Small hand tools
Hands are great ‘tools’ but are so much more effective with the right gardening tool in them. To dig holes, make furrows, remove weeds, turn over soil, etc, a huge variety of tools have been invented (I have most of them!). However, some are too specialised, don’t work so well or break easily, so I am mentioning a few of my favourites which I use all the time and recommend for someone starting out.
My favourite small hand tools
To keep the number of small hand tools to a minimum, I have whittled down a long list to just four tools which cover most small scale soil–related activities in the garden: a ‘rake’, a ‘trowel’, a bulb planter and a (stainless steel) delta hoe.
Tom Danby adds: “I want to add another fabulous tool. This was handmade as a fundraiser by Karen (ex Myanmar) refugees to a traditional shape. The small (15cm) plough head sits under your hand pointing back towards you – the combination of point, flat edge, and sharp rounded edge makes this a universal digging, spreading, cutting, and trenching tool. I rarely need anything else (and it hangs up out of the way too).”
Digging tools are small shovel-like tools for digging out plants/weeds or transplanting. They can be plastic, steel or aluminium, with or without a secure contoured hand grip. My favourite is a solid alloy tool with a rounded grippy handle. Being alloy, it won’t rust (like steel) or snap or break down in sunlight (like plastic), is light in weight and can be used for long periods without giving you blisters. Wooden handles are ok but many eventually split or rot, depending on quality, so I prefer a rubberised moulded handle.
Weeding tools are used for cutting off weeds or hooking them out of the soil. Many are multi-pronged or have flat blades or a variety of other shapes. My favourite is the V-shaped delta hoe (e.g. see www.forestrytools.com.au/index.php?id=1189) and I have recently acquired a stainless steel one, Japanese made, much better quality than my old steel one. It has a sharp point and sharp edges on both sides so it can quickly shear off weeds at or below ground level or hook the tough ones out of the soil. It is best used with gloves on, though it is not dangerously sharp in adult hands. It is similar in concept to the ‘Ho-Mi’ Korean tool (e.g. see www.deepgreenpermaculture.com/2019/04/26/product-review-ryset-ho-mi-asian-hand-cultivator).
Forks and rakes
It is debatable whether a hand fork is necessary if you have a trowel already along with a multipurpose tool like the delta hoe. Small hand forks serve a similar purpose to regular forks. Thus with straight-tined (aka straight-pronged) hand forks, you can dig with downward pressure to the length of the tines or more, and the tines (aka prongs) penetrate hard soil better than a trowel. For deeper cultivation, a full size fork would be better.
A similar hand tool is like a small rake, with down-pointing tips, which enables you to rake across the top of the soil, or press down while raking, to dig the soil to a depth of 10 cm or so with multiple strokes. These are great for roughing up the soil surface to kill small weeds and increase water and air penetration; do this when the soil is fairly dry and just before mulching and watering. As with trowels, a solid aluminium/alloy model is light in weight and should not break, rust or be affected by sunlight; and a molded rubberised handle will give the greatest comfort. Stainless steel is also ok but I find that these are often flimsy and will bend or the welds will break under hard use.
A hook is a tool with a curved blade which can be used for slashing down vegetation, pruning, or harvesting leafy greens. It is like a small scythe and is far quicker than using secateurs, plus it keeps your hands away from prickles or other plant defences. Some care is needed not to cut yourself.
A bulb planter
A bulb planter is the fastest and cleanest way to make a hole in the soil to put in a new plant or bulb. It simultaneously digs into the soil and removes a plug of soil ready to receive the seedling, then allows you to drop that soil and push it back around the new plant. This is because it is hinged to open and allow the soil to fall out of the planter. Get a stainless steel one because rust on a cheaper one will allow the soil to stick to it and not fall out easily when the handle is squeezed.
As drastic as it sounds, a flamethrower can be used safely to quickly kill weeds without using nasty chemicals, and also destroy any seeds which the weedy plants have already made before they can fall to the ground and continue the cycle. If you can, use an existing LPG cylinder, cheap flamethrowers are around $50 and you can cover a large area quite quickly. This tool is not for the normal small home garden.
A power planter
Power planters are an auger-like digging tool for quickly making planting holes and are powered by an ordinary battery drill. You can dig many holes in a few minutes, including going deeper than most hand tools, to provide an easy growth path for roots plus the soil is broken up and piled around the hole ready to be packed back in around the plant. Also, they are fun to use! A robust version costs only $20 from Kogan (auger only, you supply the drill!) or you can buy one from specialist suppliers for upwards of $70. One drawback – if you hit a stone under the soil surface, there can be a strong kickback through your hands/wrist so be careful!
Starting your plants from seed gives you full control of the variety, quality and sowing time, as well as costing less than buying seedlings. Many vegetables grow better from seed sown directly into their final growing place than by raising them in a tray and transplanting (e.g. carrots, beans, sweetcorn, …). Most bought seed comes in packets and needs to be taken from those packets and handled efficiently to get them to the soil site or punnets before ‘activating’ them with water. For small seed, a cheap seed dispenser (around $3 on Ebay, see photo) makes that whole process really simple.
As simple as these 2-piece seed dispensers are, here is some advice about how to use them best.
- Separate the two halves of the dispenser and pour the required seed from the packet into the clear ‘lid’ of the dispenser held upside down.
- Attach the base of the dispenser and turn it over such that no seed falls out (yet).
- Dial up the seed hole size which just allows seed to escape from the chamber.
- Holding the dispenser nearly horizontal, gently tap the chute to create a flow of seed down to the soil or punnet, controlling the amount so that the seed is spread at the right thickness/distance apart (not critical as you can always thin out the plants later).
- Turn the lid to the largest seed hole size and pour the remaining unused seed back into its packet for next time.
For larger seeds, the dispenser can be used simply as a vessel to hold the seed safely while you are going to the planting site, and you can then pick out the seeds with your fingers one by one from the open lid while hand planting. From one packet of seed, you can do successive plantings to spread out the harvest time (rather than buying multiple punnets of seedlings each season), and one packet may last several years. You can save seed from the variety that does best in your garden (provided it is not a special hybrid variety or F1 cross). For example, you could grow a dozen types of tomato year after year without buying a single plant. Problem dispensed!
I have purchased seed dispensers from a variety of online suppliers and the quality of these dispensers has varied greatly. I have now settled on the Ryset mini seeder GD736 which can be purchased from either The Seed Collection or Aussie Gardener.
Synthetic gardening gloves
Rubber gloves are waterproof and vary from too thin/tearable to ‘tough’ but lacking feel. Unless flock lined, they can be hard to put on/take off. They also make your hands sweaty and need frequent washing inside to eliminate odours. They are mainly useful where you are working with water or wet soil. Cotton gloves soak up any moisture and get damaged, dirty and worn out quickly, and don’t protect against thorns etc.
Cotton gloves coated with a waterproof layer over the palms or fingers are a nice hybrid but also have some of the same drawbacks, and the coating doesn’t last all that long.
I recently bought coated synthetic gloves at Kmart (see photo) and I find they fulfil nearly all the best features and have few drawbacks. The woven synthetic base material is tough, comfortable, breathable, retains its shape and makes the gloves easy to slide on and off. The coating is rugged, grippy, and comes far enough up your hand to allow you to wash dirt off the outside of the gloves without getting the woven part wet. After some months of constant use, there is little sign of wear, and the whole glove can be washed and dried quickly if need be. They are also cheap (2 pair for $6). They do have a ‘vinegar’ smell to them when new which fades, and I think that this indicates the coating is silicone rubber, a thin but durable material. They are available in both large and medium size. I can now use one pair of gloves for almost every job instead of having several different types ‘on hand’ (LOL) and making frequent changes. If I need bare hands, e.g. for handling seeds, the gloves slip off and on easily without turning them inside out. No more scratches, cuts or dirt stuck under fingernails!