As anyone who subscribes to my YouTube channel knows, we use all hand tools on our farm, with the notable exception of a Stihl string trimmer for cutting paths and grass. On my previous property I often cut grass with an antique scythe, but our current homestead has a lot of blade-destroying rocks so I stick with my trimmer.
There are a few reasons for this Luddite approach to gardening. First, I don’t like having to fix and maintain machines. Second, I don’t like spending money on expensive tools. Third, we only farm a half-acre, so getting a chainsaw, or a tiller or a tractor is not needed. Fourth, I simply enjoy using good hand tools that work with a little human power. Fifth, it’s good exercise, and I need exercise so I don’t end up looking like the average writer.
Unfortunately, it’s getting hard to find decent tools – even simple hand tools. Modern garden tools are mostly junk. Somewhere along the line, the good stuff was stolen from us.
Did you ever hold an old silver dollar in your hand? Or, even better, a gold coin? A hundred years ago, our money was real. Tangible. Beautiful and well-made. Now the nations of the world have replaced precious metals with paper, aluminum, steel and other base metals. The US penny isn’t even made from solid copper anymore! It also won’t buy you a piece of candy, like its ancestors, because its real value has been inflated away and stolen. It’s a zinc slug, coated with a shiny copper coating that turns green and corrodes faster than you can say “Federal Reserve.” It may look like a copper penny but it’s not. And you certainly can’t trade 100 pennies for a chunky silver dollar. It’s junk that looks like it isn’t.
Garden tools have suffered in a similar manner. When you buy a spading fork from your local hardware store, it may look similar to your grandpa’s fork. It might even look nicer. Yet when you take it home and put it to work, you’ll rapidly find you’ve been sold something that looks like a fork but is instead a piece of bendy junk. Forget trying to break new ground with it. You almost have to do all your digging first, then only use your fork to loosen already loose soil. What’s the use in that?
The ordinary garden hoe has suffered a similar fate. What you’ll find now is a cheap blade, welded onto a cheap swan’s neck that fits into the hole in a wooden handle and is held in place by a cheap collar. It doesn’t hold a good edge and after some use, you often can’t keep the head on the handle. It’s a poor imitation of the hoes of the past, which were all one piece of good steel. The blade and the swan’s neck and the collar on an old hoe were all one piece. The collar fit over the end of a tapered wooden handle and was held in tightly by a small nail or screw or two that went through the steel into the handle. It was easy to repair if the handle gave up on you, plus the steel would take a great edge and stay sharp through the decapitation of untold weeds. An antique hoe is a joy to use and its head isn’t going to fall off.
You should not have to baby your gardening tools. Tools should be able to work as hard as you do, or harder.
Now we’re stuck with junk. Maybe as we sink into a new Great Depression and gardening takes off, people will quit buying from China and start producing some good tools again right here in Florida. Maybe you’ll be the one. Now there’s a thought!
Enough dreaming. Let’s run down the basic tools you need for a garden, starting with the tools you should have, then moving on to a list of tools that are nice to have.
Tools You Should Have:
In order to cut sod and turn the soil, a spade or a shovel is a must-have tool. Spades should have a thin springy blade that has been sharpened to a knife-like edge. A sharp blade makes digging (relatively) easy. An honestly manufactured blade stays sharp, though the blade will be entirely blunt when the tool is purchased. A 15-degree blade angle is fine for sand and will save you some effort, as well as cutting grass and roots like a boss. I do have a thick-bladed spade I’ve used for double-digging beds but it’s tiring to use. Recently I got an old thin-bladed, almost square-pointed spade that is lighter and works great in sand.
Shovels and spades come with either short or long handles. Short handles are generally more tiring to use than long handles.
After a shovel/spade, the next most important tool is a hoe.
Grasses and broad leaved weeds thrive in unirrigated infertile soil; they withstand extreme competition and still reproduce. Vegetables once were edible wild plants before humans redesigned them to provide larger amounts of better tasting food at the cost of becoming far less competitive. Vegetables require fertile, moist soil and minimal competition. If weeds are allowed to come up and grow at the same time the vegetables start out they soon suppress the vegetables. There is no way around it! A few weeds that come up after your vegetables and don’t grow tall enough to shade them won’t do much harm to that crop – but if you let them make seeds, you’ll have more weeds to deal with later. If you hoe regularly and knock down the weeds, you’ll have less and less weeds to deal with in future gardens.
Many garden writers recommend jamming plants so close together they must be weeded by hand as you crouch over the beds or squat in the path. The supposed benefit is more food from less area, yet intensive arrangements require meticulous hand work and are time consuming. If you have enough land to spread plants out it is worth the savings in effort. Weeding with a hoe is easier than constant hand weeding. No matter which gardening style is used, you won’t take a ton of time weeding if you’re only taking care of a few 4′ x 8′ beds, but if your goal is to produce a diverse year-round abundance that covers dinner plates every day of the year then the garden must be large. Hand weeding that many beds takes too many hours and is incredibly tedious.
Better to give your plants plenty of growing room and eliminate weeds with a hoe. A large garden takes up more space but it’s easily manageable if you can hoe rather than hand-weed. The spacings I suggest in this book give you enough space between plants that you can easily weed them with a hoe when they are young. Later, the leaf canopy shades the ground enough to suppress weeds and you can quit all the hoeing. The rare weed that does get above your crops is easily tugged out.
Hoeing young weeds goes quickly and takes little effort if blade is sharp and the surface is loose. Hoeing once a week insures that no weed makes seed and makes the next year’s hoeing easier. A recently hoed surface is always easy to work the next time as every weed will still be small. Done this way it takes no more effort to hoe the isles and paths than it does to sweep a floor. If your weeds are allowed to grow on for another full week, it gets harder to clean up your beds. Wait three weeks and you’re in trouble, especially during Florida’s rainy season. Knock them down when they’re small and it’s an easy job.
The key to success is a sharp hoe. A weeding hoe should work like a knife that severs a small plant’s main stem just below the surface. Boom! Dead! Hoeing little weeds does not use a lot of energy. In order to work efficiently the hoe’s blade must sit flat on the soil’s surface as you stand up straight and hold the handle. The blade should slice through the soil just below the surface. If your hoe blade is angled downward it tends to bury itself deeper and you end up dragging dirt. If the blade is angled upward, it tends to lift itself out of the soil. Then the hoer bends over to compensate which unnecessarily tires the back. That’s why the blade attaches to the handle with a rod of mild bendable steel (called a swansneck) so that the blade’s angle of attack can be adjusted to match the user’s height and natural stance. Bending the swansneck is best done by resting it against the corner of an anvil and tapping it firmly with a hammer. Don’t try to bend it very much in one go. It usually takes but the slightest tweak (done a few times) to get it perfect.
The common garden hoe will be entirely blunt when you buy it. Working with a blunt hoe is about as exhausting and ineffective as trying to sharpen a blunt hoe for the first time with a dull file. Buy a new one if yours are old or rusty. Clamp the blade in a bench vice and patiently a grind down the outside face until no more than a 15° bevel is formed—like a wood chisel.
If you don’t have a workbench, brace the hoe somewhere tightly and start filing. Get the bevel perfect, then remove the very thin metal burr that filing on one side has pushed over the edge. Do this by giving the opposite face a few light strokes with the file pressed flat against the blade so as to not grind even the slightest bevel into that side. With the burr removed, a 15° chisel-like edge should almost cut your finger if you press hard. Filing an effective edge for the first time takes work. It’s important to hold the file at exactly the same angle through each and every stroke or else the bevel will never get sharp. And don’t take what may seem to be the easy way out by making the bevel less acute (and less sharp) so that there’s less metal to grind off—that only makes weeding many times harder than any effort saved when filing.
The common garden hoe is common because its design is so versatile. It slices, scrapes and chops and is good for making seed-planting furrows. If the manufacturer went to the expense of welding the swansneck to a substantial socket that the handle goes into then the hoe should prove to be unbreakable and the blade should stay sharp. If the swansneck itself is stuck in a hole drilled in the handle, with a thin metal collar wrapped around the outside, then likely the blade is also junk and won’t hold an edge. This cheap hoe probably will cost far more in time and effort than the dollars it saved. Cheap steel is quick to shape, easy to weld and won’t stay sharp. If filing the initial bevel goes quickly then you’re working metal that loses its edge just as quickly. Tool steel and forged steel cost more. Good steel is hard; it takes more time and effort to sharpen the first time but may never need to be resharpened if you’re working in sand.
In summer, weeds can get away from you if you aren’t out in the garden regularly. Chopping is the only way to get big weeds out. My favorite hoe is an antique I purchased in Micanopy years ago and pressed back into service. The socket, swansneck and blade are all one piece of steel and it cuts through weeds like a hot knife through butter. I’ve since bought multiple antique hoe heads on ebay and put handles on them for my wife and children to use. They are better than any I’ve found in the hardware store.
A modern hoe you can find that does work well, however, is the “stirrup” hoe, also known as the “scuffle hoe” or the “hula” hoe. It has a hooped blade that rocks back and forth on a pivot, allowing the gardener to cut weeds on the push and pull strokes. It’s great in Florida sand and I highly recommend using one.
Some years ago I bought a Clarington Forge spading fork with an extra long handle that better fits my height. Back then, they were still made in England, at the same forge where they’d been made for over two hundred years. It is a great fork that turns the ground without bending. I recommended them for a few years, until I heard that the company had shifted its production to India. Now I no longer trust the forks and do not recommend them, despite assurances that they’re the same quality they’ve ever been. I have no faith in third-world standards.I’ll bet they wish in the wake of this pandemic that they’d kept their old forge inside the UK. What a stupid thing to send your productive capacity overseas, especially with something great you’ve made for centuries.
A good fork is hard to find, but even some of the cheaper ones may stand up to Florida sand. Just look for good, stiff, thick tines. Don’t go cheap when you buy a fork, and don’t mistake a manure fork/pitchfork for a spading/digging fork. Pitch forks are just for moving hay and straw around, not for digging. Spading forks have four, thick tines made to be forced into the soil.
If you find an old spading fork at an antique sale, pick it up. One farmer I met was digging his field and discovered the head of an antique fork in the soil, still in working condition. He put a new handle on it and has been using it ever since. Now that’s the way tools should be made!
In light soil a fork can loosen a bed far more quickly than a spade can. Push the tines in all the way, then pull the handle back to loosen the ground. Then pull the fork out, move back a few inches, push it in again and level the handle back again. It’s smart to spread compost and other amendments before forking a bed because some of it falls into the momentary openings the fork makes.
Don’t push your fork too hard or try to pry up rocks and roots with it, especially if it’s a cheapie.
It’s good to have both a hard-tined rake and a leaf rake. The former is indispensable when you make garden beds, as it allows you to rake out weeds and grass and shape beds. The latter is good for final touches or for gathering up fallen leaves and grass clippings for your compost pile.
Tools That are Nice To Have:
We bought a variety of baskets from local thrift stores so we could carry in our produce. Large, open ones are good for bulky leaf vegetables like mustard and pak choi and smaller ones are good for picking beans, tomatoes and other small crops. If you have fruit trees, it’s also great to have a large, strong basket or two for gathering oranges, avocados, mangoes, peaches, etc. Buckets will work in a pinch but aren’t as pleasant. Or pretty enough for your glitzy Instagram feed.
An American-made tool I trust and recommend, which stands in somewhat for a spading fork, is the Meadow Creature broadfork. I own and use the standard 14″ model, which allows me to dig deep beds and till new ground. I’ve been using it for years without breaking it, though the tips of some of the tines have now turned a little from being plunked down too hard onto rock by a friend who borrowed it from me. The Meadow Creature is a solid steel four-tined, two-handled monster that looks rather like something you’d use to storm the gates of a medieval fortress.
To use it, thunk the tines into the ground, then step up on the cross bar and rock it back and forth so the tines work themselves into the ground. Once they’ve gone as deep as they want to go, you step off and rock the handles back, breaking up the soil above. Then move back a little bit and do it again. It’s like having a giant spading fork. In sand, you can till as much as 10,000 square feet of garden in a day. In clay, you’d be lucky to hit 1,000 square feet in the same time. There are other broadfork manufacturers that make lighter models than the Meadow Creature and those might also work well in Florida sand. I am tough on tools so I stick to the Meadow Creature.
Buckets are useful for hauling water and amendments, harvesting, using to make compost tea and for a variety of home tasks. I tuck yam heads in a five-gallon bucket over winter and store them under the house to keep until spring, we use buckets in our composting outhouse system, buckets are pressed into service to store wood ash and homemade fish fertilizer – and you can even grow decent vegetables in soil-filled buckets with some holes drilled in the bottom. It’s hard to have too many.
I have multiple digging or “grub” hoes, also known as “eye hoes” because they have a hole that a handle fits into. Some of them are multi-purpose weeding and digging types and others that are more dedicated to one or the other. I highly recommend them, as they work the soil easier than digging with a shovel. Bring the head down and THUNK!, you’ve torn a divot from the ground.
One of my favorites for weeding large areas very quickly is the broad-bladed but light “grape hoe” sold by EasyDigging.com. I never want to go without one again. I also like their triangle hoe, which is a very fast weeder of large areas. I’ve beat mine to death and need to get another one before too long.
A sharp little knife is a valuable garden tool. A knife is useful for harvesting, thinning young seedlings and slicing up tomatoes for impromptu taste-tests in the garden.
When a newly-emerged row needs thinning, the slow way to thin is with your fingers. The easy way is by cutting surplus seedlings off just below the soil line with a small, pointed knife that is quite sharp at the tip—like a mini-hoe. Running a knife-sharp blade through soil rapidly dulls it, so keep a stone or file handy. You can also use a pair of scissors for thinning. Author and inventor Herrick Kimball keeps an old mailbox on a post in his garden for storing knives, gloves, scissors and other pits and pieces out of the rain. I love the idea.
In Central America, machetes are a farmer’s indispensable tool, used for everything from digging to clearing brush to cutting yam poles to slaughtering cows. It’s also often used for peeling oranges and opening coconuts while on lunch break. In a Florida garden, the machete is excellent for transplanting and cutting roots, as well as for clearing new ground, chopping material up for a compost pile, harvesting sugarcane and, when used tightly parallel to the soil, for scalping weeds. If you purchase a machete, most every variety imported from tropical American countries will serve you well. Tramontina and Corona are both good. The English “Martindale” company also makes excellent machetes that are used across the Caribbean. They differ somewhat from their Spanish-speaking cousins in having slightly thicker blades that are less springy. Buy a machete that fits your hand well and isn’t too heavy. There are quite heavy models that can make short work of thick brush but will also tire the hand rapidly. I prefer a shorter, cutlass-style Martindale machete for most work, as it isn’t heavy and is easy to control, though I recently bought one of my sons a short-bladed Tramontina and am very impressed with how fast it works and how it holds an edge.
When picking fruit or working with grasses, sugarcane or pulling vines, a “cane knife” style machete with a hook on the back is nice to have, as the hook is quite useful for catching material and pulling it close to be chopped. Cane machetes are not good for transplanting or stabbing as the end is blunt. Just be careful with cane machetes. I once cut through two tendons in the back of my le∂ft hand with one while attempting to open a coconut. I was wearing a wide-brimmed straw hat and as I brought the blade down, the hook on the back caught the edge of my hat, misdirecting the blade inwards by a few inches and putting it squarely across the base of my index finger. That was an awful experience we would rather have all of you avoid. A sharp machete is a cold and heartless tool, dividing flesh even more readily than coconut husks.
Scissors are great for snipping unwanted seedlings to the ground during thinning. They are also good for quickly chopping up greens for the pot.
One morning, my seven-year-old son and I made a few spacing sticks for our gardens. We made them in 2′, 3′ and 4′ lengths. As the paths are 2′ wide and the beds 4′, those two sticks were quite useful for establishing new beds. The 3′ stick we used for spacing okra and unirrigated corn. Having a few spacing sticks is a quick way to space out your beds and your seeds and transplants. Ours are made from thin lengths of pressure-treated pine, painted white with different colors at the ends of the sticks. I might make myself a 1′ and a 6′ at some point, but that might just be getting silly. Once you have a few, you can guesstimate the rest. For example, if you wanted to plant beans 2′ apart, you could just lay a 4′ stick on your bed, then plant a bean at each end and one in the middle. Having a variety of spacing sticks could be silly. Then again, if you aren’t too neurotic, you can just use your own body for spacing, using pacing and cubits and palm widths.
A tiller is nice to use when you have a big area to till up. A broadfork doesn’t require gas and doesn’t break, though, so I’ve quit using tillers and sold the three broken ones that had cluttered up my barn. The only time I miss a tiller is when I’m looking at a big field or chunk of lawn and wish I could just tear it up in a few hours. In that case, it’s nice to rent one or have a friend till for you.
Who needs a trowel? You have a machete now! Actually, my wife prefers transplanting with a trowel, so I keep one for her.
A watering can is good to have for transplants and for foliar feeding. It’s also nice when you just want to water a small area without dragging out the hose.
A wheel barrow is quite handy when building beds, making compost, hauling soil and distributing materials. Get a solid one but not the heavy ones made for concrete, as they are a pain to manage. Having a single wheel is good, as you can navigate in tighter spaces. Most wheelbarrows at the big box shop are junky – don’t get the cheapest one. Try to find a good one – or hunt garage sales and get an old one and fix it up.
The wheel hoe is a nice tool for larger gardens, as it allows you to rapidly clear weeds from a path. It’s an interesting tool that almost disappeared from the American garden decades ago. Recently, however, it’s started to make a comeback thanks to the internet and a lot of small farmers interested in getting maximum output from quality hand tools without resorting to gas-guzzling tillers.
The most famous wheel hoe is the classic Planet Jr. cultivator. Unfortunately, Planet Jr. went out of business years ago though there’s still a thriving trade in their implements on eBay and in the antiques world. A good old Planet Jr. wheel hoe will usually set you back $200 or more. The wheel hoe allows you to clean up a field plot in a fraction of the time it would take you with any other hoe. The wheel in front allows an incredibly efficient distribution of force that works wonders in decapitating weeds, especially when it’s teamed up with the oscillating blade behind it, which rocks back and forth depending on if your’e pushing or pulling, decapitating weeds both ways.
We own Herrick Kimball’s “Planet Whizbang Wheel Hoe,” which is a well-designed kit-built wheel hoe. It is monster at clearing weeds. The way the oscillating hoe rocks back and forth as you push/pull the hoe makes it almost possible to cut sod with it.
The Planet Whizbang wheel hoe doesn’t have any additional attachments, unfortunately. For that, you need to turn to manufactured wheel hoes such as Hoss, Glaser, orValley Oak, to name a few. There are probably more now but it’s been some time since I was in the market. Hoss also makes a seeder attachment for their wheel hoes, allowing you to plant a large garden in a limited amount of time.
You can get lost in the world of garden tools and implements yet you really don’t need much to build and maintain gardens. A shovel, a fork, a rake, a machete and a hoe will cover most of the work that needs doing. Don’t go chasing gadgets – there’s a reason our most common gardening tools have stuck around since antiquity!
That was an excerpt from Florida Survival Gardening, available now in Paperback and on the Kindle Store.