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With Scythe and Cart and Broadfork:
A Meditation on Tool Use

The following is the original version of my article “Best Low-Tech Tools”, published in the February/March 2008 issue of Mother Earth News, and subsequently in the Mar/Apr 2009 issue of Grit as well.

This article was posted to the site November 15, 2008.

As a tool-making species, we shape tools to change our environment, and increase access to food. But it is good to remember that our tools shape us as well—our assumptions and ways of doing things and our history. For example, the use of the hoe and the sickle—and later the plow and the scythe—resulted not only in a more abundant food supply, but in the growth of cities, and to the increasing dominance of urban culture.

Let’s think about best choice of tools for home food production. Is the homestead a miniaturized analog of our giant industrial farms, or are simpler tool choices more appropriate?

Are powered machines always better?

Most of us have grown up deeply conditioned to believe that powered machines are: faster, more efficient, and do the job better than the simpler human-powered tools our grandparents used. As for “efficiency,” we usually forget that the human-powered tool is vastly more efficient (requires less energy) than one powered by fossil fuels. Further, the “embodied energy”—the energy required to smelt metal and shape it into a machine or tool—is vastly greater for a complex power tool than, for example, a scythe with a single metal blade and a wooden handle. As the global supply of cheap, abundant fossil energies shrinks, and we enter a changed energy future, we might do better to school ourselves in the use of tools requiring less lavish expenditure of energy at every point in their manufacture and use. Further, every experienced gardener knows that it is far more efficient to prepare, plant, and weed soil that is deep, mellow, and retains its moisture. The tools that help us nurture soil to such condition must be considered in the long run the most efficient.

As for “better,” whatever our brains tell us about the superiority of powered machines, our bodies tell a different story—such machines are typically noisy, jarring, and stinky, and add a significant level of stress that must be factored in when we choose our tools. Using a well designed, human-powered tool like the scythe is graceful and pleasant, making all-round use of the body, inviting it into a rhythmic dance, and the mind into a meditative garden trance.

The difference in initial cost between hand tools and machines is of course enormous. Maintenance, another major consideration, is certainly less complex and time-consuming in the case of hand tools, and far more likely to be managed by the homesteader herself, not requiring paid, expert assistance from outside the homestead.

A thought experiment

To weigh the choice of powered versus low-tech tools, I offer a thought experiment: We want to convert a piece of established pasture sod to garden soil that is more fertile, productive, and easily worked with each passing season. What tools might we choose for the task, and what impact will the tools themselves have on how readily and effectively we reach our goal? I propose that we could best accomplish this task using three simple and supremely low-tech tools: a scythe, a garden cart, and a broadfork.

Every experienced gardener knows how difficult it is to attack a tough, established sod over compacted soil. The more power we can recruit for the job, the better, right? Not necessarily. We must cede that the initial killing and turning in of the established sod is accomplished faster with the power tiller—in an afternoon, as opposed to a whole season with the alternative discussed below—but there are important caveats for soil nurture if we choose machine tillage. Someone said that patience is a virtue, and it certainly is so when it comes to nurturing ideally productive garden soil.

Choosing a particular tool can shut off creative thought about alternatives. As the saying goes: If your only tool is a hammer, every task looks like a nail. The power tiller would apply powerful machine energy to the tough, resilient sod, to be sure. But that choice is likely to blind us to elegant alternatives. Indeed, it blinds us to the most crucially important question: Why till at all? Are there good reasons to avoid pulverizing and mixing soil layers?

The most important thing to understand as we begin our soil conversion project is this: Soil is not an inert substance, it is a complex, dynamic living community of organisms that compete and cooperate, and in the process alter soil conditions in profound ways. Nothing is so important to building good soil than nurturing the diversity and population densities of soil organisms. We do that best by feeding the soil (organic matter), and making it looser, more friable.

Using lowtech tools in natural systems

I’m going to assume for our thought experiment that we can leave some of our ground in pasture sod, and reserve it for growing mulches. (We can even include mulch-growing cover crops into our rotation among garden beds, reaping mulch materials aboveground while improving the soil deep into the root zone. Some gardeners tight on space even grow mulch-producing crops right in the pathways between beds.) With a well-whetted scythe, we cut grasses and other plants from this part of the sward, and use them to lay down a “kill mulch” heavy enough to smother the established sod in our new garden plot. To make the mulch even more effective, we can lay down an initial layer of newspaper or cardboard, entering these potential sources of carbon-rich organic materials into the recycle stream right on the homestead. Of course, carrying large quantities of mulching materials by hand to their point of application would exhaust us and waste our time. A well designed garden cart is essential equipment for this task. It is lightweight and easily moved, but has the capacity for big loads of kill mulch for our project. With bicycle wheels and a big U-shaped handle, it is easy to maneuver and dump. With proper care, it will last forever. A machine-powered alternative—a dump trailer attached to a lawn tractor, for example—is a case of massive overkill for the average homestead.

The soil organisms under our kill mulch thrive in the enhanced moisture and moderated temperature, and feast on the organic materials in the mulch, converting them to fertility (food energy for other soil organisms and plant roots), and ultimately to humus, which changes the condition and properties of the soil in profoundly beneficial ways.

While it is true that the tiller can “feed the soil” as well by turning in the established sod (and later, cover crops on our new ground), each round of power tillage disrupts the established soil communities and their complex energy-exchange pathways—they must “start over” after each round of tillage. The soil community under our mulch experiences no such disruption, and continues to proliferate and thrive. Earthworms feed on the bacteria breaking down the mulch, and burrow deep into the soil, loosening it and enhancing penetration by oxygen and rainwater. Roots of dead plants decay (are consumed by microbes) in place, opening up further “breathing spaces” in the soil.

Benefits of the broadfork

Actually, we can speed the desired changes in our soil by loosening it using shaped steel—so long as we do not mix or invert the natural layers of the soil profile, pulverize the increasing “crumb structure” in the soil created by our soil organism friends, or disrupt their busy lives. Enter the broadfork, a simple but effective tillage tool: 12- to 14-inch pointed tines, welded to a stout bar, to which is attached a pair of wooden or steel handles for leverage. The gardener kicks down or stands on the bar to push the tines full-length into the garden bed, pulls back on the handles to rock the tines in place and loosen the soil to their full length, and moves the broadfork over a few inches to repeat the process.

Please note that the broadfork is not appropriate to the initial breaking up of compacted ground. Once our hard-working friends under the mulch have made some headway at “mellowing” the soil, however, we can start to use the broadfork to break it up further, allowing easier penetration by earthworm or root. It’s better to be satisfied initially with a penetration by the tines of only a few inches, rather than exhausting ourselves by heroically forcing them into the still-compacted depths of the soil. As the soil in our no-till beds becomes more friable each year, it is possible to do whatever tillage is needed with ever greater ease. Eliot Coleman (author of The New Organic Grower, and an experienced market gardener) says: “I have used it [the broadfork] outdoors on areas up to one acre without feeling too much strain.” My own garden is fairly ambitious, at about 6000 square feet, and I have never regretted giving away the only power tiller I ever owned a number of years ago. The truth is that, as the soil improves through our soil-feeding and no-till practices, it is less and less necessary to till even with the broadfork—it is increasingly possible simply to rake out the beds and plant.

Benefits of the scythe

Let’s focus for a moment on our work with the scythe, not only to provide initial and future mulches, but as a tool for managing a pasture sward. It is the nature of grassland in temperate zones to follow a natural succession whose end point is forest—the grasses and legumes in the mix are replaced by aggressive forbs and brambles, those by shrubs, those eventually by trees. This succession is stopped by grazing animals. The grasses and clovers have co-evolved with the grazers, and are actually benefited by periodic grazing, whereas other plants in the mix are hindered by grazing.

The soil under a grazed sward actually becomes deeper and more fertile over time: In response to losing top mass to the grazers, grasses and legumes shed root hairs in order to re-establish balance (and, in the case of legumes like clover and alfalfa, the nitrate nodules fixed by bacteria on their roots as well). Repeated cycles of growth and grazing/root shedding result over time in addition of more humus to the soil.

When we mow, we take on the role of such grazing animals. And from the standpoint of stopping succession and boosting humus accumulation, it does not matter whether we choose a power mower or a scythe. In either case, mowing prevents the aggressive production of seeds by broad-leaved annuals, and encourages the sward to remain in perennial grasses and legumes instead. And in either case, roots are being shed in great numbers to compensate for our removal of top growth.

The great advantage of mowing with the scythe will be obvious to anyone who has tried to use a thick layer of clippings from a power mower as mulch: The clippings layer packs down into a putrid, anaerobic mess resisting penetration by rainwater and air, outgassing ammonia to the atmosphere, and fostering the growth of pathogens rather than decomposers in the mulch. The resulting slick, rotting layer can be a hazard to walk on. By contrast, our mulch of long-stem grasses cut with the scythe remains loose and springy, allowing penetration by rain and oxygen, and doing its job of sod smothering, moisture retention, and soil feeding for a long time. It is a pleasure to walk on (when used as a mulch in the pathways as well).

Tortoise and hare

Cutting abundant mulches with the scythe allows us to follow the initial kill mulches over our new garden ground with continual mulches in subsequent seasons, permitting soil care to be largely no-till, and—together with strategies such as frequent cover cropping—getting our soil into deep, friable, fertile condition sooner than we could with a power tiller. But wait a minute—“sooner than?”—I thought the power tools were supposed to be faster. We may find, to the contrary, that—in the race for deep, mellow, fertile soil that is easy to work, plant, and weed—hand tools are the steady, plodding tortoise that reaches the finish line sooner than the power-tool hare, which starts off with such a dash.