The first two articles in this series talked about how to make compost and how to select your seeds. Now it’s time to talk about tools. Even the most primitive garden needs a few tools to be successful.
Tool selection can be quite befuddling because there are so many methods of gardening. Traditional row gardening requires lots of specialized power tools (tillers), sprayers for insecticides, weed pullers, and more. Square foot gardening just requires a bucket, a trowel, and the tools to build the initial bed. So the first thing to examine is which method of organic gardening you’re planning and start there.
In my opinion, you don’t want to choose a gardening method that’s going to require power tools. Get your thoughts of a tiller out of the picture. Tillers and other plows damage the soil over time by creating what’s called a plow pan or hard pan. It is a layer of compact soil caused by the device that prevents root penetration and water penetration. You’ll have tilled soil down to the depth of the tines, and soil as hard as a rock underneath that. Not a good idea. Plus, you don’t want to become dependent on power tools and then have your source of gas or electricity run out.
The amount of garden space you’ll need to feed a single person depends on things like dietary needs, whether you are raising animals, soil fertility, whether you want to eat from your garden year round or just in the growing season, the type of crops you are growing, and whether you plan to sell any on the side. In the beginning, I highly recommend starting very small and growing as you get used to the process, but if you’re going to be growing food on a large scale, enough to feed a family or more, then there are certain tools that I consider indispensable.
Tools for preparing your beds
There are certain processes that are in any garden method, and I like to use that as a way to think about tools. First, you’ll need the tools to prepare your beds. I’m assuming for this article that you have a bare patch of ground or some low-cut grass to start. Most beds will require a good combination shovel (scoop shovel) and a five gallon bucket or wheelbarrow to haul materials. If you’re going to spring for a wheelbarrow, get a contractor grade one. If you’re to the point where you need a wheelbarrow to maintain your garden then it’s going to see a lot of use. Avoid the cheap plastic ones.
Other tools you might need for bed preparation are drills or a hammer to build beds and a stake driver for fencing. Someone using a highly-technical method of gardening might also require a push spreader for adding lime or blood meal, but I’m not that picky. If you have heavy clay soil or thick sod and you want to break new ground for a dug bed, invest in a grub hoe to loosen things up.
After the heavy digging is out of the way with the shovel or grub hoe, the bed will need to be smoothed for planting. That’s when I take out my garden rake. A garden rake is the kind of rake that’s in the shape of a T with metal tines, not the fan-shaped one used for leaf raking. They can pull out clumps of soil, smooth out piles of soil amendments, and define the rows where you’ll plant your seeds (use the handle for this). They’re also a great tool for ripping out ivy vines. I love my garden rake.
Tools for watering
Next is watering, and there are lots of options here. I’m a fan of the old-fashioned watering can personally. It forces me to go out and observe every plant. Still, not everyone has the time to water this way. A soaker hose and a timer can be used in such circumstances. However, I advise not to become too reliant on timers. They fail at the worst times. Learn how to look at your plants and the soil and know when it needs water. Go through your garden every day. It may become your sole source of food. Treat it as such!
Tools for weed control
If you’re growing anything larger than a container garden or a bunch of square foot gardens, you’ll need a hoe as well for weed control. There are many types of hoes. The one for weed control is called a grape hoe. Try to get one with a handle that’s fitted for your height. Hoe handles should come up to a height between your armpit and your shoulder. A short handled hoe will make you work too hard. Make sure to sharpen it!
Other tools to consider
One final tool that I like to have is a garden fork. I use this in my compost pile to help turn it. Even a sharpened shovel can have difficulty piercing through layers. It’s not strictly necessary, but I find it is a big help.
Notice I’ve been mentioning sharpening? Shovels, hoes, and anything that cuts must be sharpened properly or you’ll break your back working. Get on YouTube and learn how. It’s easier to learn by watching someone than reading from a book. It’s not hard. Get a 12” bastard file from the store and follow along.
That’s it folks. Over time you may decide you want some other tools to help with specialized tasks, like pruners, loppers, and sprayers. But for the basic first-time garden these tools are what you’ll need to get the job done. Start going to flea markets to get a good deal, sharpen your tools up, and you’ll be ready as soon as the ground thaws.