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Dealing with soil compaction

Soil compactionIf you don't want to destroy soil texture, burn up organic matter, and decimate your microorganism population by plowing or tilling the soil, what do you do to counteract compaction? Of course, your first step should be not to allow compaction to begin in the first place. I've trained everyone in our household (except Huckleberry) to only walk on our permanent aisles, staying out of the growing beds in our garden, and that goes a long way toward keeping soil compaction to a minimum. In addition, if you're not tilling, you're unlikely to be working the soil during wet weather --- another leading cause of compaction.

Still, who knows what happened to your ground before you moved in? Our core homestead was seriously overfarmed a few decades ago, and I can guess where permanent pastures once existed based on barbed wire that we're still digging out of the ground. Given the wetness of our homestead, I wouldn't be surprised if cows (the most likely animals to have been grazed here) seriously pugged winter soils, repeatedly treading the mud until all of those essential pores between soil particles collapsed.

Oilseed radishIf you suspect compaction, there are a variety of remedies available for the no-till gardener. Adding lots of organic matter never hurts and can greatly improve your soil structure when earthworms collect the compost or mulch and bring it deep into the soil, leaving handy channels for air and water in the worms' wake. Oilseed radishes and some other cover crops (such as alfalfa) are often planted for their tillage traits since the roots extend deep in the soil, then rot and create organic-matter-lined pathways much like the ones earthworms leave behind.

And then there's the broadfork. Given my penchant for winter digging, I've always eyed this tool speculatively, but the high price tag turned me off since I wasn't certain that my soil really needed the help. Still, leaving broadforks out of my upcoming soil book seemed like a major oversight, and when one of the bloggers I follow did all of the research for me and determined that Meadow Creature offers the best model in the U.S., I was sold. When I learned that Meadow Creature was willing to send me a review copy to try out, I was even more thrilled.

BroadforkThe big question then became --- which size broadfork should I choose? Meadow Creature offers three versions, each of which is a little bit bigger and heavier (and will also reach deeper into the soil) than the last. Margot Boyer at Meadow Creature wrote, "The 14" is our best seller; it weighs 20 pounds and provides deep cultivation in an ergonomic design. The 12" is also popular, especially with people who are 5'4" or under --- at 15 lbs it's easy for most folks to use and still digs deeper than any other forks we're aware of. I'm not suggesting the 16" size; it's a heftier tool and of interest mainly to professional farmers."

After talking it over with Mark, I finally settled on the smaller size. Yes, I consider myself to be pretty strong, but I'm also short and I know that the 17-pound t-post driver is right at the upper limit of my strength for repeated use. Plus, experience has proven that tools are much more likely to be used if they're easy to handle and fun.

Which is all a long way of saying that, once the snow melts and my new toy arrives, I'll be improving the structure of my garden beds with a broadfork this spring! I'll probably begin by hitting just half of most beds the first time around so I'll be able to report how much of a difference the broadfork action makes on this year's plant growth. Stay tuned for updates!



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A] You've maligned our bovine friends. Their cloved hooves actually help prevent/repair compaction. Water logged soil gets compacted by sedimentation on a small scale, filling in those worm holes & small air spaces.

2] Don't compare the use of your 17lb t-post hammer, which you have to lift over your head and slam down awkwardly, with the slightly heavier pitch fork tool. It's doesn't have to be lifted high and is operated using leverage and you own body weight. Go for the big one!

Comment by doc Fri Feb 27 17:06:20 2015
Thanks for the mention. I'm glad that the information about the broad fork in my blog was helpful. I hope that you have equally positive results.
Comment by Jonathan Sat Feb 28 17:42:54 2015