Imagine with me for a moment. You’re shipwrecked on a beautiful “desert” isle. There’s good soil, the rain falls for 30 minutes every afternoon, starting precisely at 3 o’clock, and the temperatures hover between 65° at night and 80° at noon. In fact, it’s so lovely, you kind of hope you won’t be rescued!
There are no grocery stores, but you’re not worried. You salvaged a few months’ worth of food from your sinking ship, the local reef fish seem to leap into your homemade net, and you “just happened” to have packed a complete assortment of vegetable seeds in your waterproof luggage. (I told you we were imagining.)
You’re in pretty good shape, except for one thing. You need some garden tools. If the fairy goddolphin came along and offered you three tools, which ones would you ask for? Which tools do you find so indispensable that you can’t garden without them? Here’s my list:
A sturdy, sharp trowel
This is the tool I reach for 90% of the time. My vegetable garden grows in raised beds which haven’t been walked on in twenty years, so the soil is reasonable loose. I don’t need to double dig any more. There aren’t any big clods or rocks left. I have plenty of humus. A trowel is really all I need.
I use my trowel when adding a bit of compost or fertilizer at planting time, when creating a furrow for planting large seeds (peas, beans, corn), when setting out transplants, to extricate stubborn weeds.
Having worn out plenty of these little hand shovels, I’ve learned how to pick out ones that will last. They usually break at the joint between blade and handle, so that’s what I examine. One-piece construction is best. If you can’t find a one-piece trowel, at least get one that is firmly welded. Make sure the metal won’t bend when you put tension on it. Is it comfortable to use? Some are more ergonomic than others.
My current go-to trowel is molded out of a single piece of aluminum. It’s thick and never bends, but it’s also lightweight. The only complaint I have is that the end was blunt rather than sharp. I easily fixed that with a file and some determination, although I have to admit it doesn’t hold an edge very well.
My backup trowel has inches marked off on the long, narrow blade. It’s perfect for planting bulbs, setting out tomatoes, and discovering pocket gopher tunnels. The metal ring around the handle tongue is no longer attached, and having it rattling around is a bit annoying, but so far the tool hasn’t broken—I assume it will eventually.
When I bring home a new trowel or other hand tool, I spray the handles a bright color—red, orange, pink—so I can see where I left them among the plants. The paint eventually wears off, but spray cans are cheap.
A child’s sized shovel.
We have a big shovel that lifts a large, heavy load of soil or amendment, and Pete uses that one. I prefer my smaller version. The handle is about four feet long, and the blade measures about seven inches across and nine inches from the top to the pointed tip. No, it doesn’t lift as much, but I don’t wear myself out either. Plus, it neatly fits in small spaces, such as between plants in a crowded bed.
Mine little shovel used to be purple; I bought it years ago at Home Depot. It’s beginning to wear out. I hope they still carry them.
A soil thermometer.
Surprised? Maybe I wouldn’t need one on my hypothetical island, but here in Colorado a thermometer is essential. A day’s air temperatures may range over a 50 degree spread at the beginning of the growing season—how can I possibly know when to plant?
Soil temperatures are not only more stable, but that’s where I’m putting my seeds, and that is where the new plants’ roots will be. Most seeds won’t germinate in cold soil. Save yourself some grief and get a thermometer. Then learn how to use it properly.
Sure, I routinely haul things in my garden cart. I use a rake, and occasionally a hoe. Those long, skinny weeders are helpful when pulling dandelions, and pruning clippers are useful for sizing dead plants for compost pile. But give me my trowel, my pint-sized shovel, and my thermometer, and I’m ready to garden.
What are your favorite tools, and why?