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Broadfork, a toothy soil turner that harms neither bug… nor back!

Broadfork, grelinette

A standout tool in permaculture, the broadfork is an eco-friendly tool, also known as a grelinette, bio-fork, aerator fork, or aerator. It allows for deep soil loosening without disrupting soil balance… and without straining your back!

This tool, equipped with two handles and 3 to 9 tines, was invented in 1963 by Mr. Grelin, a French seed merchant from Chambéry. It certainly has a cost for such a simple tool. Is in this amazing tool worth the cost?

What is a broadfork?

The broadfork is a gardening tool that replaces the spade, spade-fork, beaked spade, and even the rototiller. It is an eco-friendly fork, or a bio-fork, consisting of several elements:

  • What is a broadforkTwo wooden or metal handles.
  • Thin and cylindrical tines (or “teeth”), slightly curved, sometimes replaceable. Usually these tools have from 3 to 5 for the most common ones. More elaborate and professional models can have up to 9 tines. The tines measure between 8 and 12 inches in length (20 and 30 cm). Three-tine broadforks are ideal for small gardens and narrow plots. The 4-tooth broadfork is the most commonly used and is particularly suitable for those with less physical strength.
  • A power bar that makes footwork easier can sometimes supplement more elaborate broadforks.

The original model created by André Grelin and his son had 5 tines and was 16 inches wide (40 cm). A broadfork is a particularly ergonomic tool, to the point that it earned its inventor first prize at the Lépine Innovation competition in 1963.

Broadfork uses: definitely a versatile tool!

The broadfork replaces the spade or spade-fork effectively to aerate, work and loosen the soil.

However, these two tools are quite different. Whereas a spade, and to a lesser extent the spade-fork, turns the soil upside-down, a broadfork loosens soil but does not turn it.

As a result, using a broadfork does not disrupt or disturb the microorganisms present in the soil. Keeping these tiny critters alive is very useful for enriching soil through their work. Indeed, many microorganisms, bacteria, fungi, small fauna… inhabit soil. Some are anaerobic; others are aerobic and, with the spade, both types die as they no longer find themselves in their element. Not to mention earthworms and larger insects living in soil that contribute by breaking down organic materials.

With the broadfork, one can also:

  • Simply loosen up soil before sowing
  • Incorporate compost or manure into the soil
  • Harvest potatoes and other root vegetables
  • Weed and remove invasive plants like bindweed or quackgrass
  • Break up large clods

How does a broadfork work?

  • Place the broadfork upright in the soil, one hand on each handle, shoulder-level
  • Push the broadfork into the soil by stepping on the crossbar
  • Take a step back and pull the broadfork towards you using both handles with a slight right-left motion (or left-right, if you’re left-handed)
  • Move backward by 4 inches (10 cm), dragging the broadfork on the ground, and repeat the operation
  • Use a garden rake to level and finish breaking up the clods.

There is no need to bend over to use the broadfork. Your back should stay straight during the entire cycle, which eases work. Similarly, bending down by pulling the handles towards you is counterproductive. Again, the gardener should stand straight.

Depending on its intended use, the broadfork can be used in fall, before adding manure or covering the soil, or at the end of winter and at the start of spring to prepare soil before sowing and planting.

Note that it is recommended to rake surface mulch away before using the broadfork.

Broadfork for a vegetable garden

The broadfork is the perfect tool for light soil that has already been worked. However, for very heavy, clay or really waterlogged soils, it’s not the ideal tool.

This is particularly true in fall, when the soil is very heavy because of the rain. In fact, in heavy soil, in fall, it’s better to dig it out. Then, frost will break clods, and come spring, the broadfork can take over in a drained soil (2 or 3 days after rain). Likewise, if you want to create a vegetable garden in a wild field or in a lawn, the broadfork won’t be enough.

Broadfork advantages…

  • The broadfork provides undeniable work comfort, gestures are almost natural. No strain on the back or lumbar region whatsoever
  • Gardeners save a lot of time after they’ve splurged for a broadfork. This precious time they can use to do something else or rest
  • The broadfork is very effective against weeds with long roots that should not be broken, such as dandelion, quackgrass or bindweed.

Its price remains an obstacle: you expect at least 100$ (90 euros or pounds) for a good quality broadfork. This is clearly much higher a price than that of a spade. But the investment is long-term and above all, preserves your back while protecting soil inhabitants.

Images: 123RF: Yevhen Roshchyn, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0: John Rife; own work: Rosalyn & Gaspard Lorthiois
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