Archive for May 16th, 2009

In the Toolshed

Sharon May 16th, 2009

I was recently asked by a magazine to recommend a list of garden tools for new gardeners, and I was surprised by how hard a list it was to come up with.  Not because I don’t have favorite tools, but because I’m acutely aware that not every gardener gardens the way I do, and the tools you use depend a lot on your garden style.  So I thought I’d write about what I do use - but more importantly, about why I use them, and how one’s body, one’s preferences, one’s style - all these things mean that an ideal tool list is awfully hard to come by.

So let’s start with how I garden.  I garden these days mostly in beds, rather than wide rows or other forms - and many of my beds are raised to give better drainage in my wet soil.  I’ve also got a lot of rocks.  This is important because it automatically makes a bunch of tools not very useful to me - for example, shortly after we moved here, someone gave me an Earthways seeder, a tool many farmers absolutely - the tool makes a row to plant seeds, marks the row and covers it.  And I have used it in circumstances that were very useful - but the problem is that the little thingie (so I’m not good with technical terms, sue me ;-) ) that makes the row doesn’t like rocks, or bumps, or uneven ground. It really requires a very smooth seed bed.  This is hard to get in my soil. And for the places where I do have it - say, on my raised beds, it is awkward to push a seeder that is elevated - it isn’t the most ergonomic position.  While I did use it sometimes during my CSA days, it mostly lives in my garage now.

I also really like to get into the dirt.  I know a lot of people who garden in gloves, and whose preference is to work from an upright position, either for physical comfort or simply so as not to get totally filthy.  My preference is to get down on my hands and knees, as close to the dirt as possible.  That doesn’t mean I don’t use long handled tools - I do, but I find that short handled ones, that do the same things from down near the ground get my attention more.  But someone who found getting up and down more difficult (and I admit, in late pregnancy, I used to prefer long handles), or simply doing it another way, might like it otherwise.

The other thing is that I’m a fairly big woman - at 6′ tall, I find it very easy to use heavy tools, and those sized for men.  I have a friend who I had raved about a particular hoe to, and she got one - but my friend is 5’1 and weighs maybe 108lbs - she found hoeing with this tool heavy, uncomfortable, and because the handle was long, occasionally found herself pole vaulting if she hit a rock.  It was not the right tool for her!

So a lot of the tools I use are particular to one of these factors.  For example, if I had to pick a favorite tool of all time, it would be my hand tiller.  I got it from Johnny’s selected seeds here (it is the bigger clawish thing in the picture) (btw, I have absolutely no economic connection to any of these companies) - it is the serious version of those little garden three tine things, designed to loosen a little soil.  This thing is heavy (not a good choice for those with arthritis in their hands) and tough - perfect for loosening soil while keeping the structure intact, perfect for getting tough weekds I’ve let go, like thistles, perfect for working through heavy mulch to the soil below.  I love it so much I have two - and my husband agrees.  But it does require some strength to use, and it gets used as much as it does precisely because I like being down on the ground.   It is also not cheap - this is a serious and heavy duty tool, and if you gardened less you could probably get away with something lighter.

My husband’s vote for favorite tool on the earth is his scythe, and I’m only slightly behind him on that.  Scything, when done properly, is a whole lot of fun - it is a great way of managing grass, great for weeds and field margins, as well as grain crops.  Despite our large expanse of grass, we’ve decided not to have any internal combustion engines involved with it.  So we either get creatures to eat it, scythe it, or use our little push mower.  We’re probably the embarrassment of the neighborhood, but our neighbors are gracious enough not to comment. 

If you’ve only ever had a heavy, old American scythe, you may not know how wonderful they are.  Modern european scythes are light, a pleasure to use, and simple - the motion is a gentle side to side motion, great for love handle reduction.  Remember, in Wordsworth’s poem about the solitary reaper, she’s singing as she harvests grain - the reality is if you can sing while you do most activities, you aren’t working at an intense pace - and scything is really very gentle and pleasant.  If you want a scythe, the place to get one is  You’ll need a whetstone and a peening kit as well.  Should everyone have one?  Well, no - if you live somewhere where you have to keep your lawn tidy by mowing, the scythe, which cuts long grass, won’t do it. 

My next favorite tool is a little Korean tool, given to me by my Dad.  I haven’t seen the one I have online, but the “hand hoe” listed back at the link for Johnny’s looks a lot like it. The one weakness of the tiller is its large size - it isn’t great for tight space weeding or tillage.  The hand hoe, again, given my preference for hands and knees gardening, is a very quickly weeder, and wonderful.  Mine is sturdy, and my only complaint about it is that it tends to disappear into the grass, so I’m a strong advocate of brightly colored duct tape or ribbon to make sure you can find it when you put it down.  This is one tool for everyone - very light, very small, and just plain pleasant to use.

Also from Johnny’s (they make terrific tools) is my broadfork.  If you have raised beds and soil that needs to be loosened in the spring, but don’t want to till, with all that implies in disrupting existing soil structures and ecologies, broadforks are a terrific thing (carefully used, and with some practice, the hand tiller can also do this).  Best of all, instead of using your muscle power, you use the weight of your body to loosen the soil, so you don’t have to be strong to do a tremendous amount of work.  It is much easier than shovelling - and while broadforks aren’t designed for this, a good one can be used to make beds, cutting through soil (this is more work, but easier than using most shovels). 

Broadforks are pricey - mine cost nearly $200, so if you have only a very small garden, it probably isn’t worth the effort.  You can make them, actually, and if your soil is very loose, an all wood one would probably be fine.  I also wouldn’t recommend them for anyone who has serious balance issues - you use the broadfork by standing on it, and it does require some surefootedness, although no more than average (I’m a complete klutz, and we can be absolutely certain that if it is possible to hurt oneself with a tool, I’ve done it - I’ve never done anything bad to myself with a broadfork ;-) ).

Again, unless you have only containers or a very small number of raised beds, you need a good standing hoe - if only because you will not want to be down on your hands and knees when the corn is tall and you barely fit between them standing.  I have two hoes I really like.  One of them is an ancient old farm hoe that I got at an auction shortly after we moved here.  It is a heavy tool, with a rusty old, regular shaped hoe, and I use it almost like mattock a lot of the time for hacking out roots - but I can use it to spread manure, hoe the garden or hack at heavy weeds.  I would recommend, if you are going to get this kind of tool, that you actually get an old one - or spend some money and get a good one.  My observation is that cheap modern tools are almost always awful - if you’ve ever split a shovel or had the handle of a tool break off in your hand, you know how annoying it is.  Try and get tools whose handles you’ll be able to replace.

 The other hoe I really like is yet again (sense a theme here?) from Johnny’s - it is stirrup hoe.  It is serrated, and slices right through the weeds, and the soil, and doesn’t need frequent sharpening.  (BTW, despite saying that, learning to sharpen my tools was one of the best things that ever happened to me - it makes all the difference in the world, and it really isn’t that hard). 

Technically also a hoe, but really a digging and tillage tool is my Azada, also known a grub hoe - it is great for digging even fairly deep irrigation trenches, but it works well for making seed rows as well.  This is a heavy duty tool, and it is worth noting that in many ancient societies, about the only garden tools were something like a mattock and something like this, made of stone.  I got mine from, and I like it a lot. 

 My favorite pruners are my Felco-F8 pruners, but I’ve got several other sets, including a set of floral snips that I sometimes use for the smallest sprouts, and some heavy duty loppers.  I have some older pruners that aren’t Felco that we inherited, but they simply don’t do as good a job.  If you don’t have anything to prune, obviously, you don’t need these.  My husband who is a leftie does fine with our rightie pruners, but if you are going to buy them anyway, you might consider getting a set that are appropriately handed for the person who is going to do most of the pruning.

Spear and Jackson are British manufacturers who make serious, heavy duty, built to last garden tools.  This is not a Martha Stewart pretty thing - these tools will be passed on to your kids.  I’ve found several at auctions, and they work great.  I had a yard sale hay fork some years ago, and then found this one, and the difference is night and day.  Now not everyone needs a hay fork, or a potato fork, or whatever, but everyone needs a good spade, and IMHO, the only one that will not break on you (unless you leave it in the rain for two years, and then it is your own fault), and will work forever is the Spear and Jackson, at least that I’ve found.  The good thing is that I’ve found them used a number of times, because they aren’t cheap.  If you buy one new, they make a large number of sizes.  I’ve been told that a cheaper source for really good shovels are lumberyard mason’s shovels - I’ve heard these hold up well also, but not tried it. 

While I talk about buying good tools, it is important to note that I accumulated these tools over a matter of years, not instantly.  Yes, I’ve spent money on them, but I’ve also used a lot of cheap and crappy tools in the meantime, and they do function for a while.  So don’t think you have to go drop $500 on your garden tools - my suggestion would be to hunt around some auctions and yard sales and find some garden tools that have clearly been around for a while.  Don’t buy anything made of plastic, and avoid composite handles like the plague.  Get a cheap set of basic tools, and then add what you need one or two a year, and through used sources.

Two other tools I really like.  One of them is my jab corn planter - this thing is 100 years old, and I’m not sure if there are modern versions available.  The idea is that you basically smack it down in to the ground and it drops the seeds in the hole.  It is great for corn, but also for bean and squash, and some of them are adjustable for different seed sizes.  I use it for easy planting of larger quantities of large seeds.  I’ve seen these a number of times around me, and I’d imagine they were even more prevalent in places where they grow even more corn, so they can still be found, old, but usable.

I’m also a big fan of the large recycled rubber trugs that are now widely available - they come in vibrant colors, are cheap, and stand up to just about everything.  I love them for hauling weeds, harvesting crops, even hauling water.  Five gallon plastic buckets, though, are free from the grocery store, and will haul plenty.

That’s my list - it probably won’t be precisely the same for anyone else.  So what are your favorites?