This week on the TC3 Farm we were engaged in various activities including harvesting lettuce, seeding, cultivation, broadforking, rock picking, and the final work on the crop rotation plan. These tasks are all from different stages of the planting process, starting with getting the soil ready to plant which includes picking rocks out of the beds and broadforking.
For those not familiar, a broadfork is a wonderful tool for tilling and aerating garden beds by hand. It consists of 5 metal tines, 8-12” inches long, spaced a few inches apart on a horizontal bar, with two handles extending upwards to chest or shoulder level, forming a large U-shape, like a pitchfork on steroids. It is designed to use your body weight to insert and maneuver the tool instead of your back and arms. You stand on the tool, gently rocking and wiggling the tool to work the tines into the ground. Then pull back on the handles using your weight and the tool’s leverage. Your motion is a natural pulling and pushing, instead of bending and lifting. I found that you do need to use a fair amount of upper body strength to maneuver it properly, but my weight was a great benefit and certainly helped where I lacked in strength.
The benefits to broadforking are numerous. For one, as a hand tool, it requires no dependence on fossil fuels nor the noise, pollution and compaction that results from using power equipment. The long tines allow for deep loosening of the soil to improve aeration and drainage, both important for growing healthy plants. The rocking motion of the tool allows you to break up and loosen the subsoil with minimal turning, which leaves the topsoil on top where it belongs, and minimizes destruction of soil structure. This is important as the topsoil is the layer with the most organic matter and the available nutrients plants need to grow. And oddly enough, we found broadforking helpful in removing large rocks found below the surface of the soil, so we were rock picking at the same time!
Once plants are in the ground, reducing competition with weeds will better allow them to flourish. Cultivation using a scuffle hoe removes young weeds before they can get a stronghold, which is important so they are not consuming water, nutrients,space and sunlight you want to go to your crops. It can also be called a stirrup hoe or an oscillating hoe, but my favorite name was a wiggle weeder!
It looks just like the stirrup on a saddle and the lower, flat surface is sharpened on both forward and back edges and cuts by pulling along or just under the soil. Since the sides are not sharp, you can get right next to desirable plants without damaging them. The blade actually moves slightly, or oscillates, with the pushing or pulling motion to keep at the right angle for cutting and is angled correctly in relation to the long handle to keep you upright when weeding, so it is easier on your back. They come in a variety of sizes to accommodate the different spaces that need to be weeded, from a large one on the paths to small ones for between rows. It took me quite a while to get the hang of using it, especially because I was worried I did not have enough control and might take out some crops! It did get easier with use though and was infinitely easier than hand weeding. At this time though, the crops were still pretty small, so for the really close weeds we did do some hand weeding, but you can see the difference it makes.
These are two examples of the numerous hand tools available for small scale farmers and home gardeners. Both are designed for efficiency and in such a way to work with the body, not against it, minimizing the chance for injury. I am enjoying learning about all the different aspects of sustainable farming on this most excellent school farm and being part of the Farm to Bistro program.