My grandfather thought that the most important tool an organic gardener can own is a garden or spading fork, and I agree. Whether preparing a bed for planting, dividing established perennials, mixing compost, or aerating a lawn, it is the most versatile tool I have (except the hand that holds it). With just a garden fork and a little legwork you can maintain almost any sized garden once it is established.
A good garden fork is indeed a heavy duty implement, usually mounted with a “D” type handle, although occasionally you’ll see one with a long, straight handle. I have both. The “D” handle is best for spring soil preparation, because it gives your hand a lateral grip that helps keep an off-center fork load of soil from tipping. But the long-handled fork provides more leverage for loosening subsoil when double digging, and allows you to work standing straighter. If you can have only one, though, choose the “D” handled fork because of its versatility.
The four tines of an American style fork measure ½ to ¾ of an inch wide and eight to twelve inches long, somewhat pointed on the end so they enter the ground easily, but broad and flattened in cross section so that they disturb rather than cut. This is the same kind of tine used on a potato fork, which has to extract potatoes from the ground without harming them. English style forks have tines with a square cross section, ¼ to ½ inch thick.
Garden forks are made from a stiff, tempered steel that can stand up to the same kind of digging and prying action as a shovel. The best have solid forged heads and a closed socket, or a long strap of steel joining the blade to the handle, to prevent breakage. I have broken a few myself and now wouldn’t have one with a cheap, riveted handle. The advantage of a fork over a spade is that it breaks up the soil instead of just moving it around. For digging, certainly a spade is the tool of choice, but for loosening and aerating the soil, as well as incorporating amendments, nothing works so well as a good quality garden fork.
Companion to the garden fork is the spade itself. While most American gardeners are familiar with the conventional long-handled shovel, the European spade is more useful for general garden work. It has a flat-sectioned, square, or slightly rounded blade, and a “D” type handle like that of the fork. The straight blade makes the garden spade good for edging beds, or for peeling back the sod where a new bed is to be. Heavy duty spades have treads formed or welded atop the blade to cushion the foot for that kind of heavy digging. The square design of the blade is also well suited for light trenching, chopping, and tamping.
The shovel is really a construction tool, suited for moving heavy, loose material like sand, small gravel, and cinders. For lighter, less dense materials like grain, sawdust, or snow, there are shovels or scoops with large, high-sided aluminum or plastic blades (and a flat back). A shovel can also be used for digging round holes, as the back of the blade is curved. The slope of the blade will taper the hole inward from the edge, which is ideal for preparing a transplanting hole. A nursery spade, with its pointed, round-backed blade, resembles a miniature shovel, except that the angle of the blade to the handle is reversed. This is so that, when digging up established plants, the handle will be back out of the way of the plant, allowing more freedom to work. A trenching spade has a round-backed blade about eight inches across at the tread, sixteen to eighteen inches long, and five to six inches across at the bottom. With it you can cut narrow trenches for drainage (or for blanching) quickly and efficiently.
You can not only make a garden, but maintain it with a garden fork and spade alone, but a few more tools will make the process more efficient and enjoyable. The first of these is a cultivator. Where vegetables will grow, so will weeds; to stop the weeds we need to uproot them, and this can be done either by hand—once they have gotten big enough to grab onto—or as soon as they germinate, by simply disturbing the soil with a cultivator. Cultivators come in an incredible range of sizes and forms; it seems that there is one for every situation, whether it be widely spaced transplants or broadcast greens, and every gardener seems not only to have a favorite, but also to have dreamed about inventing one. I have three or four that I’d hate to be without: my stirrup hoes, a hook, a hand harrow, and my grandfather’s own home-fashioned “Ogden hoe.”
This last, named for my grandfather’s uncle who taught him how to make it, is essentially the complement to the old-fashioned “Warren hoe,” still widely available, which has a triangular blade that comes to a single point, and is used for furrowing. You can easily make one by cutting off the lower corners of a standard broad hoe. The Ogden hoe is also triangular, but the reverse of the former: the blade descends from a single point at the handle mount to sharp points at the lower corners. These form a flat-bottomed triangle the width of a standard broad hoe. One can be made by cutting off the upper corners of a standard broad hoe. In my opinion it is superior to both the standard hoe and the Warren hoe because if held in the normal fashion, neck up, it can be used for hilling, yet if the handle is rotated so that one of the corner points is down, it can be used for furrowing as well.
I inherited my cultivating hook from my grandfather. It is smaller than a potato hook, with quarter-inch-thick, round-sectioned tines, sharpened at the end, which penetrate the soil only a half-inch or so at rest. As you pull it toward you it digs in, but it’s a lot easier on the back than a full-sized potato hook. Cultivating hooks are widely available, but if you buy one, I’d suggest bending the two outside tines inward just a bit, so you can use it to cultivate really close in to plants in the row. A hook of this type can be used like a conventional broad hoe to chop the soil surface, though that may disturb the shallow roots of vegetables almost as much as the hoe. I use it to sweep across the surface of the soil, back and forth, even crossways, lightly disturbing the surface without bothering anything but newly sprouting weed seedlings. Until I discovered the stirrup hoe, the hook was my favorite cultivator.
I also have a full range of other cultivators that I’ve inherited or picked up over the years from one place or another: a “Warren” hoe, two Dutch scuffle hoes (plus various poorly crafted imitations of each that I’ve received as samples over the years because of our mail order business), and an assortment of the conventional square-bladed broad hoes. The only one of the broad hoes I use much is the narrowest, which is only an inch or two wide, and thus ideal for cultivating closely planted root crops as they near maturity. Used as a skimmer, it is almost as quick as a stirrup hoe (see below); its tenure in the garden shed is pretty well guaranteed by the fact that stirrup hoes narrower than three inches jam easily on the sticks and stones that pepper the surface of our garden. These obstructions can’t pass through the hoe so easily as they do with the larger-size stirrups.
I also have a “hand harrow,” a long-handled tool used for preparing a fine seedbed and for breaking up lightly crusted soil after a rain. It consists of three stubby arms mounted into the head, each of which is tipped with a pair of offset spike-toothed rollers. As you push the hand harrow, the meshing of the spike rollers not only breaks the crusty surface of the soil, but uproots small weeds. It is a great tool for established gardens, but if there is a lot of “trash”—that is, small rocks and bits of root or clumps of partially decomposed straw mulch, say—on the surface, the tines will quickly pick them up and jam.
I don’t know who invented the stirrup hoe, but I sure am glad they thought of it. Because of its built-in depth-regulating design, you can work more quickly with a stirrup hoe than with a cultivating hook, and there is much less disturbance of neighboring plants’ roots. This is because you don’t have to chop to get the weeds; instead, the blade skims along just below the surface of the soil, slicing off the weeds at their most vulnerable point, which is the stem connection between leaf and root. The head of a stirrup hoe has a pair of holes threaded by a small pin. On that axle is mounted a sharpened, stainless steel “stirrup” which, because of the pin mounting, is able to pivot fifteen degrees back and forth in line with the handle. So when you pull a stirrup hoe it skims along at an angle to the ground, scooping up just the top quarter-inch or so of the soil and vaulting it half an inch. Small rocks, twigs, and other trash pass right through, but weeks are dislodged, and unless it rains right away their severed stems quickly wither in the sun.
I have become so partial to stirrup hoes that I have three different sizes, but you can certainly get by with one. The best all-around size is five inches across the base of the stirrup; when you buy, check the oscillating motion of the stirrup carefully.
One last hoe type is the one developed by Maine market gardener Eliot Coleman. The so-called “co-linear hoe” is, like the stirrup hoe, a cutting, not a chopping hoe. The flat, sharp blade is offset on a slight swan neck so that the cutting edge is in line with the center of the handle and parallel to the ground. This allows you stand upright while scuffling the blade just below the soil surface, slicing off young weeds.
You probably own a rake, and might think to use it for cultivation, but most are not up to the task. I sometimes use a rake to clear the surface of a seedbed that was prepared and then not promptly planted, but the angle of the tines causes them to dig in rather than simply skim along the surface. You can keep the work shallow with a little arm power, though it is barely worth the trouble to do so; better to re-prepare the bed, or use a hook or hand harrow to get it in shape.
There are two uses for which a rake is invaluable, though. The first is for removal of weeds, and for this is a modified leaf rake works well. Simply cut down a leaf rake (using a pair of tin snips or a hacksaw) so that it is just as wide as the row spacing you use most commonly in your garden. Then, if after the weeds are skimmed the weather is not dry enough to wither them, they can be easily raked up and taken to the compost pile. We actually have both a leaf and a stiff-tined steel rake cut down for this purpose, but you should certainly be able to get by with one or the other.
The second use I have for a rake is in forming beds. The proper kind of rake to do this job must be stoutly built so that you can really move soil with it. This does not mean it must be heavy, though. Our rake collection includes everything from a six-foot iron rake with straight-forged tines, which weighs a good six pounds, to a two-foot-wide aluminum-magnesium alloy landscaper’s rake, that weighs less than half that. My favorite, though, is a lightweight one with the tines and the scraping blade on the back made entirely of copper. It was sold to me as a “bio-dynamic bed finishing rake,” and the designer’s intent was that the copper, in working the soil, would leave behind a trace element residue to assist in the control of soil-borne diseases, as copper is naturally fungicidal. Regardless of its disease control abilities, though, this lightweight rake is a joy to work with once the primary bed-forming has been accomplished with heavier tools. The scraper edge on the back of the rake makes mounding and smoothing much easier.
The final tool of this type—handle tools—that I consider necessary is a pitchfork, much lighter than a garden fork, with round, pointed tines like the cultivating hook. Its name expresses its function, which is to pick up piles of garden refuse that are awkward or messy to grab with your arms, and pitch them into a wheelbarrow or onto the compost pile. If you buy wisely, this lightweight fork will also serve to turn the compost piles. There are several forms, not all of which are appropriate: a hay fork has two to four rolled steel, round-section tines; a manure fork has four to six square or flattened, forged tines; there is also a thing I call a stable fork, which has a dozen or more rolled, round tines (see illustration on page ??). You want the manure fork. The hay fork lets too much slip between its widely spaces tines, and on the stable fork the tines are so close together—to make shoveling horse and sheep manure easier—that the vines and stalks of garden plants get skewered and then stuck on the fork. I am lucky enough to have all three, but if you can have only one, choose the manure fork.
Along with may grandfather, I recommend that you have not just one, but two stout garden lines available for marking rows and paths. Quite often it will save considerable time to be able to use both at the same time. They should be long enough to run the full width or length of your garden, and the stakes should be strong enough so that the line can be brought taut without danger of breaking them. In addition, we use a mechanical planter to speed sowing of row crops. There are a number of models on the market, from simple to elaborate; keep in mind that they are largely unnecessary for gardens of less than 500 square feet.
One other piece of equipment that will help maintain your hand tools is a scraper tub. This is a tub or half wine barrel, filled with sand, into which you dump the waste oil generated by oil changes on any equipment you may own. The resulting oily, sand-filled tub should be kept right near where the tools are hung. That way each time you return a spade or fork or hoe to its nail you can jam it down into the sand a few times to rub off any newly acquired corrosion (and oil the metal at the same time).
Pest Control Tools
If you will be using dusts and sprays you will need the tools to apply them. As noted above, many of the pest controls that are considered organic because of their natural origin, are nonetheless as toxic to humans as they are to the pests they are meant to attack—they are preferable to synthetics primarily because they break down quickly into benign materials, and thus have no long-term, cumulative side effects on the environment—so you should wear protective clothing while using them. A paper mask is sufficient, but I wear an actual respirator to be certain; gloves and goggles are not necessary, but still …we organic gardeners are a cautious lot.
The best kind of duster to get is the kind that has a rotating blower to power the dust, some sort of hopper to hold the powder, and a relatively long, adjustable nozzle to direct the dust. If your garden is large, get one that has a shoulder strap, as holding the unit while rotating the crank will quickly tire your hands. The adjustable nozzle is important because you need to get the dust up under the plants where the pests hide and unless you plan to get down on your hands and knees each time you dust, the extension tube on the nozzle duster comes in handy. For small gardens a trombone type plunger duster will work, but you’ll wear out your arms trying to cover any substantial amount of space with one.
The same concerns apply to sprayers. The little pump-up cans you see at the hardware store may be fine for a small garden, but if yours is bigger than about 500 square feet, go for a backpack sprayer and save yourself a lot of aggravation. There are a number of good models on the market that allow you to pump with one arm and spray with the other. These sprayers work very well for foliar feeding (applying dilute liquid fertilizer to plant leaves) as well as pest control.