By Hand

The term “heritage” applies to more than living things with pure-breed characteristics that stem back to the age before genetic modification and human tampering. Right along with the resurgence of furry pigs and wonky squash comes the renaissance of historic farm implements and hand tools, too. 

Wheel hoes and broadforks were once common in the backyard garden and on the American farm, but as the self-sufficiency wave of backyard livestock and victory gardens waned, so did the hand tools frequently used with them. With today’s need for expedience, many might typically use a gas-powered tiller and an organic variant of Roundup. However, the growth in local, sustainable food production has led to the proliferation of a few cleaner, yet familiar, alternatives. David Grau of Valley Oak Tool Company says there’s a growing need for new, smaller farms producing for their local areas. “When this relocalization really takes off,” he says, “the demand for quality non-fossil-fuel hand tools will skyrocket.”

In my own efforts to practice sustainability through gardening, I wanted to preserve as many of the native layers and earthworm passageways in my soil as possible. I have clay soil typical of the Blackland Prairie, and while it’s highly fertile, it also tends to compact very easily; therefore, upsetting sensitive levels of root pathways, fungal layers and other aspects of soil health wasn’t in my best interest. In researching the best ways to maintain sensitive soil layers, avoid compacting the soil and handle weed control, I discovered the tools of yesteryear.

A broadfork, also known as a “U-bar,” is a big, impressive tool that I loved the minute I discovered the thing in Eliott Coleman’s classic manual for gardeners, “The New Organic Grower.” Originally known as a “grelinette,” the broadfork is shaped like a big “U” with four or five tines welded onto the end, and could be mistaken for an unwieldy medieval torture device. It requires a whole-body approach, with the arms, core and legs all used to operate it. Johnny’s Selected Seeds in Maine, purveyor of seeds and garden tools, worked with Coleman to develop and deliver broadforks, as well as other redesigned historic tools.

My broadfork—a 17-pound beast of an implement named “Big Bertha” after the maker’s mother-in-law—was made by Gulland Forge Broadforks of North Carolina. The tool is comprised of two parallel ash-wood handles (cured in a 50/50 mix of turpentine and tung oil) connected with a forged-steel fork. In function, the fork is heaved into the bed or row and rocked back and forth until its curved tines are embedded. If you’re breaking a new bed, this might require hopping onto it like a step and wiggling it side to side to break open the crust of the soil. Then you lean back and bring the twin handles downward with your hands, lifting the tines upward through the dirt and thus aerating the soil around the fork. Rocking it upright again, you remove the fork, place the tines a few inches forward of the previous point of insertion and repeat the process. If it sounds like a lot of work, you’re right. Breaking open hard clay is difficult, but the lighter the soil, the easier it is.

Valley Oak Tool Company also makes a variety of other heritage tools, including a wheel hoe. For clearing weeds in the paths between the beds or mounding up dirt along onions and potatoes, I can’t recommend this hoe and its attachments enough. The original wheel hoe dates back to ancient Egypt, according to Grau. He took the historic, American-made model—known as a “Planet Jr.”—and combined modern innovations in materials and design to come up with his version. 

The wheel hoe has two handles that meet in a “V” formation next to a wheel. That wheel has a tool attached behind it that is interchangeable—it can be a 3- or 4-tined cultivating fork, a series of stirrup-shaped hoes, a tool for making furrows, a tool for making hills and so on. The original, older models have issues with construction that would affect me—I’m a small woman, and the Valley Oak design allows for modifications in angle that let me use the tool more efficiently. 

These renditions of historic tools are such a boon to the modern gardener and small farmer looking for sustainable methods. And thanks to independent, American-made tool companies with a smart eye to the past, these tried-and-true heritage garden warriors can now enjoy new life and appreciation in the capable hands of generations to come.

By Sarah J. Nielsen