Monday, March 21, 2016

Why and how to use a broadfork (and I'm not talking about eating)

15 years ago I studied organic agriculture in college.

In my research, I came across a tool called a broadfork, which is exactly what its name describes: it's a fork that's broad – a very large fork. It looks like a big pitchfork with handles on each side and a crossbar you step on, and when you thrust it into the soil and pull back on the handles, the tines break up and loosen the soil. It's used to aerate the soil manually instead of doing it with a rototiller.

I have successfully used a broadfork in my long and fruitful career as a homesteader and organic gardener for over a decade.

Why would you want to use a broad fork instead of a rototiller?

Well. Let me tell you, or if you would rather just be shown, watch this little movie I made (and be prepared for my embarrassing little surprise at the end).

Hint: Lesson learned - put your broadfork out of the rain when you are done using it!

Although rototillers are machines and therefore make the job of tilling and plowing large patches of dirt easy and fast, they tear up lots of earthworms. Tilling also disrupts the rhizosphere, the band of soil containing plant roots, their secretions and associated soil microorganisms. A broadfork, however, doesn't mix and chop soil, but gently loosens it, which keeps the useful little critters that are so good for the soil intact and happy.

Rototillers usually only reach and aerate 4 to 6 inches of soil, which can leave the layers underneath compacted and hardpan, messing with drainage and root growth. Broadforks, on the other hand, reach down further, loosening the soil deeper down and creating tunnels, making room for plants to reach deeper. It's easier for deeply-rooted plants to reach water during dry spells, and also to reach soil nutrients in the deeper layers of the soil.

You cannot rototill soil that's too wet, because you will completely destroy soil structure by basically creating small bricks that tender roots can't penetrate. This can be very frustrating, because the gardener is so dependent on a dry weather spell in the spring for tilling the soil to get it ready for planting. Good luck waiting for a solid dry spell in the Pacific Northwest! With a broadfork, you can work the soil earlier, since it doesn't have to be so dry. This allows the gardener to plant earlier in the season.

Weed seeds can patiently wait to germinate for many years, staying dormant until a rototiller bring them to the surface by mixing and chopping the soil. With light and water, they all will sprout, even though they may be very old. This doesn't happen as badly when using a broadfork, since it doesn't mix the soil and the old weeds seeds stay deep down where it's dark and they can't germinate.

Broadforks work great for raised beds with wooden or stone edges, since you don't need to lift a heavy rototiller.

If you have an area in a garden bed that needs loosening up but would be impossible to reach with a rototiller, just whip out your broadfork and easily work around the plants.

Rototillers are noisy and stinky. When you use a broadfork, you can smell the roses and can hear the birds sing.

Working in the garden with a rototiller counts as exercise! It's a great workout!

Harvesting root vegetables with a broadfork makes the work go faster. Since it's wider than a conventional spading fork, harvesting is more efficient. And this here German woman loves efficiency! 

Where to get a broadfork?

Johnny's selected seeds has them, or Lehman's, or Meadow Creature (I don't earn commission on these, I just like their style).

So get a broadfork, get out there and get broadforking! Spring is here!


  1. Great post! You have reminded me why I need to take in my old wooden ladder that I use to harvest my fruit trees with! I like that broadfork and it's the perfect width for my garden beds. Cheers! Sheri

    1. Sheri, it's so easy to forget about bringing our wooden tools in... I kept seeing my broadfork out there every day and kept thinking, "Well... I'll get to it." I would have taken me ten seconds to put it in the greenhouse! Grrr!

  2. Have you ever used a broadfork in heavy clay soil? It may have well been cement even when it was moist. At least where I've been living. Broadfork worked well in good ole Ioway where the soil is friable. I have high hopes for Central Valley though at our new place. I put a shovel in and it seems like sandy loam. If it wasn't so crazy hot in the summer I'd say great potato and carrot soil. I may try potatoes next fall. Otherwise they grow fruit and nut trees really well and grapes. PS Don't be shy. Write a blog about how taking care of things means you are taking care of yourself. Neh?

    1. I lived in Oklahoma once, in the Ozarks, where a millionaire scared of Y2K hired me to start an organic farm for him. So I did. The soil was pure clay, hard, hard, hard. I had to build up the soil with lots of compost and organic matter first, but once I did that, the broadfork worked beautifully.

    2. So you know exactly what I'm talking about. I'm thrilled I won't be dealing with this anymore. I'll take sandy loam. I can work with that.

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