Inventing the Broadfork

Author: Barbara Bamberger Scott

Woman using the adjustable broadfork

Have you ever wondered who invented simple tools, like the rake, the hoe, or the spade? The rake could have been a big sturdy branch with lots of little branches. The hoe could have been a crooked branch, or a strong stick with a rock tied on it.

But we don’t need to wonder where the amazing broadfork came from. We can just be happy that we have this remarkable tool here and now.

We know that a twentieth century Frenchman named Andre Grelinin invented the broadfork in the 1950s. Andre was born in 1906 and by age 22, he had established his own gardening enterprise, probably including orchards and forestry, in the Alps region. We can guess that Andre practiced the "French intensive" gardening techniques, also sometimes called double digging.

The "double digging" gardening method requires that you dig down deep and open up the soil without displacing or disrupting its natural layers. Double digging requires a fork that is stuck down into the lower layer of soil and rocked gently, just enough to make little openings through it. These openings let air and light and minerals come in and that helps the soil stay healthy. Healthy soil produces healthy foods that us humans want to eat - pure, natural, plentiful and always available.

The first broadfork was called a Grelinette

Grelinette is French for broadfork

I can imagine Andre looking at his garden plot, then at the width of his growing beds, and then at his regular old-fashioned small garden fork, and thinking... "Maybe there’s a more efficient way to open more of those all-important holes." What he came up with, and patented, won a national prize. It was a new, very useful implement, named the "grelinette" after Andre and his son Olivier, who helped in the design and manufacture of this innovative gardening tool.

A typical grelinette is about twice the width of a regular garden fork, with two long handles, and with five large or more tines in a row on a metal bar between them. The bar is big and sturdy enough for a gardener to stand on, to press on, even to rock back and forth on, to open up those important earth holes. Having two long handles is almost like having an extra person working with you.

This tool is perfect for experienced gardeners who love its solid, balanced power and flexible rocking movement. And it also makes it possible for gardeners who weigh less, or who are less experienced at using a regular fork, to jump in there and get the job done. The charming cartoon ad from 1987, created by Olivier, invites French gardeners to "Free yourself from the backbreaking work of digging!" It promises "so much more energy without exhaustion" and shows a cheerful female performing what it calls "the rational technique of manual labor" with her grelinette while a sweating male neighbor leans on a spade and looks on in envy.

The broadfork comes to America

Broad fork aerating a long garden bed

It's important to note that the grelinette was well known and in use when American Eliot Coleman, an aspiring and very determined young gardener, found out about it. Eliot made trips to Europe to explore and share gardening methods and success stories with folks in France and elsewhere, and he brought back news of Andre's invention – only he renamed it for Americans: the broadfork.

Helen and Scott Nearing, who were guiding lights to the new generation of "back-to-the-landers", inspired Eliot early on in his quest for ideal gardening methods. He bought land in Maine from the Nearings and studied and followed their advanced gardening and self-sufficiency strategies.

Coleman soon gained recognition for his books for homesteading and market gardeners: The New Organic Grower, and The Four Season Harvest. He was the Executive Director of the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements  (IFOAM), and an advisor to the US Department of Agriculture. He helped greatly in spreading the word about the importance of organic foods and how to grow them all year round.

Eliot advised using the broadfork for opening new plots for food production, instead of working with mechanized tillers that violently disrupt the soil and mix its layers in an unnatural way.

Evolution of the Broadfork

The broadfork gradually changed from its original shape as different people experimented with it. Tines became blades in some cases, and one version had only a single handle. Some had more than 5 tines while some had fewer. Some had a crossbar across the top.

Unbreakable broadfork made by Meadow Creature

The best version, it seems to me, is a double-handled fork with long, slightly curved tines capable of loosening tougher soil. The Meadow Creature broadfork, with four blades, is sold in two heights to accommodate taller and shorter operators. That seems very sensible to me.

Using the broadfork is an art that comes with practice, and the practice is worth the effort.

First, hold the fork vertical, with handles straight up, over the area you want to till/open.

Press it deeply into the soil with hand and arm pressure.

Then, with one hand on each handle, stand on the bar to weight the tines and push them even farther down. The tines, with a slight backward slant, will make the rocking motion easier to perform.

Begin gently rocking the broadfork forward and back to open the holes as much as possible. This allows the healthy elements to enter and do their natural work to prepare the area for planting.

As with other forms of tillage and soil care that are designed to do as little damage as possible to Mother Earth, broadfork work may need to be repeated every couple years, as the soil will gradually again become packed and dense over time.

The broadfork provides a down-to-earth means to save time and energize the precious soil at the same time. Highly recommended!

Click here for other broadfork articles.

Also see:   "Why Soil Aeration is Important"   and also   "Which Type of Broadfork Handles are Best".