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Growing Organically Since 1982

My Five Favorite Tools

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This article comes from the NOFA/Massachusetts 2019 August Issue Newsletter

By Richard Robinson

“Inch by inch, row by row, I’m going to make this garden grow, all I need is a rake and a hoe…”

Those two tools will indeed get you a long way in the garden or on a small farm, but I doubt I’m alone in having perhaps one hundred more that I use on my farm at some point through the year, from broadcast seeders to harvest knives, from dibbles to spading forks, from flail mower to hay baler. But there are a small handful that I consider so indispensable, and such a pleasure to use, that I look forward to most of the jobs that require them, and they are never far from hand. Here are my five favorite tools:

Pneumatic wheelbarrow

Pneumatic wheelbarrowMuch of the labor of organic farming consists of moving fertility onto the growing bed, and moving produce off of it. For transport of just about everything in both directions, I use a wheelbarrow with a pneumatic (inflatable) tire, purchased from one of the big-box stores for about $60. Air in the tire smooths out bumps, making it easier on both the load and the laborer—this is the critical feature. The single tire (rather than a two-wheel cart) gives it a turning radius of zero, essential in tight beds, and it is light enough to pick up and reverse direction without effort. The basin holds about 16 shovels of compost, and is designed for easy, accurate dumping. It will also hold a couple of stacked hay bales, a reasonable load of leaves, or a bulb crate full of whatever I’ve grown. The wheelbarrow is such a highly evolved technology that it would be hard to improve on (though James Dyson of vacuum cleaner fame replaced the tire with a ball, to prevent sinking in wet soils). But I am trying to figure out a way to increase the capacity to carry leaves; I have yet to think of a practical add-on. Ideas welcome. 

Three-pronged hay fork

Three-pronged hay forkA lot of that fertility comes in the form of mulch, both hay and especially leaves, and the three-pronged hay fork is indispensable for moving it all. We have several on the farm, the nicest of which is probably older than I am, and has a handle that is longer and a bit thinner than the ones you regularly find today. It is supple and lighter than it seems it should be, and I would use it all day. The hay fork is both a gross-motor tool, lifting and spreading 10-15 pounds of leaves or hay at a go, and a fine-motor one, surgically tucking stray bits back into line on the bed.

All-steel rake

All-steel rakeSteel-headed rakes get a lot of use, and abuse, around the farm, for shaping beds, smoothing compost, plowing transplant furrows, sorting stones, and pulling stubborn weeds. The steel rakes you find at the store these days are usually underbuilt, with a raking head that is prone to bending where the tang meets the handle. Some years back, I purchased a used Dura-Rake, whose straight metal handle is welded onto its head, which itself is beefier and better designed than the common rake. I suppose I could figure out a way to abuse it, but it seems to be well-nigh indestructible. Dura-Rakes aren’t cheap—they run around $60—but I’d recommend the investment. Those with welding skills could probably make a reasonable facsimile on their own, with a piece of metal pipe, a cross-piece of flat steel, and some big nails.

Lawn Mower

Lawn MowerI didn’t use to consider a lawn mower a farm tool at all, but I changed my mind when I realized that early-season lawn clippings make a rich, seed-free mulch. From April till the end of May, I bag my lawn clippings and use them on the peas. The mower is also essential for keeping our walking paths passable all summer, and for mowing between rows of raspberries. When the weeds in a garden bed get away from me, I will often use the lawn mower to chop them down before tilling them up with the wheel hoe. Last fall’s constant rain left the three-foot-tall grass and weeds in the Christmas tree field too wet for the BCS flail mower, so, with much trepidation, I attacked it with my lawn mower. Piece of cake. Mine is a self-propelled Honda with a GCV160 engine (4.4 horsepower). I prefer the propelling system on this mower to that on the Toro (another popular self-propelled mower), because it is very sensitive and much easier to modulate as I walk along through changing conditions.

Over-the-shoulders Harvest Bucket

Over-the-shoulders Harvest BucketThis harvest bucket, made by Hoss, is new on the farm this year, but has quickly become one of my favorite tools for picking snap peas and tomatoes. The bucket sits right against my belly for quick picking, and the crossed shoulder straps distribute the weight of the harvest all across my upper back, allowing me to pick many pounds of produce before it becomes a burden. I do wish it came with a waist strap for keeping the bucket close in when bending over, but it would be easy to add myself if I get too bothered.

There are a few tools, broadly defined, I have not been able to find to suit my requirements. I’d like a long-handled digging fork, and a short-handled stirrup hoe for close work. And I’d really like a pair of waterproof knee pads that feel like tough skin, not hard shell, and don’t slip as you crawl along. If you have any leads, let me know.

Richard Robinson, Farmer at Hopestill Farm in Sherborn, MARichard Robinson


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