Tim Wickstrom: Forging Permaculture Hand Tools, Part 3
Tim Wickstrom is a Verge grad who has started his own forge business to make permaculture and garden hand tools (Check out his Alumni Profile here). Here is the final piece of his three-part guest blog series.
My Three Favourite Garden Hand Tools
I’d like to share with you my three favourite tools to use in the garden. These tools are used the most often and get the most work done in the shortest time. Generally I prefer hand tools to powered ones because they’re quiet, they don’t emit noxious fumes, and I can work up a sweat.
1. The Broadfork
This is the workhorse of our garden. It loosens and aerates the soil without inverting or mixing the soil layers, minimizing disturbance to the soil and the microorganisms within. One pass in spring and another in fall is all we need to maintain our garden’s health. It also makes an excellent tool for digging up potatoes and other root vegetables when the soil is tight.
Clay also has a tendency to form into hardpan, an impermeable layer of subsoil that traps water above it, causing stress to plants. A broadfork can be used (and indeed is designed) to break up this layer of hardpan as the pointed tines are between 8 to 11 inches long. They reach into the subsoil to pierce the hardened layer and break it apart.
The broadforks I forge are about two feet wide, with five tines made from automotive coil springs. I forge the tines to a slightly curved shape to aid in penetrating the soil and to break it up more readily. I prefer to use wooden ash handles because they’re lighter than metal, they’re easy to replace should they ever break, and I find the feel of wooden handles is superior to metal in how it fits the hand and how it bends during use.
2. The Hoe
This humble tool is an important addition to weed management in an organic garden. Mulch, chop and drop, intensive planting, and hoeing are all used together to control weed growth. There are many hoe designs available, but my favourite is the D-hoe with a goose-style neck. It’s quick, accurate, and can handle weed sprouts as easily as more mature plants. The sharp corners are great for cultivating, forming furrows for seeds while the neck keeps the handle clear, giving it a good working angle.
I forge the hoe’s neck from reclaimed steel found in scrap yards. I like to add a decorative touch where the blade meets the neck. The blade itself is also reclaimed sheet steel, cut to shape and sharpened. The handles are Canadian ash: lightweight and durable. They are either made with a ferrule to insert the neck into, or a collar in which the handle is securely riveted. Either style makes repairs easy.
3. The Hori Hori
The multipurpose sidearm of the gardener: Small, lightweight, yet robust enough to handle heavy clay soils. It’s designed to dig holes for bulbs, bed out plants, and remove some of the more stubborn interlopers in the garden (thistle, I’m looking at you). It can cut roots and woody stems up to the thickness of a finger. The original purpose of the hori hori was to manage satoyama, the edge where mountain forest met cultivated field in 13th century Japan. The design hasn’t changed much since, which speaks to its effectiveness and proven design. Applied to our context here in Alberta, it’s an ideal tool for food forests and gardens.
The hori hori I make currently are forged from abandoned railroad spikes and are water-quenched to achieve about the same hardness as an axe. That means it can hold an edge fairly well, and since it’s also used to dig, it won’t break when leverage is applied to the handle. I forge the blades to achieve a balance between robustness and weight. The handles are made from reclaimed wood, most commonly old hockey sticks which are light and durable. I rivet the handles to the full tang blade with copper rivets, once again making replacement of the handles easy if it’s ever needed.
With these three tools, I can accomplish the majority of my work in the garden. While shovels and garden forks certainly come in handy, they didn’t quite make my top three. Every tool I make is informed by traditional design and from the experiences of my clients and myself.