My Favorite Spring Garden Tool

The Broadfork.

Holy cats. I couldn’t remember the name of my favorite tool, or where I got it, so as I sat in bed killing time before church and sipping my coffee — with Pippi-dog burrowed under the sheets next to me, panting from the heat — I researched it.

As usual, the internet eventually coughed up an answer. But not before creating a serious time-suck and giving me way more information than I needed. Not surprisingly, one of my first stops was the forums. I don’t think I have ever mentioned Gardenweb before, but I use that site all the time when I am researching an important purchase or need help with something house related. Ironically, though the name is ‘gardenweb’, I find their home appliance forums invaluable and use that part of the site more than the gardening part. Trying to decide between a Bosch or an LG Washer? Go to the Gardenweb home appliance forums! Amazing amounts of information and real users.

But I digress.

So it was today, trying to figure out the name of my favorite tool and googling “deep spade” and “deep fork” and “cultivate”, etc., I landed back on Gardenweb. That’s where the “holy cats” I wrote earlier comes from. Not for the first time, I sit at my computer and wonder who these freaks are that live on forums answering questions? Of course, since I also possess Psychic Powers, I will tell you what you are thinking right now: You are thinking that I am a freak for writing this blog and that I am not so different from those forum-stalkers that I speak of, right?

Not true, not true. For starters, have you ever been on some of those forums? Really read them? If so, you’ll know the type to which I am referring. Basically, they are assholes. Mean. Opinionated. Always right. But to give credit where credit is due, they often lend a compelling argument and viewpoint to the discussion. Less trustworthy though. Maybe it’s because of their unbending vehemence. And since I can’t check their credentials, how do I know they are any different from my quack neighbor, who would argue that you can compost old car parts?

This post wasn’t supposed to be about forums, but those angry forum writers will come back into the discussion shortly and I will tidy up the loose ends nicely — unlike the last novel I just read.

Anyway, I did find out what the name of my tool is. It’s called a Broadfork. Tools like it are also known as U-Bar Diggers or Deep Spaders. After researching, I think I made a wise purchase seven years ago. The others on the market don’t look nearly as tough as mine which is made by Johnny’s Selected Seeds and was designed by Elliot Coleman, über gardener. And if this chic girl can’t sell the fork, who can:

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Please note: that is not me.

I think I have the 5 tined fork, and it sells for $179. It’s not cheap. In fact, I’m stunned that I paid that much. I would have a hard time shelling out that kind of cash now, what with the austerity program in place. I have come to love the austerity program, though… It comes in awfully handy with a 15-year old consumerist daughter…

Here’s how it works: Lift it up, jam it into the hard pack, jump on it, pull it back and repeat.

I used to own… oh for Pete’s Sake, I can’t remember the name of it either… a tiny little rototiller. I think it was advertised years ago on — I hate to admit this — infomercials. I remember now! (and I didn’t even have to Google it.) The Mantis! The Mantis could do it ALL! Edge paths, dethatch a lawn, till a garden. And more! Since my garden was to be made up of small raised beds, I thought the Mantis would be perfect. And since money was no object back then, I bought it. I did use it. I still have it in fact. [A note on the dethatching aspect: it worked great if you had 3 days to devote. At about 24″ wide, going backwards very slowly and raking up the dead grass when you were done, you pretty much have to drop out of society for a few days.] But messing with a finicky gas motor, which always gives me trouble, I spent more time checking the spark plug and cleaning the carburetor than I did tilling.

OK, so I never actually cleaned the carburetor.

Around the time of my disillusionment with the Mantis, I read that tilling the soil was actually bad for it. I had started to suspect as much after several years of gardening with the tiller. Why did it seem to me that farmers could rough plow a field, plunk the seeds in and get good results, while I would lovingly tend my small patch, tilling and raking the soil fine and my seeds couldn’t sprout through the crust? Why did I have crust? So frustrating!

Research, research, research…

Answer: Stop tilling the soil. For all kinds of reasons, which I truly do believe — go do your own research, this post is already ridiculously long — tilling the soil is counterproductive.

Instead, simply loosen hard-packed soil with a garden fork. Or, in my case, a broadfork. The reason being that a tiller pulverizes the soil so fine that if there is any clay content, it forms an impenetrable crust after it gets wet. By just loosening the soil, you leave the soil structure intact, don’t kill the worms, don’t disrupt the fungal hyphae…

Yes. Fungal hyphae. I have no idea what that is. But I gather that you don’t want to disrupt it… Basically, forking with a broadfork goes deeper than a regular garden fork, is faster and it’s fun. It leaves the soil relatively smooth for planting, but not pulverized.

I felt like a champ about my process. Until today…

Apparently there is a new game in town, its brethren lurking in the dark corners of the forums, its banner reading “Soil Food Web.” These beasties claim that you shouldn’t even loosen the soil with a fork. In fact, you shouldn’t disturb the soil at all. Instead, you simply layer organic matter on top, year after year, and leave it at that.

I love the idea, for I am a Lazy Gardener. But seriously? Have these people never encountered real clay? I don’t know. I’m no expert, but it sounds like craziness to me. Sure, I can see it working on my established beds. Every year they get better and better. Compared to what the soil was like when I started, it’s nothing short of miraculous. But if I had started that way? I’m not so sure. These forum junkies are spreading their cause though, and I will pay attention and see where it goes. I would suggest to them that they practice their “what I learned in Kindergarten” rules and play a little nicer though.

I can’t even remember what I was writing about…

Oh who cares. I like my broadfork. I don’t believe in tilling and you’re an idiot if you don’t agree with me. How’s that for a nice, tidy ending?


  1. Steve Southard says

    I used to “double dig” my raised beds every year and finally came to the same conclusion as you. If you’re not trampling on the soil, you just need to fork and rake in your compost. In a healthy soil, the worms have done most of the work below the surface. My wife would LOVE this broadfork. Tempted to give it as a birthday present but hmm, something tells me she wouldn’t like it THAT much! See, I AM trainable. Might by it for myself though and let her use it.

  2. says

    tooooo funny, Steve. You may be right. My first birthday after getting married, Dave bought me a vacuum cleaner he saw me interested in. It was not a hit. But for me, garden tools are. My friends think I’m nuts. Your wife might too. :)

  3. Steve Southard says

    LOL! Yep that sounds about right. I think that falls right in with the wife buying the husband a shirt or a sweater. Our first Christmas as a married couple, i bought her a really cool solid oak file cabinet. Wrong wrong wrong. Slowly over 26 years I’ve gotten her dialed in and last year bought her a Garmin GPS because she’s always getting lost driving to dog shows. It was a “calculated risk” but it paid off – score! Who knew? My mom once bought me a waffle maker for a birthday when I was young and single living on my own. Everyone thought she was nuts but she told them, “Just wait, you’ll see” She was right of course, I was nuts over it.

  4. says

    It would be safe to say that gift-giving is–indeed–an art! And the waffle maker? I’m not kidding: my husband had one when we met, given to him by his mother and we still have it. Could I be married to you and not know it? Do you like Pina Coladas? Or getting caught in the rain?

  5. Steve Southard says

    Ha! I have a great recipe for Pina Coladas but seldom make it because I’m a margarita addict. Scary to say but yes, I do love the rain. Hey, I’m from California, we don’t get that much of it in San Jose. It does crack me up to see folks running for their car when they walk out of the store and it’s raining as it it’s going to melt them somehow. I actually like the feel of rain falling on my head… to a point. :> I think I actually would like to live in a 4 season climate but have never been tested on that. LOL! Speaking of gardens, I’ve not planted one the last couple of years because we keep contemplating moving. I think I’ll plant one anyway this season because it will look nice for prospective buyers and I horribly miss the fresh veggies. I used to have three raised beds but gave up one of them and my large compost bin to make room for a storage shed for my wife’s “stuff” The idea being the garage would no longer be cluttered. Didn’t work – the shed is packed and the garage is still cluttered and I don’t think she really comprehends the sacrifice. :> I mourn the loss of that compost. :<

  6. Mike Stephan says

    Are you serious about not tilling? I have to get Karen’s garden prepped and I was thinking of getting a small tiller or an attachment for my garden tractor. If what you’re saying is true, I can give Karen a Broadfork for Mother’s Day and pocket the difference.

    I also have an unrelated question. If I let Anne bring home one of the baby chicks from her 1st grade classroom, what do I do with it in 3 weeks when the novelty is gone?

  7. Diane Felicetta says

    Great tool! We have an really old garden fork that was my mom’s. Really strong and great for the smaller raised beds. Lee bought me a Mantis clone and the piece of crap was so noisy and the starter cord broke the first season, it was an anniversary present! I think it might end up at the end of the driveway with a “free” sign on it soon.

    Happy Gardening!

    when you are done with meatless mondays, I have a new recipe from Martha Stewart’s program – braised chicken thighs with shallots and tomatoes. MMMM

  8. says

    I can still eat meat, diane! send me the recipe! (I remember you getting the little mantis-type tiller. Their such a pain, eh?)

  9. says

    Ha. this wasn’t the most helpful page I’ve found on broadforks, but it was a push in the right direction and an entertaining read. I too am constantly amazed by the mean people that post on forums.

    I read a thread the other day where one of those “assholes” was harping on some poor lady for suggesting that vegetable was a ambiguous term. I believe his statement was “just because you don’t know the definition doesn’t mean it is ambiguous.” But, as someone else pointed out, vegetable is ambiguous, to the degree that the supreme court has been forced to weigh in on the issue.

    In the end it turns out the definition isn’t really ambiguous, just so unbelievably broad that it isn’t actually very useful. Basically vegetable simply means any edible part of a plant. Therefore, all seeds, nuts, fruits and what we commonly think of as vegetables are vegetables. Even mushrooms, which are in the Plant kingdom are vegetables, as a maple syrup maker I realized that since syrup is just boiled down tree sap, it too is a vegetable. I also keep bees and am still trying to decide if honey (derived from nectar) is a vegetable too? Supreme court and bees aside, it was fun to see the big jerk get his hand smacked.

    Thanks again for your energetic encouragement to push me in the direction of getting a quiet broadfork rather than a noisy tiller.



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