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Prepper Must-Haves – Garden Tools

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At its most basic, growing food doesn’t take much. At home it can be accomplished with some tin cans and plastic bottles, maybe some storage totes or buckets or drawers that were salvaged for free, and seeds or starts. When we’re working on that scale our hands and a pencil are sufficient.

Most of the time, though, we expand beyond small and tiny containers. Even with some small, modest beds, there are a few tools like hooked three-prong hand cultivators or a small spade that come in handy. When we’re dealing with numerous beds and a larger plot, we want to step up again. If our food production deals with shrubs, brambles and trees, we need a few more things yet.

To some degree, growing style largely dictates what is a must-have item and what can be set aside. Our bodies and health dictate more – as we get older or accumulate injuries, we may need more mechanical help or to spend less time crouched and thus more time with a long-handled tool of some kind. However, for veggie-veggies – not the large-scale calorie staple and protein staple crops like grinding corn, wheat, barley, beans, lentils, and field peas – there are some standards that will apply for most gardeners.

The Underdog

When I see articles about garden tools for beginners, upgrades for old hats, and reviews on the best contraptions to hit the market, there’s one thing that never seems to make it on the pages: Twine.

Maybe the big guys don’t need it. I sure use a fair bit of twine, string and cord in my gardens, though. I also use a fair bit while I’m air layering. Okay, in truth, I use some, and I also use strips of ruined clothing.

We need something to be tying up plants with, though, regularly, and I regularly use cord for parts of my trellises. There are alternatives, like using netting or light-gauge fencing. Cultivar selection for our plants might also reduce or eliminate trellis needs.

Regularly, though, we need to support something, from a seedling tree that needs staked to hanging planters or containers from and above porch railings.

Some decent twine that doesn’t break as we tie the knot and doesn’t rot in a single season will save us a lot of not-nice words. In the long run, it’s worth the money.

It’s also one of those things that really ought to just wander around the garden and outside with us, right there with a handy pair of pliers, pruners, and our pocketknife.

Machines

Stone me now; there’s not the first Kubota, Deere, Gator, or Kioti on my list. Tractors revolutionized the way we farm, made our way of life possible, and made it possible for the human population worldwide to snowball. The thing is, most of us don’t need them.

Sure, a riding mower or an ATV – especially with tow-behind cultivators, furrowers, spreaders or even just trailers – make life a lot easier. As we start cultivating significant properties, move into producing our own staple crops or producing grass hay and grains for livestock, when we start cutting grass straw, we should look in that direction. Until then … they need fuels, they need maintenance, and for the most part they’re a convenience. With the exception of folks who can’t push or pull physically, they’re not necessary for a veggie garden, even a big one.

Tillers/Powered Cultivators might be a must-have or might be a convenience. It depends on our bodies, growing scheme, and the scale of growing. There are some smaller versions where the power head cross-purposes with other tools like weed-eaters, overhead saws, and the tiller, and that’s a right handy tool to consider. Another option would be either electric tillers that can be powered from a running vehicle or charged from a solar battery bank. Because diesel stores so well, diesel-powered machines – or the vehicle that’s going to be used as a generator – might appeal to others despite the upfront costs.

Wood Chipper-Shredders do make my list as a must-have garden item when we get serious about production. So long as we have plenty of junk trees, firewood trimmings, or fruit trees and brambles to feed through them, anyway.

Mulch is an enormous aid in gardening. It saves labor in weeding, prevents soil compaction and erosion, and limits evaporation of rain and irrigation water. While some types of mulch-bed growing creates an alkaline environment that’s tougher on acid-loving domestic veggies and berries, for the most part we can mitigate the pH of our gardens.

Being able to convert bamboo, privet (pre-seed), and tree prunings from living specimens and firewood or construction into mulch is too valuable to ignore that particular machine.

On the other hand, if we’re shy on trees but have the land space, there’s nothing wrong with switching that chipper-shredder for a weed-eater that’s been modified into an electric, gas or diesel powered scythe. It’ll allow us to relatively quickly cut and lay out straw we can use for garden mulch.

Standard Manual Garden Tools

By and large, once we have beds or plots eked out of the ground with either a tiller or a sod cutter, and have dedicated ourselves to maintaining them, getting them seeded with weed-choking cover crops or heavily mulched, we don’t need a whole lot to maintain gardens.

Still, there are some tools that are right handy.

The short list for manual tools for a garden would really be a round-point digging shovel and-or a trenching shovel, a small garden trowel, a hay rake or flat-tined garden rake for leveling and aerating soil or dragging rows for seeds and transplants, a hoe, and in many cases a cultivator of some kind – a weasel, tiller, broad fork, or similar.

A small three-prong cultivator for one-handed or a long-handled, two-handed version can make weeds a much simpler task, and be used for spacing out seed rows.

A garden fork rates pretty highly as well (like a hay fork but with flat, wide tines) since it can be used as a secondary cultivator following a shovel or furrowing plow

Garden by garden, a leaf rake, square-point (transfer, moving) shovel, and both a pointed and a flat-square hoe rate really highly as well.

With them we can turn beds, collect and distribute chipped or leaf mulch and compost, dig in-situ composting trenches and holes, break up soil, level beds and rows, build up triangular and flattened-top mounded rows and beds, and even use them to create seed furrows and cover our beds again.

Mallets

They’re not as ignored and maligned as string, because I don’t use them or see them used quite as much, but I spend a lot of time hammering things. Mallets deserve a little credit there.

I hammer stakes for supporting row covers and baby trees, bird netting, and to keep things from digging under fences. I hammer in supports for new trellises and arbors. I pound in stakes and string line for rows and to mark expansions or areas I want left alone. I tap CMU block into place. I infrequently use nails or stakes to assemble trellises or bounded beds (usually I’m a fan of a screw and a drill for those).

Could I do it with a plumber’s wrench, carpenter’s hammer, or my pruners? Usually. I’d work harder and longer though.

Sometimes the right tool, right at hand, is worth it. Mallets are one of those tools for me, and the shorty 2-3# mallets with a flat square side are one of them for me.

If a garden area is small, and there’s a lot of pre-fab without as much annual assembly season-by-season, a mallet would go down in usefulness.

Power Tools

Having busted on energy draws while discussing machines, I’m going to contradict myself. There are two things that get reached for constantly, especially at the beginning of the growing season, the beginning and early in warm-tender crop seasons, harvest seasons, row-cover seasons, and bed-down-the-garden seasons.

They are my trusty-dusty little drill, and my trusty-dusty little saws-all.

When I say little, I mean that.

As with CCW firearms and EDC/GHB kits, when things are big, bulky and heavy, we don’t carry them all the time. In this case, that means that things get put off or I spend time making round trips to the vehicle.

With lighter, compact tools, they can sit in their bags with a variety of tips and blades, both of them inside a bucket with some string, sturdy pruners, a small hand cultivator, a mini hoe, and a hooked knife. I snag my bucket whenever I’m working in the yard, and whatever I need, it’s right there.

Must-Have’s for the Garden

I have a friend who managed in excess of three acres of just vegetable and fruit production without any fossil-fuel or battery-powered assistance. She does use a “work pig” and her birds, sheep and goats to help her, but the bulk of what she does is by manual labor. It’s possible. It’s not easy, it takes time – especially with livestock – but it’s possible.

I consider it telling that with few exceptions for “block” crops like corn and peas, she doesn’t grow in conventional rows or big plots. She grows in beds, by curving blocks and lines that follow her land’s fairly minor contours. It’s too much work to eke out the space, initially and every year after thaw, to use conventional methods.

It’s also too much work to leave bare earth. The work isn’t just the weed maintenance, but also the water hauling and the amount of time that has to be dedicated to plant health. So she mulches. Her mulches melt away in 12-24 month cycle, but the labor of creating and spreading them works out to be less than fighting more weeds and against harder soil and more evaporation.

If we’re planning to live a power-free or low-power-draw “sustainable” and “self-sufficient” life without the noise or fuels of machines, we might want to consider some of the alternative growing methods and ease-of-gardening methods, just as she does.

Our garden “must-have” tools are going to change depending on those methods.

It’s also going to depend on space. If we have smaller gardens, we can get away with fewer and less-specialized tools. At a market or large family scale conventional garden plot, some mechanization is going to be right on the borderline of a must-have.

Aging and broken bodies may also have to rely on some method that will help them, be it a growing style or machines. That will change the tools they reach for significantly.

The number-one “must” for gardening is to get started.

There are a lot of learning curves specific even to one section of a small yard. No book is going to have every answer, and by the time we’re troubleshooting, we’re already behind the curve. Hard times or a disaster is a terrible time to discover our microclimates, niche pests and diseases, and soil types.

Once we get started, our personal “must have” list will refine itself.  We’ll want backups of what we use most. We may expand to the full array of shovel and hoe and rake types, or we may stick with a few subtly different styles. Over time, we may find that it ebbs and flows.

We can start small and add a few things as budgets open up, working toward those items that multipurpose or have the most value for our lives first, then adding on the things that will allow us to expand and be more efficient. Knowing some of the rec’s and the priorities for them from other growers may help with that, either getting started or expanding.

7 Comments

  1. NRP

    April 28, 2017 at 2:53 pm

    Ms. Parris

    Nice article, a little lengthy 🙂 , but a LOT of good/great info. Good Job, again

    As someone that has Gardened most of my 63 years, and raised by a family of avid gardeners I love to see those that encourage others to ” The number-one “must” for gardening is to get started.” How very true.

    There are thousands of “how to” books around to read and tell one how to do this, how to do that. To learn to Garden, ya have to get yar hands dirty, no if/ands/buts about it.

    For one that’s getting ready to retire form the good-old 9-5 job I could never imagine life without a Garden, even now, when I get home, the first stop is the Garden, even before I unlock the house…..
    I raise close to 70-75% of my vegetables now, have plans of making that 100% real soon. Also adding Chickens and Rabbits. FYI, when/if TSHTF, and you don’t have experience Gardening, you wont have time to learn later, period.

    A couple of items I would also toss into the Garden shed;

    1. A good file, nothing worse that working with dull tools, especially spade or a pair of trimmers

    2. A note-book and a pen, take notes on what you grow, how they did and the results, keep notes on the general condition of the garden through the year.

    3. Knee Pads, easy to figure this one out HAHAHA

    4. A Garden Shed, even if only a very small one, helps keep things organized and ya can find the stuff ya need.

    5. If money allows, Greenhouse, Compost Bins, Water-catchment system, So-On, the list is endless, JUST START SMALL.
    6. Do NOT go buying every gadget on the market, waste of money, use your hands, those are the BEST tools you have.

    I do Raised Bed ‘square-foot’ Gardening and have GREAT success with it, one dose not need 20 acres to plant a Garden, start small, learn what works, what does not, I will guarantee you ya WILL kill a lot of plants before ya get it right. BUT the rewards of having “GREAT” food is worth every second of your time. And the time you spend in a Garden is a LOT better that the time sitting on a psychiatrist couch.
    NRP

    • R. Ann

      April 29, 2017 at 4:19 am

      I harp that “just get started, wherever and however” just as often as possible. There are an awful lot of people who are in for a world of hurt if they stick seeds in the ground the first time during a disaster.

      There are an awful lot who don’t track weather patterns, pests, and best-worst producers, or conditions and yields who are also going to be in trouble – a good garden journal that covers inputs, treatments and conditions is a godsend sometimes, 100% with you there. (Wrote a whole article on it.) 🙂

      I like the “patchwork” planting aspects (companion & confusion plants) and raised bed or dedicated bed aspects of square-foot gardening, but the shallow-depth soil mixes require so many annual inputs for the spacing suggestions and so few of those inputs get made at “home” it just isn’t my top pick.
      I also prefer crop rotations, and keeping track of what’s where while succession planting the square-foot method beds gets tedious.

      And I like 3′ bed widths – and I’m a pretty tall girl at 5’10”. 4′ is just too far for me to comfortably and confidently reach across without leaning against and into the beds or stepping into the beds – which defeats some of the purpose of a raised bed and dedicated beds. The 4×4′ just doesn’t work for me.

      I really like 3′ x 12-24′ veggie beds, personally.

      Plenty of room for the big growers but not too far to be hauling buckets or dragging hoses.

      I also like it because you can get in a groove without as much stopping and starting, but they’re also sizes that are easy enough to plant or cover in a short period of time, even with mixed plantings.
      🙂

  2. BobW

    May 2, 2017 at 4:55 pm

    Did I mention a big stack of those inexpensive dark brown work gloves? Last I saw, they were two pair for around $2.00 at the local farm and garden. In the garden they’ll last a long time, but used for much else, and they will fail. Stock up.

    • R. Ann

      May 3, 2017 at 12:52 am

      I use the jersey gloves in bags, too. I rotate pairs under my leather gloves – they work great as liners either for cold weather or for garden use.
      If we’re going into gloves, some of those plastic-coated ones that are just as inexpensive for handling prickly/itchy/spiky things can go a long way, too.

      Nothing wrong with having different lists. Ours are pretty similar, with the grass-yard rakes the only major difference. I imagine we use the narrow-width grass and hay/garden rakes/long-handled cultivators for about the same things – I just like the sturdier blades of a hay/garden rake.

      Different people are going to have different priorities, especially in the must-have category.

      Also nothing wrong with an in-ground bed, as opposed to a raised bed, whether either is bounded or not.
      They accomplish the same thing – dedicated growing space that doesn’t get the compaction of a conventional row garden, and that benefits from efficient use of fuels, labor and any amendments that may be spread.
      Over time as you add amendments and mulches, it’ll actually end up elevated.

      If you have enough bricks, you might want to make your border 6-8″ wide or 2 brick widths (I assume clay facing brick, not CMU). It creates more of a barrier for mowing, weed eating, etc., as well as a place to kneel and step without stepping into the bed itself. It also gives grasses and chickweed a little more to have to work through to get to your fertile beds.
      -8″ (12-16″, outside the desired bed width) won’t eat up so much space as to be a drawback.

      You also might consider keeping a few of those beds near the house permanently and semi-permanently, for the exact reasons you list – access to water and protection. Convenient proximity also means more attention.
      Stuff like tomatoes and strawberries that go from not-quite to overripe in a heartbeat, or tomatoes and summer squash that are prone to problems as well as daily picking and can create bushels off a single plant over the season, things like herbs for use in the kitchen, and things like tomatoes and lettuces that need a lot of water and to be picked often and early as well are all handy to rotate through a few spots or beds that are convenient to water (future roof catchment from salvaged material) and readily visible, regularly seen or passed by.

      Cheers!
      🙂

    • R. Ann

      May 3, 2017 at 4:33 am

      Something occurred to me re. your pea gravel.
      It’s still not going to be no-labor, but is there a gate access where it would be possible to basically rake it onto a tarp, and then use your vehicle or mower to drag that wherever it’s going?
      It’ll save some of the labor of shove-lift-heave into a wheelbarrow.
      Even if you can only do it for the first 6-8″ or if you have to rig a quickie 2×4 OSB ramp (or, Craigslist salvage dresser/bookcase), it’s X tons you’re not moving the hard way.
      With pea gravel and a good tarp you may also be able to stop, reverse, sling your line over your pile, and pile it high.

      Another option would be to use buckets or trash cans like a broom dustpan to limit the repetitive motion to some degree, and keep your scooping to a more upright position.

      Also occurred to me:
      Depending on how clean that stone was when it got installed, and how long it’s been there, you may want to completely clear a test patch, and then decide if you maybe just don’t want to do a container garden this year.
      If it was dusty, and if it’s been there a long time, there’s a chance that with a for-real foot of it, at the bottom there’s going to be a solid layer of near-concrete that has to get busted up.

      There’s also a chance that the pH in that part of the yard is going to be crazy high (alkaline). Most veggies like acidic, so you may want to pick up a $5 kit or send a $3-$10 sample to your county extension office.

      Things like oak and pine that may have dropped and decayed on top of it may mitigate it, or can create striated pH levels that create false readings.
      Take your soil sample from the depth your plants are going to go in or your expected root zones (lettuce, beets, etc. are shallow, 4-6″, whereas tomatoes and squash could be 8-12″).

      Depending on results from both, you may want to plan on a soil-building year with cover crops that can help tailor the pH and condition the soil, and stick with some soda bottle towers, laundry basket containers, and a freebie bookshelf bed this year, using soil pulled from elsewhere in the yard.

      Sorry to throw monkey wrenches at you (I HATE to be that person – I just don’t want you to do all that work in a rush only to discover that you have problems). Hope you find a way to limit the bend-shove-straighten-toss labor!

      Cheers!
      Rebecca Ann

  3. woody

    May 9, 2017 at 4:00 pm

    Late to the party, again.

    Tractors. Big, stinky, attention consuming. But when you need one….. We have one that wears a backhoe and bucket always. The other is for the attachment/PTO tool of the day. Yes, I know, fossel fuels and all. I adore the stuff that comes from wires, pipes, and thin air. And I’m in no rush to do without. We can, and sometimes do. But….., not fun. I know when the gas dries up, my sphere of influence will be a heck of a lot smaller, but til then I’ll get a lot done.

    We finally sprung for two broadforks. Oh boy. Very physical tools, that’s a spectator sport from where I sit, but they do get it done. Once you get the ground ‘fluffy’, they’re easier, great aerators.

    The hand tools we frequent, the ones we use every day, are just the tip of our tool iceberg, and I’ll bet I’m not alone. Duplicates, (which everyone should have, depth is good, like a ball team), specific/special duty-seldom used ones, ones that just didn’t quite hack it, and the broken ones we have failed to repair.

    May I suggest, if I missed the mention of it, multiple extra handles for favorite hand tools, and a really good glue. Adhesives, man, that’s another iceberg. And a decent little device called the haywire clamper. Fixes broken handles, (like if you pry with your long handled shovel), on the fly, and will join longer handles to short. Can make a spear from knife and stick. If you need a spear. Many other uses. I’ve heard a gripe or two, but I like it.

    Tools are a tunnel with no light at the other end. Dark hole. Obsession. Never saw a tool I didn’t want. Even the obviously worthless looking ones are worthy of an opportunity. Sometimes you get lucky. I was told years ago “no more yard sales”. “Oh, look honey, a trim tool specific to the 1963 Buick LeSabre, I’m sure it’s collectable.” And the garden tools are just part of it. There’s the mechanics tools, the wood tools, manual and power…..

    So yes, by all means, get started gardening, or ‘grow’ what you’re already doing. Till you do, you’re missing all the fun.

    • R. Ann

      May 14, 2017 at 3:57 am

      “Adhesives, man, that’s another iceberg.” > Ain’t that the truth?
      🙂
      -Rebecca Ann

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