Choosing and Using Garden Tools
Only about half a dozen tools, and such essentials as a watering can and hose, are needed to grow vegetables and fruit for your family. Until you gain experience, avoid the more specialised gadgets displayed in garden shops.
Choose good-quality tools of a convenient size and weight. Compare different makes by handling as wide a variety as possible before buying. Because good tools will last for many years — some, perhaps, for a lifetime — it is false economy to buy cheap products of indifferent quality.
Tools you will need
The most useful tools and equipment for food growing are:
At least one spade, with a blade measuring approximately 7 x 11in (180 x 280 mm), is needed for digging. A border spade, with a blade about 6 x 9in (150 x 230 mm), is a convenient alternative if you have heavy clay, and for digging holes for planting and for posts.
Though relatively expensive, stainless-steel blades are not liable to rust and the polished surface makes for easier digging on clay.
D-shaped handles made of polypropylene are stronger than those made of wood and are less likely to cause blisters. A flat tread will prevent damage to shoes and boots.
A semi-automatic spade, such as the Terrex, is an effective alternative — especially for gardeners with weak backs. This works by leverage instead of lifting and enables the soil to be turned over with a minimum of effort.
The knack of using a conventional spade lies in letting its weight do some of the work for you. A swinging, rhythmic movement when digging helps the blade to penetrate the soil.
A four-tined fork is invaluable for breaking lumpy soil, for turning over a plot between crops and for lifting deep-rooted plants. It is also useful for shifting compost and garden rubbish. The overall tine measurements should be about the same as those of a digging spade, or a little larger.
Flat-tined forks are sold for potato lifting, but the normal square-tined digging fork is adequate for lifting garden crops.
Do not use a fork for levering out obstinate stumps or posts. Once bent, the tines are difficult to straighten and the tool becomes awkward to use.
For levelling soil and preparing seed beds you will need a well-balanced rake with 10-14 teeth. One with a light head and a slender ash handle is the most suitable.
Test the tool’s weight and balance, because you should support at least part of it with your lower hand rather than simply dragging the head through the soil. This ensures even penetration and makes it easier to level out ridges and hollows.
There are four main types of hoes:
With the blade turned over roughly at right-angles to the handle, this tool is excellent for chopping out weeds on heavily infested ground, for forming drills (shallow furrows) when sowing seeds, and for drawing soil around such plants as potatoes and leeks.
The blade is almost in line with the handle and the tool is used with a pushing or prodding action. This hoe leaves the severed weeds uncovered by soil, making sure that they soon wilt and die.
Hoes such as the Swoe and Saynor are improved forms of the Dutch hoe. They are good for routine hoeing but less suitable for clearing heavy weed growth.
Also known as the onion hoe, this tool is like a miniature draw hoe and is ideal for working close to plants without damaging them. It is tiring to use unless you kneel.
Most gardeners develop their own technique for controlling weeds between rows of vegetable crops. It is best to hoe frequently — every week if possible, during the growing season — before the weeds develop beyond the seedling stage.
Row crops are easily hoed by first weeding between the plants in each row — by hand, or by working forwards with an onion hoe or a draw hoe — and then working backwards between the rows with a Dutch hoe. This allows close weeding between plants in the row but ensures that most of the severed weeds will be left uncovered and will not be pressed into the soil by your feet.
Using a patent hoe, such as the Swoe, the two operations can be combined.
Choose a sturdy tool with a long, not too broad blade. If you measure (and remember) the length of the blade, and of the whole tool, you will find these useful guides to spacing plants.
Though a trowel can be used instead, this tool is ideal for planting cabbages and other brassicas, leeks and lettuces. A steel-pointed dibber can be bought, or an old spade or fork handle shaped to a point.
After placing the plant in the dibber hole, stab the tool in a second time an inch or so away to firm the soil against the roots.
Though a length of string and two pegs will suffice for marking, a purpose-made reel and line save time and are easier to use. The line must be as long as your longest rows, and should preferably be of nylon.
These essential aids to fruit pruning are also handy in the vegetable garden.
The basic choice lies between secateurs which have scissor-action blades, and those which have a single blade cutting against an anvil. Both are equally effective, provided they are kept rust-free and sharp.
A sturdy barrow, with as large a wheel as possible, is needed for moving soil, rubble and paving materials while garden-making, and for carrying compost, garden rubbish and crops that have been harvested.
Flimsy barrows, and some with low-slung bodies on two small wheels, are less suitable for shifting heavy weights.
Hose and watering can
Sooner or later a hose will be needed on all but the smallest plots. Watering with a can is slow and tedious, and you are unlikely to give plants the thorough soaking they need during prolonged dry weather.
Whether or not you have a reel, coil the hose neatly during winter. Plastic hoses are intractable if they have been stored in a tangled heap. Tap connectors and extension pieces are easily attached if the hose is softened in hot water.
A 2 gallon (9L) can — plastic or metal, and with both a coarse and a fine rose — is essential for settling your plants into their bed, for applying liquid fertilisers and for occasional watering which does not call for a hose.
Caring for garden tools
Dry storage — first scraping damp soil from metal — ensures a long life for garden tools. Even better, oil or grease metal parts after removing the soil.
Keep hoe blades sharp by filing once or twice each season. Secure the head of the hoe in a vice, positioned so that you can sharpen the angled side of the blade.
Use a broad file and make sweeping strokes in one direction only — away from your body. Remove burrs on the other side with a few light strokes.
Although it is not worth buying a motor cultivator for the average suburban garden, in most areas these machines can be hired by the day. They provide an easy means of creating a kitchen garden.
Cultivators of all types have rotating tines that break the soil and, to some extent, turn it over. They will mix in a dressing of manure, and the depth of cultivation can be varied.
You may be offered the choice of a cultivator with power-driven wheels and tines or one with power drive to the tines only. Both are effective, but they have different characteristics.
A cultivator with power drive to both wheels and tines — the tines will be mounted at the rear, under a hood — is a little easier to use and tends to mince the soil finely. It is ideal for seed-bed preparation, but small models are less suitable for the initial breaking of heavy soil —especially as the depth of cultivation tends to be limited.
Although there are large, heavy machines of this type, suitable for all types of cultivating, they are seldom available for hire without an operator.
Cultivators which have power drive to the tines only — the tines being mounted under or in front of the engine — work on a different principle. They draw the machine forward as well as digging the soil, the rate of progress and depth of digging being determined by the gardener’s handling of the machine.
The more substantial machines of this type are ideal for establishing a new kitchen garden. But beware of cultivating ground infested with perennial weeds, as chopping the roots into pieces makes eradication more difficult.