Tools of the Trade

by Lili Tova in

The whole tool thing has been quite an adventure for us. We moved to our land with about three small truckloads of possessions and then started a small farm. This means that we essentially started from scratch. There's a lot of freedom in this as there are many good tools around for small farmers. But finding the right tool has proven to be quite daunting at times as tools are a huge investment, and we want to make choices that will serve us for a long time to come. We don't own a full size tractor (yet) or even a lawn mower, but we did recently invest in a BCS walk-behind tractor and a number of hand tools. I thought it wold be nice to spend some time talking about and showcasing the tools we love and then highlighting some areas where we still have a lot to learn.

Hoes, hoes, hoes...

So far my favorite hoe is the hula hoe, also known as the oscillating or stirrup hoe. A couple of companies manufacture this style of hoe. We recently purchased three from our local garden store, one with a 3.25 blade, one with a 5" blade and one with the 7" blade.  These hoes have been great even in our heavier soil and form the backbone of our weeding program. They work the best when you can get the weeds at 'thread' stage. This is the stage where the weeds have their first set of true leaves and one skinny thread like tap root, making them easy to kill. The hula hue works with a push pull action and one issue I've found is that it can have a tendency to want to go deep which effectively works like a break making for a very jerky weeding experience if your not diligent about the keeping the blade shallow. But this action can also be helpful when weeding around young plants as you can dig down as you near the tender stem to put the breaks on. I don't love the hula hoe for weeding in row with closely spaced plantings (thinks onions, root crops, salad mix etc.). For these plantings I still use the hula hoe to weed between my rows, on the edge of the beds and in the path but to weed between the plants I use my salad harvesting knife (also purchased from Johnny's). With a repetitive slicing action right below the soil surface getting those little in-row weeds are a breeze. Admittedly this method involves way more stooping and crouching but is very effective. Another hoe that we love on our farm is a general heavy duty hoes such as these ones from Rogue Hoes. I first had the joy of working with this style of hoe in Tunuyan, Mendoza, Argentina at Huerta de Vida. This hoe can move a lot of soil and is great for hilling potatoes, corn, peas, and beans.

A hoe that I'm interested in trying out is the Heron Hoe. This hoe looks like it would be great for weeding once T-tape is laid down as it is open on one side. This design not only seems nice for sliding under drip but also for getting close to the stem of more mature plants. We recently bought two Collinear hoes from Johnny's and they have a similar advantage to the Heron Hoe of being open sided to slide under drip tape. Because most every farm I've worked on has used mainly hula hoes it's take me awhile to get used to these and I still have 'accidents' with them sometimes which usually involves getting caught in the drip tape or slicing out a tender transplant!

The last hoe that I think is worth mentioning is the wheel hoe. This tool has revolutionized our weeding program by making it incredibly efficient to weed our paths. I love this thing, it is a beautifully designed tool and incredibly rewarding to use.

Seeding in the field...

Generally plants make it out into the field in two ways. They are either planted in flats or cell trays in the greenhouse and then transplanted out to the field once they're about 6 weeks old, or they are direct sown into the beds right in the field. The crops that we typically transplant are flowers, brassicas, lettuce heads, tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, chard, onions and leeks to name a few. As you can see we do a lot of transplanting on our farm as this gives us more climate control and a jump on the season and allows for precise spacing, seed saving and for the plants to have a couple inch head start over the weeds.

Despite our heavy reliance on transplanting, seeding is still equally as important as many of our more high value crops (think baby greens and salad mixes) and root crops are sown in this fashion. There seems to be a lot of varying opinions on what seeders actually give you the intended results, that is seed spaced evenly, covered evenly and sown at a consistent depth. Most of my experience comes from the Earthway Precision Seeder, four row pin point seeder and the Planet Jr seeders. Our first seeder purchase when moving to the farm was an Earthway. The Earthway has many advantages and drawbacks that are outlined fully in other blogs, but as you can see below the biggest issue is consistency and over seeding (the row of arugula on the right is very thick and the row on the left is very thin). In my searching for seeder reviews I found this nifty link which outlines some ways to modify the plates on the Earthway to get more precise seed rates. We recently purchased a four row pin point seeder which I was a bit skeptical of but very interested in trying for our salad mix. We produce baby mustards, arugula, and specialty greens (amaranth and orach etc) in raised beds in our propagation house. Until recently I sowed these beds by hand which was incredibly time consuming. I wanted to try something more efficient and after taking a workshop with Jeremy Mueller from Excelsior farm I decided to give the four row a try. It definitely has some issued of it's own but as you can see from the picture below if the conditions are right it can sow a beautiful and dense bed of baby greens.


I've recently been reading a lot of reviews of the Jang Precisoin Seeders which are much more expensive ($400-$700), complicated and precise then either the Earthway or the Four Row. After reading some reviews it seems like this seeder more then pays for itself in precision once you figure out how to work the various plates and cogs. Again if anyone knows more about these please let me know what you think. For the time being we'll stick with the Earthway and the Four Row and try out some of the modifications suggested in the link above.

I hope to write a post in the coming weeks about our BCS and all the different attachments we've been accruing. We haven't used our rototiller in the garden at all this year and instead have been relying on a combination of broadforking, and the plow and harrow attachment for the BCS. More on this next time...