mulch kept relatively moist over 3-6 months, the soil is already pretty "worked" before we even touch it with a shovel or fork. And it contains a teeming community of life that is mostly invisible to the naked eye. We always find an abundance of worms when we pull up the remains of the rotted cardboard, and often there are also tunnels made by rodents and mole salamanders under the mulch too. The microbes, the fungi, the worms, the rodents, and a host of other creatures all contribute to breaking up and aerating the soil, making less work for us!

After the well-rotted sheet mulch is peeled back, the broadfork loosens the soil even more, and allows air and water to penetrate the soil deeply, promoting plant growth. With the fork and shovels, we create raised or mounded beds which will never be walked on and permanent paths for foot and wheelbarrow traffic. The beds are disturbed as little as possible after they are built.
We use heavy mulches in the beds year-round to retain soil nutrients and moisture and to protect all of the life in the soil. With mulch, occassional top-dressing and digging-in of compost, and broadforking before each planting, the goal is to build the soil with every growing season. This fall, we'll begin adding cover-crops as a further strategy to sustain soil health.

All of these methods combine to build a thriving soil ecology, and healthy soil stucture to support ongoing food production. Needless to say, these strategies are starkly different than typical large-scale farming practices which leave the soil more depleted after every season--and more and more reliant on petrochemical fertilizer inputs.

The god of small things in his broadforking outfit.

For more on the broadfork and related matters:

1 comment:

Rob said...

Nice writeup. Thanks. It will be interesting how you like the 7-time fork -- it's big. Ike Hubbard makes the broad forks in his small Maine shop. We use tractors at the Johnny's farm, but in my home garden I use only hand tools, mostly an old prototype 5-tine which is still perfect. Oil the handles annually.

Rob Johnston
Johnny's Selected Seeds