Even though we have a sizable garden (about 1/1oth of an acre), we prefer preparing our ground for planting by hand. It’s a lot quieter, for sure, but even better is the resulting soil texture. In the spring, there is not much vegetation in the way that needs to be incorporated. Most of the time we just need to loosen or fluff the soil a bit to get a little air into our clayey silt loam. Roto-tilling looks great initially but doesn’t improve the soil’s ecology in the long run. It breaks the soil up powdery-fine when dry, leading to surface compaction when it rains. Or it makes it clumpy if tilling is done when the soil is still too wet. It also changes the soil profile by mixing deeper layers of anaerobic microbes with the surface organisms. And getting out the heavy iron leads to a hectic mindset. There is extreme temptation to work up the whole garden at once, rather than bit by bit, leaving the exposed but unplanted areas baking in the sun. A spade or a garden fork do a fine job of just relieving the soil compaction caused by the weight of winter snows, and have served us well for decades. But we’ve been looking at ways to improve our efficiency at getting soil prep accomplished without breaking our backs, our wallet, or our peace and quiet.
We’ve looked at broadforks or U-bar diggers off and on over the years but their price was beyond our budget. So this winter we decided to build our own version. We already have a post-hole digger that hardly ever gets used. It has nice, padded fiberglass handles that were the right length for a broadfork (4′) and 1.25″ thick. We just needed to fabricate the tool bar to attach the handles and some tines. We decided to use 1.25″ galvanized pipe (actual inside diameter was 1.38″). A piece of pipe 18″ long with two elbows and two 6″ long pieces formed the basic tool bar. The elbows were screwed on with a vise and pipe wrench. The right elbow was drilled and a quarter-inch bolt drilled through it to keep it from coming unscrewed (“lefty-loosey”, after all). The handles and their curved washer shims fit nicely into the 6″ pipe stubs, which were drilled to match up with the bolt holes already on the handles. If necessary, the handles can be unbolted from their new tool and bolted back onto the post hole digger, and back again as needed.
The pipe was drilled with 1/2″ holes, 3.875″ on center, with 20 degrees of pitch from the plane of the handles, so that when the tines are stepped down vertically the handles are forward of the digger’s body at arm’s length. Now we just had to come up with tines. We decided to use grade #5 hardened, threaded steel rod that was 1/2″ in diameter. A six foot piece yielded three tines that were each 13.75″ long, then we cut the remainder in half. The extra length of the longer tines were used at each side to fasten a piece of 2-by-3-inch scrap lumber over the nuts and rod ends that would protrude through the pipe, providing a comfortable place to step/stand on the tool bar. The bottom of the board has 7/8″ holes countersunk into it to accommodate the nuts.
One final step involved using a bench-grinder to sharpen the tips of the tines to a point, which was done before final assembly. We had considered also grinding off the screw threads along the tines, thinking that the tines would be harder to step down into our tight soil with the added resistance. But testing in our greenhouse indicates they may work fine as-is. We still have lots of snow on the ground so this won’t be seeing much action right now. Hopefully this new tool will help us get caught up with the late start this spring is offering and the peas will get planted as soon as the snow melts!