Gardening Tools – For Beginners

So, although the name of this blog is ‘The Diary of a New Gardener’, we have collectively 66 years of growing experience [a bit crazy to say, but as we started growing things at the young ages of 5,7 and 9 we all have 22 years of experience each – therefore collectively 66] but we are no professionals…we have always gardened for leisure purpose and learnt through trial and error – always valuable!


We will never stop learning, the seasons will continuously change, along with a good / bad crop. We have seen and learnt a lot but there is always a new plant to try and grow, a different climate to possibly explore [dreaming of that farm in South America]. Throughout the years of growing things, we have always tended to grow things more in the usual safer realm of tomatoes / herbs / potatoes / carrots etc.


We have tried to grow things a little more explorative i.e. moringa [didn’t even sprout], we hope that we can try and grow things that we have never grown below, given the UK climate, we are somewhat restricted, although we do have a large conservatory that we try and cultivate some more ‘exotic’ plants.


Our area in Kent where we have our garden [and now an experimental allotment] the ground has a very high percentage of clay so we have to spend time treating the soil to try and make is ‘plant friendly’ as possible. We are currently doing this at the allotment and will speak about clay in another post.


So, below we have listed the tools we continuously bring out year on year. They are staples in our shed and we have only ever replaced the occasional trowel [after getting either lost or broken] but other than that, you buy the tools once, they are with you for a lifetime [sustainable joy];


1 – Our hands – probably one of the key elements to gardening – don’t undermine the effectiveness of the hand.

2 – A spade – especially useful for turning over larger surface areas of soil [without using a rotavator]

3 – A trowl

4 – A fork

5 – Gardening gloves

6 – A wheelbarrow

7 – A rake

You really don’t need a lot of tools when you garden – unless you have acres and acres of land and require machines to assist with the graft.


We try and use out hands as much as possible- feel the earth people – its good for the skin!

We will create a near future post with a list of our recommended [and personally used] top gardening tools for you to take a look at [or look for a new spade].


We hope this list will of use – if in doubt use one of the best tools we were given – our hands – they never let us down!

To dig, to double dig or to not dig at all! – Improving your Soil.

Turning the soil (single dig method):
As my plot was covered in browning weeds after the spraying of weed killer I decided on a labour intensive strategy (but in my mind a key one) which was to remove the largest clumps of weeds and to dig the majority of the plot. I also had a Mares Tail issue so I had to comb out the black roots as I turned.


The easiest method to dig and turn over the soil manually is to dig a trench along one side of the plot. Start by digging a trench at least a spade wide and as deep as you can or at least a spade deep.


Keep the soil you have excavated in a wheelbarrow or move it up to the opposite end [the finish line] of the area you will be digging.
After which, stand facing the trench, take half a step back and dig down, turning the soil into the trench. Continue moving horizontally down the trench throwing the soil into the trench space until you have reached end. Move back a half a step and repeat the process moving yourself back along the trench the opposite way.
Eventually you will reach your initial removed soil from your first trench/the finish line and the whole area would have been turned. This is single digging and the hardest part will be the initial trench dig!
Double Digging:
To double dig an area, it is very similar to the above process. I found the only real difference is that you need to start with a larger initial trench.
After you have dug your trench, use a fork to dig down a further fork depth. Then when you are turning over, again turn your soil over and then go down another spade depth or fork depth to break up the sub-soil.
This is why this process is called “double digging”. It is about as labour intensive as the usual digging method but takes a fraction longer. It is mainly used when you have a really compact sub-level.
No-Dig:To implement a no-dig method into your garden/plot is a fairly simple process. You need to lay down a layer of cardboard (try to find the corrugated version – tear each sheet in half so that the corrugated sides are exposed). Then you cover the cardboard in the good stuff…compost.
To plant in a “no-dig” you just make small holes in the soil and try to disturb the sub-layers as little as possible.
You can also use a Lasagne method to cover your cardboard (which is cheaper than using the compost). Cover the cardboard in layers of green material, brown, minerals and compost and water well. This will naturally rot down over time and become a very good growing medium.
For my plot, I have a number of different areas where I will be trying different types of Dig, double dig and no-dig methods to see the differences.
Here is a list of the positives and negatives of each different method, I have experienced so far:

Single Dig:
Positives

  • Quick (once started)
  • No specialised soil or equipment (other than a spade)
  • Low costs for immediate result
  • Incorporates green organic material into the soil

Negatives

  • Disturbs soil ecosystem
  • Doesn’t touch the sub-soil
  • Doesn’t help with levelling
  • Leaves large clumps in clay soils which need breaking up

Double Dig:
Positives

  • Assists with drainage into sub-soil
  • Aerates the soil deep to allow roots to find new minerals
  • Not much more effort than single digging
  • Incorporates green organic material into the soil

Negatives

  • Greatly Disturbs soil ecosystem
  • Churns dormant weed seeds in the soil to the surface which causes a lot of weed sprouting a week later
  • Doesn’t help with levelling an area
  • Leaves large clumps in clay soils which need breaking up

No Dig (cardboard & compost)**:
Positives

  • Keeps the soil ecosystem and doesn’t disturb
  • Plants grow into the new material on top and cardboard helps keep weeds down
  • Easiest and lowest manual labour of all methods
  • Quickest to set up, (if you’ve got the materials/budget)

Negatives

  • Very large requirement for Compost/cardboard
  • Does not allow removal of perennial weeds with large roots like Mares Tail, so greater need to weed in the beginning to reduce these root weed strength.
  • Doesn’t amend existing soil (should you have drainage issues etc)
  • Some cardboards contain glues that you may not wish to introduce into your garden

**I have yet to try to No-dig method with layering green materials and compost, I can imagine it will have similar positives and negatives to the above.**


Whilst using both digging methods, it is a good time to include organic matter (if you have some to hand). If you are introducing more materials whilst digging, again make a larger starting trench as you will be introducing more material as you go. The top soil should form around 6 to 8 inches deep and this contains most of the organic material.


For my plot, I initially used a double dig method – left the soil for a few weeks to allow the weather to work its magic on the large clay lumps and turned about 3 times with single digging to open up the clay soil and allow oxygen into the soil. As more air is allowed into, the soil and vegetation turned in starts to compost very quickly. Before planting in spring I will likely turn the soil one more time introducing fresh compost, which will assist the plants in the growing season. This year [after the first full harvest], I may turn to using some cover crops in areas – I will write about this in the Cover Cropping later in the year.


For an area using a no-dig method, keeping on top of weeding is a priority. You can use cut and drop methods (pull the weeds gently and simply drop these on the surface). By doing this regularly you reduce the energy in any roots by constantly stopping new growth, eventually the roots should run out of energy and start to compost themselves. Another good layering of composting will assist before planting. There is no need to turn this into the soil, simply keep adding compost to the area over time.

First Steps: Tackling the Plot and Clay


Okay, plot acquired!
The chairman suggested I leave the plot for two weeks to “let the weed killer do its work” and as it had already been one week since I was supposed to view the plot, this meant that from the following weekend, I could start investigating the soil and tidying the plot.

 “If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail!”

Benjamin Franklin

The first steps I took planning the plot:


1. Positioning:
Check the compass directions. Traditionally it is advised that for vegetable beds it is a good idea that you try to run (if you plant in rows) with the rows running North to South. This allows the maximum amount of shared sunlight on rows as the sun follows its East to West path.


2. Drainage:
My plot is on a slope, so I dug a number of holes around the plot at top and the bottom. I filled each hole with a few buckets of water to see how long it takes them to drain. This lets you figure out the drainage of the plot. If the water remains for more than a couple of hours, the soil is waterlogged with poor drainage. Waterlogged soil is generally not great. It causes conditions like root rot and will not be ideal for growing. To improve you will have to open the soil up and possibly dig in some rocks/stones or sand (be careful with sand as this could have the adverse effect). If the hole drains too quickly (like immediately), you have too much drainage and in summer, plants will dry out very quickly. To remedy, organic matter is your friend and possibly a surface mulching will help hold in moisture.


3. What is your Soil PH:
Next thing should be a simple PH and soil test. Depending on what you wish to grow, different plants do better in different PH levels. You can get a kit online for cheap – thank you Amazon! Ideally, for an all-round grower a neutral or slightly acidic soil suits most things (so around the 7PH mark is what you should be aiming for). You can add soil improvers or lime if you need raise your PH and rainwater is slightly acidic in nature. If you have a very alkaline soil, then some sulphates are a good way to raise it or regular doses of manure/watering with rain water is a good way to adjust over time.

4. Determining Soil type:
There was not a real need to see what kind of soil I had…it was obviously not sandy, it was very, very much clay. To test your soil, just dig up a bit and just squish some soil in your hand, if it falls apart it is sandy, if it rolls into a ball it is clay. If it easily forms a ball it is very clay like. Changing a heavy clay soil into something nicer to grow in or a sandy soil (into one which holds water better) is pretty much the same process. Add organic matter by the barrow! I would not advise mixing in sand to clay as this could simply result in turning your clay patch into something closer resembling cement! For the amount of sand needed to clear a clay area you need a lot more sand than clay and this is not generally economically viable. I will talk about changing your soil and soil care later in the blog in more detail.

5. Observing your Sun spots or Shady traps:
Next, just simply watch or take a time capture video. This will show you which areas which receive the most sunlight and which areas are shady. For me I figured about 100% of my plot received the morning sun and in summer at around noon, the southern side was in shade and only 30% of the plot had sun for the afternoon. So the North east side will be the best place to grow any sun-loving veg like cucumbers and tomatoes. The southern side will be better for plants, which appreciate a bit more shade or are sun sensitive like lettuce or garlic.

6. Plotting the area:
Lastly, measure your plot. I simply took a tape measure out and measured my plot areas. My plot was around 17m long and 7m wide, it was not quite square as it was wider at the top than it was at the bottom but at least this gave me the gist to be able to estimate the number of plants we would be able to grow in each ‘growing section’.

7. Designing your space:
Okay, so now I had a good idea about the directions, soil conditions, scale, drainage and light conditions. It was time to design the plot.On a simple piece of paper where 1cm = 1m I drew up a number of designs. Next was back to the research. It was time to find what I wanted to grow; looking at the soil types and number of plants to figure out what could go into each ‘growing plot’.

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