Saturday, November 14, 2020

Tilling & Broadforking - Break that Dirt Up!

“The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.” – Lao Tzu

Freshly Tilled Ground
Freshly tilled and broadforked yard!

To till or not to till?  That is the question.

Some like to till, some like to broadfork, some like to do both, and some like to do none of the above.  I'm going to take a wild guess and say that you likely don't have the slightest idea what that means.  That is perfectly okay and expected, don't even worry about it!  These are just ways of breaking up the ground so the dirt isn't so compact which gives the future plants room to grow.  For now we're going to stay away from the debate of to disturb the ground or not to disturb the ground (it really is the question though).  If you are just starting out and converting a lawn (or very compact ground) into vegetables then tilling is inevitable.  There really aren't any ifs ands or buts about it, regardless of the debates around it.  Tilling is going to take the existing grass, turn it back into the soil, while also mixing up and aerating the dirt.  Then when you go over the same area with the broadfork, you are breaking up this soil even further giving roots of plants more room to grow.  Say you're going to move into a house but when you open the front door the house is jam packed with useless stuff and you can't move in.  Going nuts, clearing and cleaning that house is the same thing as tilling and broadforking.  Once you're done there's room to move-in and be comfortable.  It's out with the old and in with the new.  Tilling and broadforking is basically the first step in restarting and rejuvenating your yard, you're pressing the reset button and starting from scratch.  Once you have your vegetable garden established though do you really need to keep tilling and broadforking the soil?  THAT is exactly where the debate generally starts up and can turn into quite a heated conversation, depending on who you're talking to.

Important Note:  Any tools such as the ones listed below aren't necessarily necessary but they do make your life a lot easier.  It also isn't necessary for every single person on the planet to buy these tools.  If you have neighbors or a group in your community that are all looking to do this then perhaps they can be bought as a group to bring costs down.  For tools such as these that are used maybe twice a year, it does seem silly to buy them by yourself when you can split the cost among several people and everybody gets to use the tools when they need them.  You may also be able to find a steal of a deal on Craigslist or other similar sites, I didn't have any luck with that but that doesn't mean you won't!

A tiller is a cool machine with spinning blades that breaks and and mixes the ground you drive it over.  You can run this over your existing yard which will take anything that's on-top of the ground and mix it in with the ground itself.  This breaks up and aerates the ground.  Unless you live in an area that already has loose soil, this is a fairly necessary step starting out.  In the area where I live there wasn't any way around it as the ground was as hard (if not harder) than cement.  I broke three trowels on my first year of the urban farm due to the hardness of the ground.  You can buy a fairly inexpensive Sun Joe Electric Tiller* for this purpose.  With an electric tiller you don't have to worry about gas or mechanical issues, it just works whenever you need it.  This can then be shared among your neighbors and community, buying it as a group would be the way to go.  Especially since you really only need it for the first year or two, then you'll likely transition to a no-till urban farm.

Starting out you'll likely want to till in both the fall and spring but you really just have to play it by ear to see how your urban farm progresses and do a judgement call on what you think is best for your garden.

Electric Tiller
This is my electric tiller...

After tilling you'll likely notice that the ground has been broken up fairly well but beneath that newly broken up ground, there's a layer of ground that is still very hard and compact, this is called "hardpan."  This forms where the blades of the tiller stop, everything within the blades reach is nice and mixed up but beneath the blades the dirt is still hard as cement.  This is where broadforking comes into play.  This was a suggestion made to me a few years in by my friend, Sean, who owns Micro Farms Colorado (and he is a vegetable farming genius).  A broadfork is basically a really big pitchfork with very sharp tines, that you stand on-top of, causing the broadfork to sink into the ground then you whip the broadfork back which raises all the dirt up, annihilating any hard pan and loosening the soil for the length of the tines!  This is by far my favorite urban farm activity to do, it's a really good work out yet a meditative exercise and you just get into this oddly satisfying, repetitive motion.  Putting on a good audio book or podcast and getting some broadforking done is one of the best things ever!  The broadfork that I have is all metal (I didn't want it breaking) and it should last a lifetime, there are a lot of different makers of broadforks out there though so peruse the internet to find the one that suites you best if you're going to use one!

Loosening the dirt up is essential for giving your plants room to grow.  If the ground is hard as a rock then the roots of the plants just aren't going to be able to grow into the ground and the growth of the plant as a whole is going to be stunted.  If the soil is nice and loose then the roots can easily move around, spread out and gather water / nutrients more easily which means the top part of the plant that you see and want will be nice, healthy, and big.  Healthy soil will already be fairly loose by it's very nature.  Healthy soil is diverse and jam-packed with microbes, fungi, organic matter, worms, critters, etc.  which means that soil is constantly evolving and constantly changing and will already be fairly loose.

Depending on how hard your ground actually is, you may end up needing to broadfork first, till, broadfork again, till again, broadfork again...  You really just have to play it by ear and see how the ground is once you start working on it.  The electric tiller suggested is far from a heavy duty tiller and you may be able to save yourself some time and work by renting a higher powered tiller from a home improvement or garden store, but that's likely highly unnecessary for the vast majority of people (but is always an option).

This is my broadfork...

What's the problem with Tilling and Broadforking?
We're not going to get into this too much right now (we'll do that at a later time) but it is important to mention so you can start thinking about it.  When you till and broadfork you are disturbing the soil and thus disturbing the homes of the microbes, worms, critters, fungi, etc. that live in that soil.  The thinking is that when you continuously disturb the soil you are continuously destroying the homes of these living creatures that are essential to healthy soil and you are thus not giving your ground a chance to build up into the healthy soil that it needs to be.  If someone came through your neighborhood each year and bulldozed every house in your neighborhood, then you and your neighbors would all have to re-build your homes and you'd be so busy re-building the homes every year that you would never have a chance to build your neighborhood into a fully functioning community.  Again, we're not getting into the thick of this argument right now, but that is just the argument against tilling, broadforking, and disturbing the soil in general and it is important to be aware of both sides of the coin.  I'm currently a fan of tilling initially to get everything going then transitioning to a no-till situation after a year or two or three.

Ready to get tilling and broadforking?!
You'll want to do this as soon as your ground is workable, generally early to late fall or very early spring or both (as soon as the ground thaws).  If you planted your garlic, don't till your garlic, that's why you marked the already planted garlic patch with flags, remember?!  In an ideal world you would till and broadfork before planting your garlic, but time was short at the time of writing this so we mixed those up.

Important:  Be sure to get your utilities marked before you do any digging, tilling, broadforking, etc.  You don't want to break a utility line!

*That is an affiliate link where if you make a purchase on that site after using that link I do receive a meager amount of money back from it.  It's a small attempt on my part to try and make a little bit of coin in exchange for providing you with a free resource for growing your own food!

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