Turning over the soil

How to turn over the soil, and which tool or machine to use?
How to turn over the soil in your garden quickly and easily. What tool or machine should you use in the garden, vegetable patch, or field?


Why has turning over the soil become a habit?
What is the purpose of turning over the soil?

Whether it is for the gardener who uses a spade or for the farmer who a plough. The use of an agricultural machine or tool has several purposes.

  • To weed the soil and remove weeds that compete with vegetables.
  • To aerate the soil to obtain loose soil in which the root tissue of a crop will spread easily.
  • And to bring up mineral nutrients from deep in the soil thus making them available to the roots.

But these traditional methods of preparation push the surface soil and precious organic matter deep into the soil. This can be harmful in the medium term, with a decrease in the level of organic matter in the soil. We will discuss this in more depth further down this page.

In the past, the other method used to achieve this result was fire. Burning also meant that the soil was ‘clean’ and enriched with nutrients from the ash. But this practice was only sustainable because the population was smaller and nomadic.

Tilling the garden with a tool to turn the soil, a tenacious habit!

Digging up your garden with a tool to turn the soil, a tenacious habit. But practices are changing. Watch your back, my good man. We have a solution for you.

What are the consequences of tilling the soil?

Even if in the short term, turning over the soil allows mineralization. That is to say, the nutrients in the soil are made available, but the consequences of turning the soil are disastrous in the long term. Even in ecological cultivation, this practice will lead to soil degradition even in the best of soils. Indeed, organic matter levels can drop from 5% to 1% in just a few years of bad soil care practices. This is especially important in market gardening where the return of organic matter to the soil from crops is low. This is all the more true for root crops such as carrots, beetroot, turnips, celeriac, etc. In these cases, almost all of the production is exported for sale and consumption.

What is the natural process of nature ?

Let me explain. In nature, we understand this by observing the forest, the fertility of the earth comes from the organic matter that falls on to the ground. It is essentially composed of cellulose and lignin. This insulating layer also acts as a shock absorber for the rain. It therefore protects the soil from the cold in winter and the excessive heat in summer. This mattress also prevents rain or hail from falling directly on the soil. Without it, there is a risk of creating a crust that will suffocate the soil and carry water away by runoff. This runoff will take the thin fertile surface layer with it. And where will it end up? In the rivers, and streams towards the sea where it generates concentrations of green algae in certain places

But there is another way for gardeners and farmers who want to keep their land fertile in the long term. It is in fact the degradation of this organic matter on the soil that creates the fertility of the soil if it is done in the right way. You will find a lot of information on this subject in the practical guide to download « my smart garden ».

But is turning over hard soil in the garden a good or bad habit?

Turning clayey, compacted soil is a common practice both in gardens and in fields. Farmers still often use a plough to plough the soil before planting a crop?

In this page we will see why gardeners and farmers started ploughing, and why some of them have stopped this practise. In a vegetable garden, using a conventional spade to prepare a plot of land breaks up the various layers of soil. Moreover, its use can cause the gardener back pain, some times even chronic backache. Is this a necessary evil?

After detailing the problems for the soil and for the gardener caused by turning over the soil, we will unveil a simple but highly effective tool. A manual tool that can be used to turn over the hard soil in your garden or field, easily and effectively.

Whether you want a manual or mechanised tiller, rotavator or cultivator, read on.

Whatever tillage tool you want to use, whether it’s a tiller, rotavator, cultivator or plough, to start a vegetable garden or grow a lawn, here’s how to turn the soil without a tiller, by hand.

Using a machine to turn the soil, such as a tiller, a plough or a machine such as a rotovator, will bury the organic matter. While the decomposers who live on the surface are also buried, where they will die. This burying, facilitated by this mechanism, will harm the fertility of the soil. Indeed, if this buried soil is very carbonaceous, it will pump the nitrogen contained in the garden soil for its degradation to the detriment of the vegetables. Worse, if buried too deep for it to decompose, it will create organic waste that the earthworms will not know what to do with because it is too carbonaceous to be digested by them.

If, on the other hand, the buried material is mostly nitrogen, this will lead to putrefaction. A good indicator is therefore to smell your soil. This rotten soil will smell bad and weeds together with undesirable but curable diseases and will arrive…

Another problem created by tillers is that if you have quackgrass or bindweed roots in your soil, they will be cut into small pieces and grow back. This will multiply the problem. The earthworms will be cut in half and will die. When we know that earthworms live for 5 years and are adults at 2 years old. We risk decimating their population.

A tool for turning over the soil

This is the tool that makes digging up a garden quick and easy without backache. It is enough to work the soil in the vegetable garden without turning it over with a machine, but with an efficient broadgork, in france where it was invented its called a « grelinette ». It is a kind of very efficient manual tiller that costs much less to buy and use.

Cultivation with minimum tillage is this possible?

A general rule to keep in mind is to never bury organic matter. In the forest, nothing is injected into the soil, everything is depoisted on the soil surface and it grows by itself, without the need to add anything else.

For farmers who want to preserve their soil, this is called conservation agriculture*. The soil is worked less and less often. In the long term, minimum mechanical soil disturbance, (the avoidance of using machines), has led to a new term « Direct Seeding », the growing crops without mechanical seedbed preparation. The soil organisms will do the work of aeration by moving through this nourishing bedding. This work will generate the nitrogen that is essential for plant development.

A broadfork? What else is it good for, apart from cross words?

The broadfork, a magic tool for aerating the soil by hand without mixing the horizons, (soil layers).

But for gardeners who want to plant a vegetable garden or a lawn, the objective is to prepare the soil for sowing or transplanting without using pesticides. Because if you move the deep clay layers back to the surface, the accompanying seeds will find the right conditions for germination. Indeed, the triggers for waking seeds from a dromant state are a shock or the proximity to light! These fine clay particles will also be exposed to the bombardment of rain which will stick them together. This waterproof film will no longer allow water to infiltrate and air to penetrate.

How to use a trowel to prepare the ground

So here’s how to use a trowel. This is the practical solution used by gardeners and small-scale market gardeners alike. They « grease » their soil. This tool allows to aerate the soil without mixing it. The name of this tool comes from the name of André Grelin who invented it in the 50s.

(Sorry for the sound at the beginning of the video, it doesn’t last.)

Breakdown of the how to use a broadfork

  • The first step to use this garden tool is to push the broadfork with the arms stretched forward and the tines straight towards the ground.
  • Then pull towards you and go beyond the axis of the body to achieve the maximum rotation which allows the tines to effect a larger earth displacement, and to raise the ground a few centimetres.
  • Then if you wish, it is possible to shake the tool from right to left. Some models are made with an arch to facilitate this movement.
  • To start the movement again, take the tines out of the soil without lifting the tool and move back 10 cm.

The loosened soil will be ready for optimal root development. This is the method increasingly used to prepare vegetable and market garden land for sowing or transplanting. Once the crop is in place or the seedlings have emerged, mulch the soil with dry grass, dead leaves, BRF ,(fragmented rameal wood) or cardboard. This will protect the soil from rain. This will allow cold composting, which is the best! This soil cover makes it easier to get through periods of drought, which are becoming more and more frequent. You can water a little to get the momentum going. Hoeing or weeding is sometimes necessary to weed if the mulch is not sufficient.

The only disadvantage of extensive mulching is that it is a favourite habitat for slugs. But a light hoeing or weeding with a hoe will then be worth two waterings, as the saying goes. And as a bonus, it will help dry out the slug eggs.

On this other page, I explain when to use a hoe.

In conclusion, the broadfork is a good solution for gardening in compact and clayey soils.

Opening up the soil with this simplified tool to turn the soil allowing air and water to infiltrate. This permits life to develop in the soil, resulting in better soil fertility. It is also a guarantee of good health for the plants that will grow there.

Soil aired in this way will be less conducive to the development of weeds, which are always there, to prevent disorder and help the soils natural aggradation process. That is to say, to go naturally improve soil fertility. In the case of preparing the soil to sow a lawn, this will avoid dandelions and other tap-root weeds which aim to decompact the soil.

Discover here our broadfork comparison.
Comparative of broadforks

No more drudgery of digging up a garden, no more backache. The forged broadfork is a tool that can be used by everyone. All you need to do is choose the right width and the right number of tines relative to the strength of the gardener.

GOT TO HERE

  • Je greline !
  • Tu grelines ?
  • Il, elle, on greline
  • Nous grelinons
  • Vous grelinez
  • Ils, Elles grelinent

I’m grazing!
Do you graze?
He, she, we grainate
We graminate
You grainate
They, Them greline
The conjugation in other tenses is available here on Wiktionary.

See Wikipedia article on conservation agriculture.
Photo credits: Alex (fotolia.com) / Abéguilé (CRSI)