Till Like It’s 1899!


    For years I rented rototillers or—more expensively—owned gas tillers of my own.

    There’s nothing like tearing up a big patch of ground until your hands are so numb and tingly you can barely hoist a glass to celebrate your gardening rampage.

    Many of us feel like we should cut back on our gas usage. Others don’t like tillers because they really don’t loosen soil that deeply. Still others just don’t want to shell out the big bucks on a machine that’s likely to get a buried brick stuck in the tines just before sunset when you’re half-way through the spring garden you really, really, really want to plant the next morning.

    The more paranoid among us (author raises hand) figure we should go low-tech now before civilization is wiped out by an EMP, prime-time TV, an asteroid or all of the above.

    Yet it took me a while to really get a solid tool set that allowed me to park the tiller for good. Sure, I borrowed John Jeavon’s “double-digging” method of creating deep, laboriously loosened beds with a spade and fork … but what if you don’t have serious time to put in a garden and you just want to chop some earth and pop in tomatoes?

    When I discovered grub hoes and broadforks, I found my answer. With a broadfork you can crack the ground deeply without shoveling. With a grub hoe, you use the swing of your arms to pulverize weeds and clods. Between the two, I’m now off-grid tilling like a peasant. A well-fed peasant, in fact. I’ve pried out rocks (though the manufacturer does not recommend this practice) and cut through grass with my Meadow Creature broadfork for multiple years now… and my triangular-headed hoe takes a knife edge and is perfect for hacking the ground. Some enterprising welders have built their own broadforks as well – I’ve seen some quite medieval looking contraptions that will take on seriously tough soil. As for hoes, you can get tough vintage digging hoe heads at antique stores, farm sales and on ebay. One of my hoes is probably 70 years old. Can you imagine a tiller lasting that long?

    Old-school tools take a bit more work and time than a roaring, carbon monoxide-belching tiller, but they also keep you fit while doing a better job removing weeds and loosening deeply.

    When that asteroid lands in my garden, I hope it appreciates the fluffy soil.

    David The Good is the author of Compost Everything: The Good Guide to Extreme Composting and the creator of the daily gardening site TheSurvivalGardener.com. His hobbies include memorizing Latin names and confusing Master Gardeners. Check out his popular YouTube channel here.


    1. I could not live without an old pitchfork (which I think is actually for hay). I’m not even sure how it ended up in my tool collection but it works wonders for loosening up weedy soil without completely destroying the soil structure in the process. Wouldn’t work on thick sod invested with bermudagrass though. Have to first kill it with a cardboard/mulch mixture. Then get out the fork. Not the easiest job but makes use of all kinds of mysterious muscles. I’ve never used a broadfork but it sounds amazing.

    2. I would challenge anyone to use a broadfork to till deeper than 3 inches in my soil. It’s not that it can’t lift rocks, it’s that you couldn’t get it deep enough to get under them. A pickaxe would be more like it.

      • I have some areas here that are just like that, Professorroush.

        In those cases, I’ve sometimes just hacked the ground with a heavy grub hoe, done sheet composting, or made small pits/stations to plant in.


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