It’s a little chilly these mornings as I zip my jacket, pull the wool hat down over my ears against the breeze, and set off on my morning walks up the road. Spring has finally decided it means business, and by the time I get home to start the day’s outdoor chores the sun has warmed the air enough that I can shuck the winter jacket, don a lighter one, and get to work. On the rare days when the wind drops to just an occasional light puff, it’s suddenly, magically, ecstatically tee shirt weather. It’s late April, and, man, oh man am I ready to get on with the rites of the season!
There is so much to do that I have to triage tasks.
- This is immediately crucial.
- This has to be done next.
- This can wait another few weeks as long as I get it done by the first week of June or so.
- This should be done this year but will have to wait, and I may not get to it at all.
Charles Dudley Walker wrote in 1870 that “What a man [sic] needs in gardening is a cast iron back with a hinge in it.” Well, I’m finding my hinge is getting stiffer the older I grow, so chores that were originally in the ‘get it done by early summer’ group have been slipping down to the ‘look at it in October and think, Crap, missed that one again’ group with distressing regularity. Still, I remind myself that you can only do what you can do. And then a little more.
So priority #1 is to get the food garden going. (Well, truthfully, priority #1 is getting the snow shovels and snowblower shifted around in the garage so I can get to the garden tools.) I retrieve my trusty garden tote with its gloves and hand tools stuffed in every pocket, take the broadfork down from the tool rack, and head out to plant peas.
I used to turn over the garden with a spading fork, which involved a few days of pretty hard labor, some blisters, and an awfully sore back. Push the fork eight inches into the soil, lift the chunk of soil, turn it over, move backward a step and repeat until the 3′ x 16′ bed is done. Repeat on beds two through seven. Take ibuprofen.
I did try a tiller once, one of those mini-tillers that’s supposed to be light, maneuverable, easy to use in confined spaces like raised beds, and whatever other advertising blandishments the manufacturer can think of to entice gardeners into buying the product. When it arrived, I looked at the tines–very sharp but only the size of the throwing stars you see in martial arts movies–and got my first inkling that anything so small wasn’t going to till very deeply. I was right about that. I had to grind the tiller in place to let it eat down a few inches into the soil. Even then, a week later when I plunged in a trowel to begin planting my tomato seedlings, I found that only the top four inches of the soil had been loosened. Worse, those furiously whirling tines had pulverized my soil, shredding the organic matter into such small bits that the soil structure was destroyed and the water-holding capacity was severely impacted. Also, a whole generation of earthworms got chewed up, and though that sounds like a small thing, it isn’t. Worms create the passageways that allow air, water, and nutrients to mix through the layers of healthy soil, and their casting are rich fertilizer and soil conditioner. I don’t want to kill them if I can help it.
Since then, I’ve discovered the broadfork, a fine old tool that lets me work my soil in a way consistent with the needs both of my back and my ecological conscience. The primary difference between a spading fork or a mechanical tiller and a broadfork is that with the broadfork, you are not turning the soil, only loosening it. That’s a crucial distinction. Picture what happens in an undisturbed forest clearing as the vegetation passes through Nature’s composting cycle. Leaves fall. Microbes and earthworms gradually break down those leaves, extracting nutrients and ‘digesting’ the organic matter. The next year, the same thing happens until over the years the soil is built up in layers that have differences in texture and nutrients. Contrast that with garden soil. What’s the first thing many of us do in the spring? Turn the soil, mixing layers that are trying to form, destroying the passageways of earthworms, and probably not adding enough organic matter to make up for the deficit of last season’s harvest, none of which goes back to the soil in a typical back yard garden unless you compost religiously, and even then you probably don’t make enough to give the soil back what it’s lost.
With a broadfork, I’m aerating and fluffing the soil so the roots of my seedlings can penetrate more easily, but I’m not turning my soil bottoms-up. With the fork, it’s insert the tines, rock backward so they rise through the soil, step back and repeat. It’s wonderfully easy on the back because you’re not lifting that whole chunk up off the ground and turning it, and it feels good to know that I am using no fossil fuels for this task.
I give the planting bed a final pass with a rake to break up the bigger clods and smooth the surface, and by that time the sun is strong on my back and the robins have formed an interested and noisy spectator section in the cherry tree branches overhead. As I begin sowing peas in the warming soil I offer a small, wordless benediction on this strong seed, this healthy soil, this new year in my garden.