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Completing the Tool Kit

The following appeared as a sidebar in my article “Best Low-Tech Tools”, published in the February/March 2008 issue of Mother Earth News, and subsequently in the Mar/Apr 2009 issue of Grit as well.

This article was posted to the site November 15, 2008.

Our little thought game in “With Scythe and Cart and Broadfork: A Meditation on Tool Use” attempted to describe how we could use just three simple, low-tech tools to meet a demanding garden challenge: conversion of tough, resistant sod over compacted soil to deep, fertile, easily worked beds. In the real world, of course, we will need a variety of other tools to complete related tasks. Let’s briefly consider a few. With reference to them all, I recommend spending the extra money up front to buy well designed and soundly made tools. In the long run, such tools are more pleasant, effective, and even safer to use. Indeed, they are cheaper: Buying a lifetime tool once costs less than buying a shoddy one twice. Tools for cutting or digging should be kept sharp for greatest efficiency and ease of use. I prefer that any tool applying leverage have a tang (the tapered end of the handle) that is securely riveted into the ferrule (the ring or metal sleeve into which the tang fits). If not so secured, the tang may eventually work free.

Spades and shovels
There is an endless variety of spades (for cutting into compacted earth) and shovels (for moving looser earth) and scoops (with larger, more bowl-shaped heads for moving even looser material like ground corncobs); with long handles, or shorter handles that end in a D-shaped grip for working in tighter quarters. Most gardeners end up with a number of variations on the theme. I like a “turned step” on any digging spade. (The metal at the top of the blade is turned at a right angle, to give a larger, more comfortable surface against which to push with the sole of the boot.)
The garden cart is better for bulkier loads of lighter materials. The wheelbarrow is better for dense, heavy loads such as earth and rocks. The best tribute to the wheelbarrow I’ve seen is the beautiful pond at the old Nearing place in Maine, which Scott Nearing dug out by hand, one barrow load at a time. (Patience is a virtue . . . )
Certainly we want to add a hay rake to gather up all that scythe-cut grass for mulches. A good hay rake is light, with a wide head securely attached to the handle. I’ve had trouble breaking both wooden and nylon teeth that snag on tough weeds, and am still looking for my ideal hay rake. Another must-have rake is the garden rake, with close-set steel tines at right angles to the handle, for raking out bumps and clods, smoothing seedbeds in preparation for planting.
Spading fork
A digging fork with a D-grip handle and stout tines either square or a bit flattened in cross-section. In a small garden, such a fork could be used for loosening the soil without turning it topsy-turvy, in lieu of the broadfork. In any garden, it’s a great tool for planting the larger potted transplants, digging potatoes and sweet potatoes, or for uprooting small saplings or big, tough-rooted weeds.
Other forks
Again, we will end up with several versions of forks, depending on the nature of the materials we typically handle. A hay fork is essential for lifting raked hay into the cart, then distributing it as mulch. Handling manure, however, requires a wider, more scoop-shaped head with more tines, set closer together.
The gamut runs from heavy “grading hoes” for shaping ridges (as for sweet potatoes) or grubbing out saplings and big tough weeds—to crescent-shaped Asian style hoes for delicate weeding work around established crop plants—to “action hoes” with oscillating heads that cut weeds off beneath the soil line on both out-stroke and in-stroke—to the “collineal hoe” designed by Eliot Coleman, with its thin, narrow, razor sharp blade, used from a fully standing position, like sweeping with a broom.
Up close and personal
I don’t know about you, but the kid in me prefers to get down on my knees and do many garden chores hands-on. Indeed, I have to remind myself to use shaped steel for chores like setting in transplants and weeding, otherwise I’m more likely to go at them fingers-first (and love it). For these sorts of chores, most gardeners are suckers for some ingenious twist on an old theme: a planting trowel with blade at right angle to the handle rather than in-line; a weeder that is shaped like a fish tail, or a claw, or a hook; the Ugly Tool with its heavy-duty chopping blade on one side of its head, and its three hefty cultivating tines on the other; the planting dibble; the sickle—we go on accumulating these over the years, then settling on those which offer that unique solution to our specific task, that special pleasure in the hand.