Here are my favourite tools for serious self reliant food gardening, with some notes about what I use them for and what to look for. These garden tools are suited to tall people and people with bad backs, and are tough enough to work on compacted soil and clearing scrubland.
My four favourite tools
A broadfork gently aerates soil without inverting it, giving some oxygen (but not too much) to the soil life to help it thrive. A broadfork can be used without bending your back – just place it on the soil, put your full weight on it and jump or stomp on it, wiggle it around, and then lift it up with your arms. Broadforks can be quite heavy, so having some arm strength is recommended. If you use animal tractor systems on your garden or if your soil is compacted from anything else I’d consider a broadfork to be a high priority for self sufficient gardening, it lets the right amount of air into the soil and provides channels for roots to go deeper. I use my broadfork for new plantings of annuals and perennials, and it can also be used to aerate pastureland for optimum soil health and grass growth.
I use the 5 tine broad fork from F D Ryan in Australia, in the USA it looks like the Meadow Creature is similar. Some broadforks have wooden handles, and on compacted soil I can imagine a lot of stress being placed on where the wood joins the metal, so they may not last long, so I’d recommend choosing an all-metal fork that is built to last.
Australian link: https://www.fdryan.com/store/p69/broadfork.html
US link: https://meadowcreature.com
Long handled peasant hoe
This is used for chopping up weeds and green manures before and during the growing season and roughly preparing garden beds for planting.
The peasant hoe looks like the picture below. Mine is 10cm (4”) wide.
For anyone with a bad back, or who is taller than average, it is definitely worth seeking out a hoe with a long handle, at least 150cm (5 feet) long. I’d recommend getting one that is strong, but lightweight enough to handle long gardening sessions without fatigue. If possible, have a look at your hoe at the garden centre to see how the weight feels to you – if it feels awkwardly balanced in your arms, it’s not worth getting, if you can’t hold it with a straight back, look for one with a longer handle.
This is the one that I use: https://www.fdryan.com/store/p80/Chipping_Hoe_Heavy_Duty.html
I use a generic rake that the previous owners left on our property, it has a wooden handle and metal head and does the job. This is used for preparing bed surfaces, making small trenches in rough ground and mulch for adding compost and direct seeding, making and covering small furrows for direct seeding, and for giving slight compaction to bed surfaces when needed by tapping the surface of the bed. For people growing on standard 75cm market garden beds, a 75cm bed preparation rake would save some time.
Long-handled pointy-ended spade
A long handled spade allows you to work without bending your back. I use one for creating trenches for potatoes, planting trees and shrubs, shaping garden beds, shovelling compost, and basically anything you’d normally use a spade or shovel for.
The one I use is called the “plumbers shovel” from Cyclone. The handle is around 150cm (5 feet) long. Similar shovels can be found from other tool places. If you are tall, have a bad back, or want to do a lot of gardening without aches and pains, look for one with a long handle.
The one that I use: https://www.cyclone.com.au/product/gardening-tools/digging-tools/shovels/plumbers-shovel/
Other garden tools I use
Cart or wheelbarrow
We use both of these on our homestead for moving compost, mulch, and other bits and pieces around. The wheelbarrow is easier to manoeuvre around thin, winding pathways and bringing stuff downhill. The cart is easier to use on wide pathways, and for bringing stuff uphill.
I went without one of these for the first few years gardening here, using large flexible tubs to drag stuff around instead, so this is not an essential gardening tool, it just makes moving stuff around slightly easier.
I do a lot of direct seeding and not much transplanting, and using a precision seeder has helped me to plant things evenly and get better germination rates and less thinning. In rough ground and in mulch, I make a small trench in the soil and fill the trench with a small amount of compost to help the seeder get through – I used to do this for getting small seeds to come up before I had the seeder. I use the Earthway, which allows me to seed many different types of seeds, one row at a time. For sowing lots of carrots and salad greens, market gardeners often use a 6 row seeder, which is more expensive than the single row seeder, but saves time. The single row seeder is still a lot faster than seeding by hand – I can just quickly walk over a row in a matter of seconds, and it’s all buried at the right depth, spaced somewhat evenly, and covered over with just the right amount of compaction by the seeder.
A precision seeder is one of those tools I wouldn’t recommend getting right away. I gardened for many years without one, and have tried gardening with mostly transplants, gardening with mostly direct seedling, broadcast-seeding, carefully sprinkling seed in rows, and many variations. Many people garden with mostly transplants/plant starts and would not get much use out of this tool, but if you have been gardening for many years, grow a lot of annual food crops, prefer not to grow from transplants, and have trouble getting seeds to come up evenly, this might be a tool to look into.
Precision seeders like the ground to be flat and even, so some preparation is needed. On rough ground and in chicken tractored mulch, I make small trenches, and then fill the trenches in with a couple of spadefuls of compost, using the rake or hoe to flatten out the compost and compact it slightly. I used to do this for direct seeding small seeds without the seeder, instead making furrows with the rake, sprinkling the seed in, and using the rake to cover it.
Strong hand trowel
For transplanting vegetable seedlings, small perennials, harvesting roots, and working with pot plants, it’s worth having a strong hand trowel – weak and flimsy ones can bend or break on anything but the softest soil.
A rice knife or Japanese rice sickle is a serrated blade that can be useful for ‘chop and drop’ of non-woody plants, and for harvesting grain.
Going beyond organic gardening
If you’d like to learn more about growing all your food garden fertility on your own land with no inputs, and lots more information to help you become a better organic gardener, I’d recommend checking out this 30 hour master gardener video course with an organic permaculture focus, currently on Kickstarter here.