Category Archives: Restore

How To Choose A Garden Tool That Will Last A Lifetime: The Top 5 Questions to Ask Before Buying

Spring is here, and so are the 1,000 trees I purchased to plant here at Strawberry Moon. Of course, my favorite digging tool broke after planting the first 50 trees. It shouldn’t have been a surprise.  I bought that spading fork before I knew what made a good, durable tool.

Broken Spading Fork

Death By Clay

It’s not the first tool that has perished at the hands of my Indiana clay soil. I broke my first garden tool in my second year of growing.  It was a hoe.  The metal hoe flew off the wooden handle, and that was that.  Nothing I tried could reattach the handle securely enough for it to function as a hoe again*.  Since then, there have been many other casualties of the trade: leaky cheap hoses, cracked plastic watering cans, bent cultivator tines and splintered wooden handles.  Poorly made tools waste your time and your money, waste our precious natural resources, and could even cause injury.  I understood this then as well as now.  Some of these broken tools came with lengthy warranties, none of them were the cheapest tool at the box store, and they all looked and felt sturdy at the time.  So if you are willing to shell out the extra cash for a top of the line tool, how do you find the right one?  How can you tell if a tool is really built to last a lifetime, or just overpriced to give the illusion of quality?  Here are some criteria I’ve found to be important in choosing my tools.

1. The #1 most common problem I have experienced with long handled tools is that the handle separates from the metal tool head. When choosing a new tool, look at the attachment between the handle and the metal implement. If you see that the metal is crimped around a handle and expected to stay on by tension alone, don’t buy the tool!  Buy one that is attached with removable screws, or all one piece. Not only is this type of connection more secure, but it is user serviceable. If that handle detaches or breaks, you can replace the handle without having to buy a whole new tool.

Garden tool with improperly attached head

This tool head is not sufficiently attached to the handle. The handle will separate from the head.  Even if you manage to reattach it, the same problem will likely reoccur repeatedly.

Garen Tool With Rivet Attached Head

This tool head is securely attached to the handle with a rivet fastener, but if the handle rots or breaks, it may be more difficult to remove the rivet than a simple screw or bolt.  However, I am told it can be done.

Garen Tool With Screw Attached Head

This tool head is securely attached to the handle with a removable screw. It should stay securely attached, and if the handle does break, another can be easily installed.

2. Look for good quality metal. Research the type of metal used in the tool you are considering to find out if it’s strong enough to resist bending and denting, reasonably easy to sharpen, and able to hold a sharp edge well.  Hoes, knives, spades, and scythes all require periodic sharpening to perform their best.  Hand cultivators and spading forks should be thick and very strong.  All metal tools should be reasonably rust resistant.  Care for your metal tools by keeping them clean and dry.  If light rust does occur, you can scrub it away and apply oil to prevent it from returning.

A rubber mallet with a broken handle

I bet this never happened to Thor’s hammer.

3. The handle must be strong. I once bought a rubber mallet with a cheap wooden handle. Eventually, the handle broke in half, rendering the entire tool useless. If you are buying a tool with a wooden handle, Ash is the ideal wood. It’s what baseball bats are made of.  When buying knives, look for a full tang (the blade runs through the entire length of the handle as one solid piece of metal).  Care for your wooden handles by rubbing them with walnut oil or mineral oil annually or more frequently as needed.

4. Ergonomic design is also extremely important for any tool you will use regularly. Is the tool comfortable to hold? Does it utilize your biggest muscle groups (arms rather than wrists, legs rather than back)? Can it be used in multiple positions to prevent overuse injuries?  Can it be used while your back is straight?  Protect your body. It’s the best tool you have, and it’s irreplaceable.

5. Company reputation and warranty sometimes indicate long lasting products. If a company has been in business a long time, has a good reputation, and stands by their products with a 10 year or longer warranty, then they probably made a good tool.  That said, the broken spading fork that inspired this article came with a 25 year warranty, and only lasted a few seasons.  It appears to have been attached by setting the metal “stem” in some sort of resin or concrete-like substance.  The molded base cracked, setting the fork free from the handle.  Yet another decapitation victim!  So while a long warranty period is definitely a good sign, it’s not necessarily a guarantee that the tool will last.

You probably won’t find any top quality tools at your local box store, and I haven’t had much luck at my local garden centers either.  If you’re lucky enough to live near a hand tool specialty store like Earth Tools**, then you’ll be able to try out various high quality tools in the store, and ask the experts your questions.  Farm and garden conventions also often offer a nice selection of hand tools in the vendor hall, and of course pretty much everything is available online.  There are a lot of great brands out there, but I’ve become somewhat smitten with the DeWit** line.  They have some really inventive designs, and the quality seems to be top notch.  I’ve only been using their tools for a year, but I haven’t managed to break one yet.  Regarding the aforementioned plastic watering can, I replaced it with a nice metal one by Haws**.  I’m so far extremely pleased with the build quality and ergonomic aspects, but time will tell if it was actually worth the exorbitant price tag.  I don’t consider myself an expert on hoses yet, but in general, the really heavy, thick ones last a lot longer than the lightweight flimsy ones.

*I threw that broken hoe into the trash can at the community garden space, and a fellow gardener rescued it and reattached the head by welding. So if you have welding equipment, a detached tool head might not be the end of the day for you! I still recommend the screw attachment heads, because a projectile hoe head can be dangerous and decidedly inconvenient.

**Suggestions, NOT affiliate links.  I was hesitant to include any links because I’m not here to sell you stuff, but I thought they might really be useful to you.  Live your life according to your own purpose, think for yourself, own your own choices, and shop wherever you want.

Growing Great Soil With Cover Crops

My first garden at the Greenwood Community Garden

My first garden was far from perfect.  It was a rented space in a community garden, with hard, rocky, clay fill dirt that caused most of my neighbors to abandon their own plots by June.  I stayed and gave my heart, soul, and sweat to that soil for three years before I ever reaped a decent harvest.  Each year, I spread several truckloads of mulch, pulled thousands of weeds, and cried over the deaths of drowned plants, frozen plants, sick plants, trampled plants and nibbled plants.  But eventually, the garden became healthy and fertile.  I wouldn’t change a thing about my first garden, because the lessons it taught me have served me well.  The most important thing I learned was that good soil is absolutely essential to a successful organic garden.

If you are gardening on a small scale, you might be able to bypass your soil all together, by growing food in containers or raised beds filled with store-bought perfect soil.  Or, you might be able to make enough compost to sufficiently enrich the soil you have.  But what if you need to fix acres of hardpan clay soil?  It would take decades for one person to make that much compost, and many thousands of dollars to build acres of raised beds.  An excellent solution can be found in cover crops.

Sorghum-Sudangrass Cover CropA cover crop is a plant that is grown specifically for the benefit of the soil.  There are many kinds of cover crops, each with its own magical power.  There are crops that create nitrogen from nothing but air and bacteria, crops that mine minerals from deep within the ground, crops that smother weeds, and crops that control pests.  These crops are chosen for their ability to grow vigorously even in poor soil, and for their ability to leave the soil better than they found it.  The specific problem at Strawberry Moon Farm was compacted clay soil.  The soil was hard, and rainwater stagnated in puddles for days rather than soaking peacefully into the ground.  So I selected sorghum-sudangrass, a crop with five-foot-deep roots to break up the soil.  As a bonus, it also has ten-foot-tall foliage, which will provide plenty of mulch at the end of the season.  The sorghum-sudangrass has performed extremely well so far, even with no fertilizer, pesticides, or irrigation.  You can learn more about the types of cover crops and how they work from SARE (Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education).  I plan to invest in a few more cover crops to reap still more benefits for the soil at Strawberry Moon, to give our organic orchards, vineyards, and vegetable gardens the best possible chance to thrive.

Cover crops are extremely useful for building great soil on a large scale, and they are just as useful for small gardens.  Consider growing a quick midsummer crop of buckwheat between your spring peas and your autumn radishes, or maybe a spring crop of alfalfa before you plant your tomatoes next year. It’s an affordable, easy, and effective strategy to boost production in your vegetable garden and on our farm.

 

Farming The Wetland

Strawberry Moon Farm in Lunar Eclipse

Strawberry Moon Farm in Lunar Eclipse

My husband and I looked for our farm for 18 months.  He only wanted a beautiful house, but I only cared about great land.  When we finally found something we could both love, we were both willing to make a few compromises.  I had been looking for a flat, sunny, well-drained, rectangular field; a blank canvas I could transform into my vision of the perfect fruit-filled paradise.  But this land had woods.  It had hills.  It had a flood plain.  It had its own plans.

We ended up with 10 acres of incredibly diverse land.  About 3 acres were wooded, and about 1.5 acres were in a flood plain.  The low land was classified as a once in 100 year flood plain for the adjacent creek, but after we moved in, we realized that a more accurate classification would have been three floods every single year.  Later, we learned that this part of our farm was a natural wetland, a former creek bottom.  I’m not easily discouraged, but this news was disappointing at best.  I didn’t think any useful or edible plants could be grown in this type of environment.  Luckily, I was wrong.

A creek overflows, creating flooded corn fields and road floods

Our natural wetland, flooded by an overflowing creek

As it turns out, wetlands can be beautiful, productive ecosystems capable of producing food, filtering flood waters, and sheltering wildlife.  If you’re trying to turn land like this into a corn field (which the previous owners were), you’re going to be sorely disappointed.  But if you protect the soil and encourage permanent, water-loving trees and shrubs, you and the land will be very happy together.  Pecans, maples, willows, and elderberries are just a few of the species that can thrive and produce in this type of environment.  By working with the water instead of against it, you can build a lush food forest that nourishes you at the same time as it drains and cleans the flood waters.

The reason why it’s a bad idea to till up a flood plain field and plant it to row crops like corn has to do with erosion.  Erosion occurs when water or other forces remove topsoil from the land and move it elsewhere.  Usually, this topsoil ends up someplace it isn’t wanted, like in a waterway.  The nutrients (like nitrogen and phosphorus) and sediments from the displaced soil disrupt the balance in the water.  This can kill fish, and generally damage the ecosystem.  Meanwhile, your land grows poorer and poorer as all its nutrients and topsoil are stripped away.  When you till, or when you leave bare soil exposed, the soil is vulnerable and easy to wash away.  But when it is densely covered with plants, myriad roots hold that soil in place.  The plants shelter and protect the topsoil, and when floods come, the water is absorbed into the root system or filtered through aerated soil into the groundwater table.

There’s a thing called a Riparian Buffer.  According to Wikipedia:
“A riparian buffer is a vegetated area (a “buffer strip”) near a stream, usually forested, which helps shade and partially protect a stream from the impact of adjacent land uses. It plays a key role in increasing water quality in associated streams, rivers, and lakes, thus providing environmental benefits. With the decline of many aquatic ecosystems due to agricultural production, riparian buffers have become a very common conservation practice aimed at increasing water quality and reducing pollution.”

My plan is to create an edible Riparian Forest Buffer.  The goal is to have all the benefits of soil and water conservation, but to also harvest and use something from each of the plants and trees in the buffer.  Strawberry Moon is not the first farm to try this, but it is not yet a ubiquitous practice.  I hope that this riparian buffer project will encourage more people to try this ecologically sound farming style.  If farmers can increase yields while at the same time protecting the environment, why not do this?  There is even financial aid available from some government organizations to make the transition from conventional farming to riparian buffers easier.  I’ll post more about that later, when I have all the facts.  Meanwhile, spring is coming.  Be ready!