To dig or not to dig?

Contributed photoMade in Wisconsin, the Treadlite Broadfork comes in five models suitable for ground breaking, loose tilling and fine tilling.

A gardening friend mentioned the other day that the spring weather was awakening his urge to go dig up the vegetable garden — but his environmentalist wife was telling him not to, to instead try a “no-till” style of gardening.

I sympathize with both of them. There is something so pleasant about preparing a garden be the old-fashioned way, turning the rich brown soil and raking it smooth. This pleasure comes at a cost, however. Digging the soil does lead, in the short term, to an increase in fertility. That’s because the air you mix in with your fork or spade reacts with the organic element in the soil, causing it to decompose and release plant nutrients. This is a very temporary benefit, however, unless you add more organic matter such as compost to the soil every time you dig. Otherwise, you soon end up with an organic-deficient soil, with all the problems it causes: compaction, nutrient deficiency, an inability to absorb or retain moisture, and a collapse of the soil food web, the living part of the soil.

I’ve also been told that turning the soil disrupts the mycorrhizal fungi that attach to plant roots. These fungi are important because they enhance the roots’ ability to absorb minerals and nutrients. That disrupting them should cause harm sounds plausible, though I’ve never noticed a problem with my vegetable plants nourishing themselves, even though in the past I’ve rototilled every spring.

I’ve written in this column about a system for growing vegetables and annual flowers without disturbing the soil. This involves constructing beds that are narrow enough that the gardener can tend them without ever stepping onto the soil in them. Practically, this means that a bed which is accessible from both sides should be no more than four feet across, so that you can reach all the way into its center while squatting outside of it. In addition, this type of no-till gardening also typically requires topping up the beds at least once a year, in late fall or early spring, with an inch or more of weed-free compost.

I don’t make the quantity of compost that would be required to treat my 800 square foot vegetable garden this way. Besides, I don’t want to set aside so much space for paths.

Rather than practice no-till, I’m thinking of adopting a compromise this year. Last year I purchased a broadfork, a sort of extra-wide garden fork. Measuring 27 inches across, this tool has 7 evenly spaced, 10.5-inch-long, stout steel tines and a sturdy wooden handle on either side. You step up onto the broadfork to punch its tines down into the soil. Then you rock the handles backward 45 degrees. Next, you lift the fork out of the ground, step backward six inches and step up again to re-insert. This process you repeat until you have worked your way all across the garden. After a sufficient number of such passes, you will have loosened all the soil down deep without turning it and disturbing the layers.

This tool was invented in France in the 1960s and was first brought to the United States by Eliot Coleman, a Maine organic gardening guru with a legendary farm. I’ve not tried it yet, but I find his endorsement persuasive. Its tines are longer than the blades on my rototiller, so I can condition the soil more deeply with the broadfork. What’s more, converting to a hand tool will be good for my fitness, too, as well as reducing my carbon footprint. What’s good for the garden is good for the gardener, too. As luck would have it, Ashley and Travis McDonough of Treadlite Broadforks in Wisconsin make a selection of five tough, lightweight broadforks and have generously offered to donate 10% of the purchase price to Berkshire Botanical Garden by using promo code “BERKSHIREGIVEBACK” — a great way to introduce a useful tool to your collection while supporting the Garden.

Be-a-Better-Gardener is a community service of Berkshire Botanical Garden, located in Stockbridge, Mass. Its mission, to provide knowledge of gardening and the environment through a diverse range of classes and programs, informs and inspires thousands of students and visitors each year.

Thomas Christopher is a volunteer at Berkshire Botanical Garden and is the author or co-author of more than a dozen books.

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