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An inside look at the tools that make gardening a pleasure

So you’ve gotten the garden bug and sallied off to the garden center to pick plants. Wait just a minute; before you leave the garden center, better run through a check list and see if you’ve got all the garden tools you’ll need to make your garden spring to life. We aren’t going to break the bank here; no power tools and even a few you can craft yourself. We’ll touch on a few items that could be considered luxuries, but only if they really make the job easier (or more fun…).

We can make this list a lot more organized by breaking the jobs in the garden into four main categories:

  • Tilling
    Tilling covers soil preparation and moving; basically plowing and carting.
  • Cultivating
    Cultivating is any job we do to maintain the garden, like weeding or pruning.
  • Planting
    Planting covers how we get the plants in the ground
  • Watering
    And finally, that most important task, watering (which explains itself…).

Let’s break it down…

Assuming you’re not doing an acre of veggies, your most important tilling tool is a good shovel or spade. This is the work horse, a real jack of all trades that hits almost every category (I have never tried to water with a spade and do not see an immediate need…). There is no point in going cheap here. This is a lifetime purchase if done well; you will be back here in a year or two if you screw up, so buy the best you can afford. I am a big fan of all metal spades; I have had the one I am currently dating for a decade.

I am using this tool in a professional capacity AND using it for my home garden; I have dug trees and shrubs, transplanted and split countless perennials and grass, cut sod and roots, and even hammered a few stakes with it and I foresee several more decades of the same (I hope I hold up!). A spade offers more versatility; the narrower blade and shorter handle make it easier for work in a small (or established) garden. The shovel is a better choice for digging that big hole (and for saving your back), but why choose? I have both and suggest you do as well.

If you do have that big area, or are just establishing a bed, roto-tilling is a good method but a quick word here; I do not feel that buying a roto-tiller is a good investment. Renting for the weekend to knock out that new garden makes much more sense, as yearly roto-tilling breaks down the composition of your soil (more so in clay soils). Repeated tilling also brings up weed seed that eventually decays if left in the depths of the soil strata. This may not sound like a big deal, but consider crabgrass. It can lay dormant at depths of up to three feet for 100 years, waiting to infest your bed and dive into the lawn.

The secret life of worms
I like to establish the bed with one good tilling and then let the worms do the rest. If you have provided organic matter and decent moisture they will come (adding a box or two of night crawlers from the bait shop don’t hurt any, either…). Worms migrate through the soil throughout the year, climbing from below the frost line in the spring to tear into the surface layers in the summer, diving back down in the fall to wait out the winter. They have a daily cycle as well, going deeper to escape the heat of the day. As they move through the soil they break it up and reconstitute it as castings, which actually add fertilizing nutrients to the soil. Let’s see a roto-tiller do that! So as you can probably guess, my favorite tilling tool is a box of worms.

Breaking up the soil can be very difficult in clay situations, and working around established trees can leave you frustrated with the roots. The right tool for both jobs is a mattock. It looks like the offspring of a pick and a hoe and handles both these tough jobs and a lot of others. I do not own a pick; the mattock covers those bases nicely as well (I am fond of tools that multi-task).

Spading fork
A spading fork is a wonderful tool for transplanting and aerating; two together make such a wonderful device for splitting grasses and perennials that I have always had two hand forks (stab them back to back at the point you want to split and work the handles apart). They will also do the job of a manure fork, sorting hay, mulch and the like, at least for a smaller garden.

Pry bar
In the New England garden, rock is our constant companion, and those of you with hardpan know how difficult it is to break through. No list of tilling tools would be complete without the pry bar, or breaker bar. You know the one, 6'of iron bar just perfect for, well, prying and breaking things. This one gets a workout whenever I start a new bed, prying up the inevitable boulder or two that I run across. It also is another tool that can double as a pick, so we’re running out of reasons to own one.

If we’re starting a bed we’re adding compost and humus, mulching and perhaps even moving soil from one locale to another, so I include the barrows and carts in this group. This is a personal decision, based on what you are intending to carry and your own personal limitations. The traditional wheelbarrow with the single tire up front is great for working in tight spaces, but it can be unstable with a big load, and anyone who has had to shovel a load of gravel off of a lawn will attest that it is not much of a labor saving device if you dump it. Gardening Tools article continued here...

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