Spring arrives and the garden beckons. The urge to plant seeds and pick flowers is strong. But first, the chores must be done, and the big garden chore that looms over all is preparing the soil for planting.
We open the shed and stare at the tiller (or we go to the garden store and stare at the tillers). Lugging the machine out into the yard we check for fuel, check for oil, push the lever to choke and yank on the chord. If we are lucky, it fires up with only a pull or two. If not, well, we stand back, glare at the machine, pull the chord some more, kick the infernal machine, push some levers back and forth, pull the chord, flood the engine, and lug the thing back into the shed.
There must be a better way.
That was me last weekend. I had one bed that I really wanted to till up, but for the first time in three years I couldn’t get the tiller started. Not being mechanically inclined, I returned the tiller to the shed and grabbed my broadfork instead.
I discovered the broadfork three years ago, about the time I was really getting into my veg gardens. All the flower beds around my house I had dug by hand, and doing the same with the veg gardens was daunting, so I bought a tiller. After running/bouncing it over the lawn a few times, I still had to dig by hand to remove all the rocks and weeds and clumps of grass. What had been the advantage of getting this $300 machine that now stood idle in the shed?
I read through some of my gardening books and came across the broadfork in a book about Biointensive gardening. This method espouses double digging, in which the gardener starts at one end of a garden, digs down with a shovel one shovel length, puts that soil in a container, and digs down another level to just loosen the soil. This can be done with the broadfork – a tool that breaks up and loosens the soil without disrupting the soil’s structure (more on this in a moment). This tool looks exactly like its name: a fork that is rather wide. It has 6-8 tines attached to a horizontal bar, with handles emerging upright from the ends of the bar. One thrusts the tines into the ground, steps on the bar, and then grabs the handles, levering the tines through the soil. It’s a primitive thing, but it works great! You then back up and start the next row of digging. The first layer’s soil goes into the trough you just dug, on top of the broadforked soil. The second layer is now forked. This continues until you reach the end of your bed. After you broadfork the last layer, the soil you removed from the first row is placed on top – the loop is closed, the system complete.
Over the years, my garden reading has come across many justifications for not tilling the soil. I first learned of no-till agriculture in a conservation class I took many years ago in college. We were reading about the Dust Bowl and how the advent of no-till farming helped cut down on soil erosion. In today’s gardening world, however, the idea of no tilling has more to do with “being green” – not polluting the air with gasoline fumes, cutting down on our carbon footprints. But it’s more than that – it’s also about preserving the vitality of the very soil itself.
As soil develops, layers are built; this is the soil’s structure. But the structure is more than mineral and organic layers; it is also the layers of living things: the worms, the beetles, the fungi, the bacteria. All these things work in concert to create a healthy environment in which plants can grow. When we run through this carefully balanced system with our rototillers, we mix everything up, disrupting the health and balance. Can your plants still grow in it? Of course, but the soil’s vitality has been reduced. By using the double digging method we preserve the soil’s structure. We are essentially fluffing up the soil without turning it on its head.
So I took my broadfork to this final garden and applied it. I was anticipating a struggle with hard-packed soil, but to my pleasant surprise the soil loosened up with hardly any effort at all. Maybe this is because last year the bed was built without any tilling: I layered tons of newspapers on the lawn and covered them with compost and manure. I was expecting the soil this year to be hard – that preparing the bed would have me digging down through the hard lawn under the papers (hence my initial attempt at using the tiller). As it turned out, the layers had successfully (for once) smothered the lawn underneath and all was cool, moist and soft – the easiest veg bed I have ever prepared.
Maybe the tiller will go in my next yard sale.