Get Your Garden Growing with Low-Tech Tools
Trading petroleum for muscle will keep you in shape and save you money.
A bountiful harvest is possible without the use of gasoline-powered tools; and it's cheaper, too.
Bruce Coleman Photography/Gary K. Smith
Humans use tools to shape the environment, but our tools shape us as well – in particular, our assumptions and ways of doing things. Most of us have grown up believing that motor-powered machines are faster, more efficient and do the job better than the muscle-powered tools our ancestors used. But in many cases, those simple tools may be more appropriate for the task at hand. This is often true when working in your home garden.
Simpler can be better
Using human-powered garden tools has many advantages. First, consider the enormous difference in initial cost between hand tools and motorized machines. Also, maintenance costs are likely to be much less with hand tools. It’s more likely that you’ll be able to handle repairs yourself, too.
As for efficiency, we usually forget that human-powered tools require less energy per unit of work than most power tools. Further, every experienced gardener knows it is more efficient to work, plant and weed soil that is deep, mellow and retains its moisture. The tools that help us nurture productive soil are the tools that are also the most efficient in the long run.
When weighing the choice of powered versus low-tech tools, I offer this supposition: Say you want to convert a piece of established pasture sod to garden soil that is more fertile, productive and easily worked with each passing season. I propose that you can easily accomplish this task using three simple and supremely low-tech tools: a scythe, a garden cart and a broadfork.
Why not use a tiller?
It’s true that killing and turning under the established sod would be accomplished faster with a power tiller – in an afternoon, as opposed to a whole season with the alternatives discussed below. However, someone once said that patience is a virtue, and that’s certainly true when it comes to nurturing productive garden soil.
Choosing a particular tool can shut off creative thought about alternatives. As the saying goes: If your only tool is a hammer, every task looks like a nail. Choosing to use a power tiller blinds you to an important question: Why till at all?
In fact, there are good reasons to avoid pulverizing and mixing soil layers, whether with a power tiller or any other tool. Soil is a complex, living community of organisms that compete and cooperate, and, in the process, alter growing conditions in profound ways.
Nothing is as important to building good soil as nurturing the diversity and population densities of soil organisms. You do that best by avoiding unnecessary tillage – which disrupts the soil community – and by feeding the soil with organic matter. You want your soil to become looser and more friable, or easily crumbled. A few low-tech tools can help speed this process.
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