We think it’s time that growers and gardeners started giving more of a fork about their soil! Why? Well, a properly functioning soil is the basic building block of healthy ecosystems, plants, veggies, and even healthy humans (ever heard of the soil-gut connection?). And when it comes to improving your soil health, there is no easier or more fun way to start than by using a broadfork.
What is a broadfork?
To explain the broadfork (also known as grelinette or U-fork), it’s is a scary-looking yet efficient tool for loosening soil without tilling it, used mostly on smaller tracts of land. As many of you know, tilling (turning soil over) disrupts the natural soil layers and the food web that they support, whereas using a broadfork to gently loosen soil maintains these structures, allowing soil biology to thrive. This creates a healthier soil that not only requires less input, but is naturally more productive.
Okay, so they may look like grisly war weapons unearthed from mediaeval times, but broadforks come in peace! The sharp tines are in fact designed to easily penetrate the soil. These tines, or teeth, stick out from a steel crossbar, to which two upright handles are attached for levering the tines in soil.
Invented in France in the 1950s by Msr. Andre Grelin, ‘grelinettes’ or broadforks are commonly used on permaculture farms and market gardens that use no-till methods, but are equally useful whether you grow food, flowers, or you just have a lawn. In fact, we believe that every garden should have one!
Why should you use a broadfork on your soil?
Broadforking increases soil health by allowing air, water and nutrients to get down nice and deep, which increases soil biodiversity and helps the function and movement of the important soil life such as earthworms, bacteria, fungi and other microbes and goggas; all of which contribute to healthy plants.
A a grower or farmer, these organisms are your best friends. In fact, when you disturb them, you are just creating more work for yourself in repairing the damage and rebuilding their habitats. But if you use a broadfork to loosen the soil instead of digging and turning, you help create the ideal moisture and aeration conditions for soil organisms to mineralise nutrients and build humic layers, not to mention allowing plant roots to spread out like they own the place.
Broadforking is also an enjoyable and ergonomic workout that’s way more efficient than using a spade or a normal garden fork – it’s also a helluva lot easier and kinder to your back. When you use a broadfork, your back stays straight and upright at all times and you work your arms, shoulders, chest and core. Welcome to the garden gym!
How is a broadfork different from a pitchfork?
A pitchfork is designed to throw loose material like hay, compost, manure or leaves, while a garden fork is made for digging, loosening soil and turning it over. A broadfork, on the other hand, is specially designed to easily and efficiently loosen soil without turning it.
A broadfork’s wider head and multiple tines penetrate a wider swathe of soil than a garden fork, and the satisfying leverage you get from the longer handles requires less energy and strength. You could sweat all day bending your back over a garden fork, or just get yourself a broadfork!
How to use a this gardening tool
First, lift the fork from near the top of the handles and then stab the tines into the ground (be careful of your toes)! Then, either jump or stand on the cross bar to sink the tines into the ground. Moving the handles back and forth as you stand on the crossbar will help to wiggle the tines in nice and deep. Once they are in (if the soil is really hard, you might not get them in all the way, and this is okay) stand back and pull from the top of the handles so that the tines lift the patch of soil in front of them just a little bit. Push the handles forward and then pull back again to loosen the soil.
Next, pull the broadfork out of the ground, step back a bit, and stick the tines into the ground about 10-20 cm behind your last entry point. The spacing between each ‘forking’ depends on how compacted your soil is; the more compacted your soil, the closer the spacing.
The aim is not to turn the soil like with a garden fork or a hoe, but rather just to break up and loosen the soil by lifting it a bit, and then putting it back down.
How often do you need to use a broadfork?
The goal of using a broadfork is to get to a point on each bed where you don’t have to use it anymore, i.e. your soil’s default state is loose and with enough humic matter to not need a broadfork anymore. This can take time and compost. Oodles of compost!
A general rule of thumb is to feel into the soil with a stick or your hand, and see how easily you can reach down to about a hand’s depth, like No-Till Growers explain in the video below. Test each bed in a couple of places and if you find it difficult at any point, it’s probably in need of a good forking!
Prior to establishing new beds, you’ll want to run a broadfork through them a couple times, and subsequently between each crop rotation until you find that your beds are completely loose and aerated. However, there’s no harm in doing more forking at this point, even if you are just making holes with the tines rather than actively loosening.
Note: If you find yourself with seriously compacted clay or hardpan that are proving difficult to sink your tines into, it’s recommend first to run a roto-tiller through it just once, and then set about using a strategy of broadforking, composting and cover cropping to rebuild and maintain the soil layers over time.
How to pick a good broadfork
When choosing a broadfork, there are several qualities to look out for. If a broadfork had a CV and you were the hiring manager, these are what you would look out for:
– Tough tines that penetrate easily,
– a sturdy and comfortable foot press,
– a wide enough head to cover a lot of ground but still be manoeuvrable,
– and strong, durable handles.
Some broadforks have metal handles, and others wooden handles. We prefer wood on our broadforks because it makes the tool lighter and more user-friendly. Besides, wood adds an element of old school sexiness that metal handles can only dream of! While many European and North American brands use ash wood, we use FSC-certified saligna for the fact that it is strong, slightly flexible, and locally grown in South Africa. Then we coat it with ProNature natural wood sealer for a smooth and protective finish.
Why every garden should have a broadfork
A broadfork is your friend whether you have veggies, flower beds, lawn, or all three. No matter what kind of gardener you are, a healthy, functioning soil makes your life a lot easier. Happy soil needs less water, less or no fertiliser, and produces stronger plants that are more resistant to pests and disease. But best of all, veggies grown in healthy soil have more nutritional bang-for-their buck (Say goodbye to those bland supermarket tomatoes, yuck!).
Another interesting benefit of using a broadfork instead of turning your soil is that dormant weed seeds stay deep underground and don’t get brought up to the surface where they will sprout.
So there you have it! Broadforking opens up soil without turning it over, which makes life a lot easier for all the goggas and microbes to do their jobs. Result: soil that functions as it is supposed to, giving you healthy, nutritious plants!