As market gardening becomes increasingly popular, more tools for the small farmer become available. Some of these hand tools are extensions or variations on more common tools found in any gardener’s shed, while others are specialized ones that have great benefits in weed control, aeration, “light” tilling and planting.
Here are four such hand tools that could benefit your market garden this season.
1. Stirrup Hoe
Unlike using a traditional hoe, you operate a stirrup (or hula) hoe by sliding its blade just beneath the surface of the soil, cutting weed seedlings at the base. This technique has several advantages compared with a traditional hoe. For one, you can use a stirrup hoe from a fully upright, standing position that doesn’t stress your lower back. Additionally, because you slice through only the top half-inch of ground, a stirrup hoe causes much less soil disturbance than a traditional hoe. Because soil disturbances bring weed seeds to the surface, cultivating as shallowly as possible helps reduce weed pressure. Finally, stirrup hoes come in a variety of sizes. One that measures 3 1/4 inches, for instance, is small enough to fit in between rows of crops, whereas a 5-inch hoe can efficiently weed along the shoulders of beds.
Stirrup hoes are among hand tools that work best when their blades are kept sharp (as in, really sharp) so tend to yours regularly. Additionally, stirrup hoes are most effective at slicing through weed seedlings with small, tender stems, so don’t wait to hoe until weeds have reached maturity.
A number of companies now sell different models of broadfork, thanks to a renewed interest in the tool in recent years. The broadfork is most commonly used to aerate the soil, but can also be used for a variety of other purposes. To aerate the soil with a broadfork, insert the tines into the soil and step on the bar of the fork with both feet, driving the tines approximately one foot into the ground. Then pull back on the handles, gently raising the soil up in front of you. A demonstration of how to use a broadfork can be found here.
Aerating the soil with a broadfork offers several advantages over traditional tillage. First, because you don’t invert the layers of the soil, buried weed seeds stay underground. Additionally, broadforking doesn’t disrupt the structure of the soil to the same degree that tillage does. Instead, it allows the soil to remain largely undisturbed.
For those market gardeners who are wary of tillage but still want to create beautiful tilth for direct seeding, the tilther is one of the hand tools that offers a middle ground. The tilther is essentially a miniature tiller guided by hand and powered by a cordless drill, with tines that are only about 2 inches long. Because of the shortened tines, the tilther works only the top 1 to 2 inches of the soil, leaving the top soil beneath entirely untouched. In addition to creating tilth for direct seeding, you can also use the tilther to work amendments or the residue of previous crops into the soil. You can find a demonstration of how to use a tilther here.
4. Rolling Dibbler
Numerous companies have begun manufacturing dibbling products for small farmers. For those unfamiliar with the tool, a dibbler is designed to mark the location where rows of transplants or seeds will go in a growing bed, thereby ensuring straight lines of crops and even spacing. Although the perfect spacing of crops might seem aesthetic more than anything, there are real advantages to planting evenly spaced vegetables. If you use drip-tape to irrigate your beds, for instance, following a zig-zag line of transplants is quite difficult and can lead to poor irrigation in some places. Additionally, even spacing is important for standardizing and predicting your yields.
There are several different kinds of hand-drawn dibblers on the market, so do some research to figure out which type would be best suited for your operation.