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At its most basic, growing food doesn’t take much. At home it can be accomplished with some tin cans and plastic bottles, maybe some storage totes or buckets or drawers that were salvaged for free, and seeds or starts. When we’re working on that scale our hands and a pencil are sufficient.
Most of the time, though, we expand beyond small and tiny containers. Even with some small, modest beds, there are a few tools like hooked three-prong hand cultivators or a small spade that come in handy. When we’re dealing with numerous beds and a larger plot, we want to step up again. If our food production deals with shrubs, brambles and trees, we need a few more things yet.
To some degree, growing style largely dictates what is a must-have item and what can be set aside. Our bodies and health dictate more – as we get older or accumulate injuries, we may need more mechanical help or to spend less time crouched and thus more time with a long-handled tool of some kind. However, for veggie-veggies – not the large-scale calorie staple and protein staple crops like grinding corn, wheat, barley, beans, lentils, and field peas – there are some standards that will apply for most gardeners.
When I see articles about garden tools for beginners, upgrades for old hats, and reviews on the best contraptions to hit the market, there’s one thing that never seems to make it on the pages: Twine.
Maybe the big guys don’t need it. I sure use a fair bit of twine, string and cord in my gardens, though. I also use a fair bit while I’m air layering. Okay, in truth, I use some, and I also use strips of ruined clothing.
We need something to be tying up plants with, though, regularly, and I regularly use cord for parts of my trellises. There are alternatives, like using netting or light-gauge fencing. Cultivar selection for our plants might also reduce or eliminate trellis needs.
Regularly, though, we need to support something, from a seedling tree that needs staked to hanging planters or containers from and above porch railings.
Some decent twine that doesn’t break as we tie the knot and doesn’t rot in a single season will save us a lot of not-nice words. In the long run, it’s worth the money.
It’s also one of those things that really ought to just wander around the garden and outside with us, right there with a handy pair of pliers, pruners, and our pocketknife.
Stone me now; there’s not the first Kubota, Deere, Gator, or Kioti on my list. Tractors revolutionized the way we farm, made our way of life possible, and made it possible for the human population worldwide to snowball. The thing is, most of us don’t need them.
Sure, a riding mower or an ATV – especially with tow-behind cultivators, furrowers, spreaders or even just trailers – make life a lot easier. As we start cultivating significant properties, move into producing our own staple crops or producing grass hay and grains for livestock, when we start cutting grass straw, we should look in that direction. Until then … they need fuels, they need maintenance, and for the most part they’re a convenience. With the exception of folks who can’t push or pull physically, they’re not necessary for a veggie garden, even a big one.
Tillers/Powered Cultivators might be a must-have or might be a convenience. It depends on our bodies, growing scheme, and the scale of growing. There are some smaller versions where the power head cross-purposes with other tools like weed-eaters, overhead saws, and the tiller, and that’s a right handy tool to consider. Another option would be either electric tillers that can be powered from a running vehicle or charged from a solar battery bank. Because diesel stores so well, diesel-powered machines – or the vehicle that’s going to be used as a generator – might appeal to others despite the upfront costs.
Wood Chipper-Shredders do make my list as a must-have garden item when we get serious about production. So long as we have plenty of junk trees, firewood trimmings, or fruit trees and brambles to feed through them, anyway.
Mulch is an enormous aid in gardening. It saves labor in weeding, prevents soil compaction and erosion, and limits evaporation of rain and irrigation water. While some types of mulch-bed growing creates an alkaline environment that’s tougher on acid-loving domestic veggies and berries, for the most part we can mitigate the pH of our gardens.
Being able to convert bamboo, privet (pre-seed), and tree prunings from living specimens and firewood or construction into mulch is too valuable to ignore that particular machine.
On the other hand, if we’re shy on trees but have the land space, there’s nothing wrong with switching that chipper-shredder for a weed-eater that’s been modified into an electric, gas or diesel powered scythe. It’ll allow us to relatively quickly cut and lay out straw we can use for garden mulch.
Standard Manual Garden Tools
By and large, once we have beds or plots eked out of the ground with either a tiller or a sod cutter, and have dedicated ourselves to maintaining them, getting them seeded with weed-choking cover crops or heavily mulched, we don’t need a whole lot to maintain gardens.
Still, there are some tools that are right handy.
The short list for manual tools for a garden would really be a round-point digging shovel and-or a trenching shovel, a small garden trowel, a hay rake or flat-tined garden rake for leveling and aerating soil or dragging rows for seeds and transplants, a hoe, and in many cases a cultivator of some kind – a weasel, tiller, broad fork, or similar.
A small three-prong cultivator for one-handed or a long-handled, two-handed version can make weeds a much simpler task, and be used for spacing out seed rows.
A garden fork rates pretty highly as well (like a hay fork but with flat, wide tines) since it can be used as a secondary cultivator following a shovel or furrowing plow
Garden by garden, a leaf rake, square-point (transfer, moving) shovel, and both a pointed and a flat-square hoe rate really highly as well.
With them we can turn beds, collect and distribute chipped or leaf mulch and compost, dig in-situ composting trenches and holes, break up soil, level beds and rows, build up triangular and flattened-top mounded rows and beds, and even use them to create seed furrows and cover our beds again.
They’re not as ignored and maligned as string, because I don’t use them or see them used quite as much, but I spend a lot of time hammering things. Mallets deserve a little credit there.
I hammer stakes for supporting row covers and baby trees, bird netting, and to keep things from digging under fences. I hammer in supports for new trellises and arbors. I pound in stakes and string line for rows and to mark expansions or areas I want left alone. I tap CMU block into place. I infrequently use nails or stakes to assemble trellises or bounded beds (usually I’m a fan of a screw and a drill for those).
Could I do it with a plumber’s wrench, carpenter’s hammer, or my pruners? Usually. I’d work harder and longer though.
Sometimes the right tool, right at hand, is worth it. Mallets are one of those tools for me, and the shorty 2-3# mallets with a flat square side are one of them for me.
If a garden area is small, and there’s a lot of pre-fab without as much annual assembly season-by-season, a mallet would go down in usefulness.
Having busted on energy draws while discussing machines, I’m going to contradict myself. There are two things that get reached for constantly, especially at the beginning of the growing season, the beginning and early in warm-tender crop seasons, harvest seasons, row-cover seasons, and bed-down-the-garden seasons.
They are my trusty-dusty little drill, and my trusty-dusty little saws-all.
When I say little, I mean that.
As with CCW firearms and EDC/GHB kits, when things are big, bulky and heavy, we don’t carry them all the time. In this case, that means that things get put off or I spend time making round trips to the vehicle.
With lighter, compact tools, they can sit in their bags with a variety of tips and blades, both of them inside a bucket with some string, sturdy pruners, a small hand cultivator, a mini hoe, and a hooked knife. I snag my bucket whenever I’m working in the yard, and whatever I need, it’s right there.
Must-Have’s for the Garden
I have a friend who managed in excess of three acres of just vegetable and fruit production without any fossil-fuel or battery-powered assistance. She does use a “work pig” and her birds, sheep and goats to help her, but the bulk of what she does is by manual labor. It’s possible. It’s not easy, it takes time – especially with livestock – but it’s possible.
I consider it telling that with few exceptions for “block” crops like corn and peas, she doesn’t grow in conventional rows or big plots. She grows in beds, by curving blocks and lines that follow her land’s fairly minor contours. It’s too much work to eke out the space, initially and every year after thaw, to use conventional methods.
It’s also too much work to leave bare earth. The work isn’t just the weed maintenance, but also the water hauling and the amount of time that has to be dedicated to plant health. So she mulches. Her mulches melt away in 12-24 month cycle, but the labor of creating and spreading them works out to be less than fighting more weeds and against harder soil and more evaporation.
If we’re planning to live a power-free or low-power-draw “sustainable” and “self-sufficient” life without the noise or fuels of machines, we might want to consider some of the alternative growing methods and ease-of-gardening methods, just as she does.
Our garden “must-have” tools are going to change depending on those methods.
It’s also going to depend on space. If we have smaller gardens, we can get away with fewer and less-specialized tools. At a market or large family scale conventional garden plot, some mechanization is going to be right on the borderline of a must-have.
Aging and broken bodies may also have to rely on some method that will help them, be it a growing style or machines. That will change the tools they reach for significantly.
The number-one “must” for gardening is to get started.
There are a lot of learning curves specific even to one section of a small yard. No book is going to have every answer, and by the time we’re troubleshooting, we’re already behind the curve. Hard times or a disaster is a terrible time to discover our microclimates, niche pests and diseases, and soil types.
Once we get started, our personal “must have” list will refine itself. We’ll want backups of what we use most. We may expand to the full array of shovel and hoe and rake types, or we may stick with a few subtly different styles. Over time, we may find that it ebbs and flows.
We can start small and add a few things as budgets open up, working toward those items that multipurpose or have the most value for our lives first, then adding on the things that will allow us to expand and be more efficient. Knowing some of the rec’s and the priorities for them from other growers may help with that, either getting started or expanding.