Hassle-free aerators for the garden

This aerator just needs a little push to do its thing.
This aerator just needs a little push to do its thing. (Johnny's Selected Seeds)
By Barbara Damrosch
Thursday, December 3, 2009

You don't often think of air as fertilizer, but I recently opened a book called "Soil Aeration and Its Role for Plants," by Jan Glinski and Witold Stepniewski, and this was its first line:

"One of the most important factors influencing soil fertility, besides water and nutrient content, is soil air." The rest of the book contained too many chemical formulas for me to get much further, but its premise is one that many gardeners could confirm. Plants grow best when the soil is loose and well oxygenated. But how do you achieve that without constant tilling, especially in spring, when the soil is still a bit moist and tilling might destroy its structure?

In 1963 a French farmer named André Grelin came up with a simple hand tool that allowed him to aerate the soil gently, without disturbing the soil layers, without bringing up weed seeds from below, and without disordering vital webs of worm tunnels and fungal networks. He called it the Grelinette, but don't let that diminutive fool you. The version I have, called the Broadfork, is the largest hand tool I am willing to use. It consists of two long handles and a tined crossbar at the bottom. If I grasp the handles and step onto the bar with one foot, the mighty gravitational force from my 110-pound body drives the tines into the ground like butter. Then, with almost no effort, I pull the handles toward and slightly behind me. This lifts the tines upward just enough to fluff up the soil from below. I back up and repeat this action every six inches down the bed, and in minutes the job is done.

A quick Web search will locate many photos of people demonstrating this action, most of them French and some of them females in cute scarves. Occasionally, someone is shown trying to wield the thing like a shovel, thus negating its best feature: the fact that it saves your back. Monsieur Grelin's son Olivier still sells the original Grelinette at http://grelinette.ifrance.com, but there are now many variations on the original design. Some resemble medieval weapons, with swordlike blades. The U-Bar Digger from Lee Valley Tools (http://www.leevalley.com) is made of tubular steel and has an 18-inch span. The Broadfork I use, available from Johnny's Selected Seeds (http://www.johnnyseeds.com), is manufactured by Ike Hubbard in Jonesport, Maine. Its curved tines give it force, and the 27-inch-wide model allows me to work down a 30-inch-wide bed in a single pass. And that is exactly what I will do in my garden next year, when mud season yields to spring.

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