What Tools Do I Need?
Vegetable gardening is definitely “hands-on,” so knowing which basic tools you need can make it easier and more fun than if you try to work with the wrong equipment. The basic tasks start in the spring with digging the garden beds, getting them ready for planting, moving amendments and debris to and from the garden site, and then planting the seeds and transplants, watering, harvesting, making compost, and of course, keeping track of everything you are doing. If all you have is a few containers on a balcony you will need to do most of these tasks, just a bit differently and on a smaller scale.
TEN BASIC TOOLS NEEDED FOR VEGETABLE GARDENING
Some of the above tools will be used more often than others and there are smaller versions of each tool available for your small-scale garden.
You need a shovel for digging, tilling, and amending your garden beds. There are two basic types, a round-edged one and flat-edged one. Each has different functions and both may not be needed depending on what kind of garden site you have. A round-edged shovel is used for scooping and lifting soil. This type of shovel is great for turning your garden beds and adding in organic amendments such as compost or aged animal manure. A shovel with a flat, rectangular blade is used most when prepping a new garden bed. This type of shovel works well for cutting edges, removing or turning sod, digging holes, and for prying up rocks.
You want to choose a shovel with a smooth, rounded shoulder at the top of the blade to protect your feet when pressing down on the shovel. When moving material from one area to another, turn your whole body, not just your hips. Stand up straight while digging, and bend your knees when lifting. This will help prevent any back strains or injuries.
There are two different garden forks that can come in handy; one is used for digging and the other for turning your compost. The digging fork (sometimes called a spading fork) is used for turning over soil, mixing in soil amendments, lifting and breaking up clumps of soil, and for harvesting root crops. The compost fork (or sometimes called a pitchfork) is ideal for turning and moving compost, mulches, straw, green manures, and other organic material used in or around your garden beds. If you are planning to make a layered garden the compost fork will probably come in very handy.
What tools do I need to make compost?
Firstly, you need a bin of some sort. You will need a good quality garden fork to turn your pile, a thermometer to tell if the compost is heating up, and a tarp or plastic to keep your pile covered unless you are using a commercial bin that already has a cover.
Your digging fork should have four broad, flat metal tines with V-shaped ends. You want a solid fork with a bit of weight to it so that you can easily turn soil or lift out rocks without the tines bending. The compost fork has four curved tines that are fine so that they easily penetrate and hold on to the organic matter. You want this fork to be lighter as you will be doing more lifting and throwing of materials with it.
When choosing a fork you want to make sure the size and weight are a good fit for you. Always choose the best quality tool you can afford.
The rake is used for preparing and cleaning your garden bed, for planting, and for collecting organic matter like garden debris and leaves that are found around your yard. You want to use a garden rake which has small tines attached to a bar that is attached to the handle. This type of rake is used for leveling and cleaning any larger pebbles and debris from your planting bed. A finely raked, clean bed is necessary when planting seeds like carrots, radishes, turnips, rutabagas, and salad greens.
The garden rake can be used for gathering up leaves, grass clippings, and other garden debris; however, a leaf rake is much easier to work with for these jobs. The leaf rake or landscape rake has longer teeth and they are arranged in a fan style. The tines or teeth are usually made of steel, plastic, or bamboo. This allows you to rake up a larger amount of debris.
You have seen it happen in slapstick comedy. Someone steps on a rake and it swings upward, hitting the person in the face. This can look funny in a movie, but it can cause serious injury to a person if it happens in your garden. Be aware of where you leave your rake and never leave it with the tines facing upward!
When choosing a rake, make sure it fits your body. You want to be able to stand upright while raking so as not to injure or strain your back. If the rake handle is too long or too short it is difficult to work with. Purchase one that will fit your body and the needs of your garden.
The most common use for a hoe is keeping your garden free of weeds. It can also be used to mark rows when planting seeds or transplants. The basic hoe is a goosenecked hoe which has a flat edge used for digging and chopping weeds. The stirrup hoe is easier to use when weeding large garden beds as it slices the top inch or so of the soil, cutting the weeds off just below the soil surface. This motion is easier on your back and shoulders than the digging motion used with the goosenecked hoe.
In a small-space garden all you may need is a handheld hoe for digging deep, stubborn weeds. Hand weed the rest. If you choose to purchase a regular hoe make sure the length of the handle is long enough so you can work standing upright. Keep the blade sharp to make it easier to work with. Hoe in the evening just before the sun goes down to discourage the weeds from germinating. It is easier to hoe when the soil is moist; however, if it has been dry and there is a rainfall predicted, hoeing hard soil will help it to absorb the moisture better.
The hand trowel is a handy little tool for digging a hole when setting out your transplants or when planting bulbs like garlic or your seed potatoes. A hoe will do a similar job, but a hand trowel might be much easier to work with in a small-scale garden as you are usually closer to the ground. Having a tool with a long handle can make the job more difficult. Another good use for the hand trowel is as a measuring stick since having a measurement marker makes it easier to get the correct depth when planting your seeds, bulbs, or seed potatoes. When purchasing, look for a trowel that has depth measurements written on the blade, or if you cannot find one with the markings, take time to make your own using a permanent marker.
Reuse items around your home such as aprons with large pockets, wicker or plastic baskets, a backpack, or a child's wagon as a tool holder. Having all your tools in one place makes it easier to grab everything you need quickly.
Using the trowel and hoe together is a great way to make a straight garden row for placing your seeds. Use the handle of your hoe as a marker for the row and then use the trowel to make a trench along one side of the handle to the depth you need.
Wheelbarrow or Bucket
Something easy to move and big enough to carry items around your garden is essential. A wheelbarrow can come in very handy even in a small space. If you are only growing in a few containers, a sturdy bucket may be all you need. Either one is used for hauling items like compost, amendments and manure to and from your garden site so they can be added to your garden beds. The wheelbarrow can be used for transporting vegetables you have harvested, hanging your garlic or onions over the sides of the wheelbarrow so you can easily move them in and out of the sun, and for carrying plant material you have collected to your compost area.
There are many different types of wheelbarrows and they come in varying price ranges. They can be made of plastic or cloth and be lightweight, or of heavy-duty metal or aluminum. Two-wheeled ones make hauling heavy loads easy. The most common is the single-wheeled type with two handles for pushing. Before choosing a wheelbarrow make sure you know what you will be using it for and the amount you will be hauling in it. Are you going to be carrying heavy loads? Choosing a sturdy metal one is probably best. Do you have a small garden and are only going to be using it for lighter loads? Then a lightweight plastic or cloth type may work better for you. A wheelbarrow that can be easily stored might be another consideration for a small-space garden. When purchasing a wheelbarrow, take the time to push it around in the store. If it feels heavy for you when it is empty, go for a model that is more lightweight as it will only get heavier when full!
Garden Hose or Watering Can
No matter how small your garden is, if you have to pack water, you will be less likely to water your plants adequately. This is where the garden hose or a proper-sized watering can comes in. When planning your garden make sure you have a water source nearby and that the hose reaches to all corners of your garden. Hoses come in different lengths and can be easily connected together to make the length that works best for your garden site.
Hoses come in a variety of styles and are usually of ½ inch to 1 inch in diameter. The bigger the hose diameter, the faster the water will come through, although the rate may vary depending on what kind of water pressure you have. Larger diameter hoses are usually heavier to move around. Try to choose a “no kink” hose for ease of moving around as it can become frustrating when your hose kinks at one end of the garden and shuts off the water while you are at the other end! You can spend a lot of money on hose carriers and systems to roll them up; some are better than others and what you choose will depend on your garden site and the amount you wish to spend. Purchase the best quality hose you can afford and take care of it by remembering to take it inside during the colder months so that it does not crack.
When moving a hose around your garden it can become frustrating if it knocks over plants or pulls mulch around your garden. One solution is to place a curved drainpipe (with the curve downward) securely into the ground, allowing the hose to be easily guided through it.
Attaching a water wand or nozzle to the end of your hose can make gardening easier as it allows you to reach the base of the plant more easily without straining or having to bend. There are a variety of water wands available. The best option is to purchase one that has several spray functions and gives you different ways of watering your veggies.
You can find all kinds of gardening items in your local gardening store or in seed catalogues. All of these gadgets have their place in the garden if you can afford them; however, they are usually not necessary in most gardens. For the home gardener a good sharp knife is one of the most flexible tools you can use. A simple knife is great for opening bags of fertilizer, cutting string, cutting your vegetables when they are ready to be harvested, cutting off stems of plants for composting, cutting off diseased or pest-infected plants (just make sure you disinfect the knife afterward), and for slicing into a tomato or cucumber to eat it! A good quality knife is one of the handiest tools to carry with you when in your garden.
A good pair (or a few pairs) of garden gloves is needed to help keep your hands soft and prevent blisters on your hands when doing heavy work. Working in soil or with other organic materials can give your hands a beating, and digging or shoveling for any length of time is a sure way to give yourself a blister if you are doing it with bare hands. Weeding can be hard on the fingernails and fingertips as well. A good pair of gloves will help to protect your hands from all these hazards.
When choosing a pair of gloves make sure they fit snuggly but are not too tight. If they are too large, every time you put down your tool they will have a tendency to fall off. It is harder to grip anything if a glove is too big! A well-fitting pair of gloves made with a breathable material that is easy to wash is the one you want to choose. An inexpensive option, especially if working in wet soil, is a pair of kitchen rubber gloves. They will protect your hands and keep them dry as well.
Number ten on the list of the Ten Basic Gardening Tools is a garden journal. The importance of jotting down where you planted certain things, how they grew, and what worked or did not work is invaluable for planning and troubleshooting next season. The journal can be as fancy or as simple as you want it to be. Choosing some kind of bound book or folder is better than using scraps of paper as a book or a folder is easier to carry with you and can be put away once the growing season is finished.
Here are some important items for your journal:
A drawing of your garden site
A section for each type of vegetable (or family of vegetables) listing the variety you planted and where, the maturity date, how well it grew, how successful the harvest was, and would you grow this variety again
A place to note when you fertilized each vegetable, how much was given, and whether it seemed to make a difference.
A note about any pest or disease problem, actions taken, and whether it made a difference
Writing in a garden journal is one the best habits a vegetable gardener can have. It is important to jot down your thoughts about what worked or did not work in your garden to make it easier to plan for next season. You may think you will remember certain details from one season to the next. But often you might not even recall where certain vegetables were planted so you can do a proper crop rotation. Just little notes about the weather or whether you saw butterflies or ladybugs in your garden are interesting to write about. Often the little things are the most valuable when looking back at how our garden grew in past seasons.