Three Favorite Tools

My Three Favorite Tools

When asked to describe my three favorite tools I initially thought about which tools couldn’t I do without, but that would depend on what I am doing. I have a favorite tool for each task (watering, making compost, weeding, digging) and each task is an essential step in growing vegetables. So instead I thought about the tools I most enjoy using and consider to be best suited to their purpose. This was an easy choice as I have several tools that I wouldn’t want to be without. Even after many years of using them, I am still impressed by how well they work.

Hand Hoe

This hand held little hoe is the ultimate tool for close up weeding. It can scrape over the soil surface and chop down small weeds without disturbing the soil surface (which would bring up more weed seeds to germinate). It is small and maneuverable enough to get between closely spaced plants without damaging them, but much quicker than hand weeding. It makes weeding into a pleasurable and brief activity.

Haws Watering Can

With its long spout and brace that doubles as a carrying handle, this symbol of gardening tradition is the ultimate watering can. It’s unique design was first patented in 1886 and has been made for well over 100 years without significant changes because it is perfect. It has an interchangeable rose that puts out a perfect upturned spray, it is durable (I’ve had mine for almost 20 years), comfortable, and so well balanced I can use it with one hand. Perfection doesn’t come cheap, with the 2 gallon can costing around $144. However if you amortize that over 25 years it works out to less than $6.00 a year, which makes it sound like a bargain. There is also a cheaper plastic version that works pretty well, but it just doesn’t feel the same.

T Handle Compost Fork

I bought this Bulldog (now Clarington Forge) tool at Smith and Hawken when it was still primarily a tool company, rather than a brand. It is designed specifically for turning compost and manure and with its wide head and five solid forged tines it works better than anything else I have ever tried (I imagine someone must have done extensive research to find the best way to shovel shit). Even the T handle is perfect, providing a better grip and more maneuverability than a straight handle.


A Labor of Love

We just delivered 60 lbs of fava beans to the restaurant Barndiva in Healdsburg. Our empathy for farmers grows each season. It takes us hours to pick our favas for each pound – we get $1 in keeping with the current pricing here in Sonoma County. Happy to do it, as we love Barndiva and they love us – “best favas we have ever tasted”. But seriously, how do farmers, let alone, restaurants, make this happen? It takes us several hours to distill down 10 lbs of favas into a mere couple of cups of total heaven. Next time you are in a restaurant and order the fava bean risotto, know that it’s a labor of love on some level, that it’s an incredibly hands on process that gets it on your plate. Enjoy it to the fullest.

A garden's optimal orientation to the sun

Where to Put the Vegetable Garden

If you are completely new to vegetable gardening, one of the first things you need to think about is where to put the garden.

In a small garden you usually don’t have many options. It has to go where there is room. Don’t make the mistake of putting it where it won’t work though. If the best place is already occupied by an ornamental bed or a garden shed, it may be necessary to rearrange things to make room for the vegetables. In some situations you might have to remove sources of shade, such as a tree, in order to get enough sunlight.

In a large garden you’ll have many more options. If you have several choices you should try to take advantage of any favorable microclimate, such as a south facing slope. Ideally the vegetable garden should be fairly low down on a slope to avoid high winds and to get better soil with more moisture. However it should not be so low that it is in a frost pocket. In a dry climate you might put the vegetable garden in any area with naturally moist soil. A flat area often isn’t as warm as a south facing slope, but it is generally easier to work with.

There are certain conditions that all food gardens must meet in order to be productive. Consider the following before you start digging:

    • The most important factor in growing a garden is sunlight. More sun means more plant growth. In fact, the majority of crop plants need at least 6 hours of direct sunlight a day to grow well. So your first objective is to put the vegetable patch where it will get the most sun.

A garden's optimal orientation to the sun

  • A fertile soil is also a big help, but it is less important than sun because you have the power to improve the soil through your gardening activities.
  • Good drainage is important because plants won’t grow in waterlogged soil. This is particularly important in spring because you should never dig wet soil (it will damage the soil’s structure). And waiting for the soil to dry out can cause delays (wet soil also warms up more slowly than dry soil).
  • If your garden is exposed to strong winds, you will need to think about shelter. Strong winds can batter plants, cool winds can chill them and dry winds can increase evaporation. If there is no natural shelter you will have to think about a windbreak (without creating shade however).
  • You should never put your vegetable beds on the north side of tall objects such as buildings, walls, trees or shrubs where they will get little sun. You should also keep them well away from any trees or shrubs, as their creeping roots will move into the fertile and well watered soil and extract most of their available nutrients (this would drastically reduce your crop plant growth).
  • Consider the proximity to the house. The closer the food garden is to the kitchen the more you will use it. Ideally the garden should be within 100 feet of your kitchen door so it is easy to nip outside and harvest while cooking. If it is further away you tend to limit your trips out there , so the harvest becomes more sporadic. Someone once estimated that the harvest declined by 30% when the garden was over 100 feet away. A garden that is close to the house gets tended more conscientiously, not only because it is more convenient, but because it is so visible. You make more effort to keep it looking good because otherwise it would be embarrassing every time someone came to visit.
  • Finally it’s nice if the vegetable garden is in its own area and isn’t on the way to somewhere else. If it is right in the center of a play or entertainment area then plants may get damaged by passing children, dogs and wheelbarrows; and those tempting ripe tomatoes will keep disappearing. creates a Smart Garden Plan for you which automatically and optimally orients all your plants in relation to the sun – so you can get out into the garden!

Escarole cc again

Kitchen Tip: Escarole

If you desire delicious young tender leaves, you can constantly thin the outer leaves. This helps to extend the life of the plant and provides you with tender greens for saute or salads.