Gardening With A Broadfork

Anyone who receives gardening catalogs or magazines has probably seen an advertisement for, or reference to, a tool called a broadfork.  What is a broadfork and why do some gardeners speak so favorably of its use in their gardens?

A broadfork is like a tall pitchfork EXCEPT it has two long handles – one on each side of a 1-2 ft. metal crossbar from which several long tines extend down towards the ground.  When the gardener steps on the broadfork’s crossbar with her full weight while holding the overhead handles, and then steps backwards pulling the handles towards herself and then forward again, the forks loosen the soil, but don’t turn over the soil.  Thereby, the layers of soil are left intact yet aerated, inviting air & water.

The broadfork seems to have been invented by Andre Grelinin in the 1960’s.  It was known as a grenlinette in France and was introduced into the United States in the early 1990’s by Eliot Coleman, author of New Organic Grower and other works.  Coleman has quite an extensive farming and advisory background in the field of organic gardening.

Many gardeners like using the broadfork for various reasons. For one, it’s easier than digging down with a shovel, lifting a load of dirt, and turning it over.  Lifting that dirt seems to get heavier & heavier.  In addition, when shoveling or even tilling soil, the dormant weeds under the surface are brought up to the top where they can germinate and flourish for another season.  With the broadfork, the dormant weed seeds remain underneath.  In addition, with a broadfork one can loosen the soil without destroying the soil structure and the living web of bacteria, fungi, and earthworms beneath the soil surface, which are good for healthy garden soil.  Other gardeners who wish to avoid the extra gasoline consumption, noise and soil compaction of machine tilling are particularly enamored with the use of the broadfork as an alternative to tilling the soil.

Broadforks come in a variety of dimensions and constructions.  Handles can be of wood, steel or even fiberglass, and range from 42” to 50” long.  Some models are designed with 5 tines, others 9 or more ranging in length from 9” to 11” or so. The width of a broadfork can be anywhere from 15” to 31”.  They can weigh from 10 to 22 lbs. 

Steel broadforks are obviously heavier than the wooden or fiberglass models, and this, in relation to the user’s size and strength should be taken into consideration when choosing a type of broadfork.  Some models seem especially designed (or advertised) for breaking new or hard packed ground, while others are more suited for garden beds which are already made.

I interviewed a Georgia gardener, brother Tom, who has maintained an urban garden in downtown Atlanta for 35 years and who transitioned to the broadfork about 15 years ago.  The soil in the 57 ft.  by 147 ft. lot behind his house was comprised of “horrible heavy clay” with bricks, cinderblocks, rotten lumber and other detritus left from building demolition.  At one point he tried using a tiller but it bounced along the top of the clay and kept hitting bricks, parts of pipes and such. Ultimately he used a shovel to double dig down 12 to 15 inches and create twenty 4 ft. by 15 ft. beds or rows, with 30 inch walkways between. 

For the first 10 years of his garden, each fall he drove his truck through the neighborhood picking up hundreds of bags of leaves neighbors left on the street. These he emptied and mounded over the entire garden lot.   These days, he collects the annual leaf fall from the 4 huge water oaks in his yard for deposit in his cinderblock leaf collection bin, and eventually into his garden.

After each summer crop ends, Tom broadforks each bed and adds compost.  In early winter, as he broadforks each mounded 15 ft. bed, he combines shredded leaves into the soil.  He aims to always have 2 to 3 inches of leaves on the walkways.  In early spring, he broadforks the rows again and levels up the beds to prepare for planting the first crops in late January or February.  He’s now harvesting his second crop of string beans and is about to harvest butterpeas.  Tom also usually harvests spinach, carrots, sugar snap peas, lettuce, strawberries, corn, tomatoes, cucumbers, and peppers, which is usually more than enough for his family.

And the broadfork is his constant gardening companion.   Try using one.  It might just become the garden tool you find you can’t live without.

 Linda Leslie Mobley, GA Master Gardener Extension Volunteer, Headwaters Master Gardeners Association

 For more information:

Burns, Samantha.  “The Dirt on Broadforks.”

 Fortier, Jean Martin.  “Breaking Down the Broadfork,” Mother Earth News

 Four Season Farm and Eliot Coleman.

 Johnny’s Selected Seeds.

 “How To Choose The Right Broadfork For Your Needs.”

Tom using his broadfork in his late summer garden

Tom using his broadfork in his late summer garden

Linda Mobley, author, using the broadfork

Linda Mobley, author, using the broadfork

Part of garden showing rows & pathways; sticks mark pathway boundaries

Part of garden showing rows & pathways; sticks mark pathway boundaries

Bin of leaves almost empty by August

Bin of leaves almost empty by August