Tools, Tilling, Planning, Planting and Fertilizing–What do YOU think?

I just spent a few minutes doing the happy dance (and that’s not easy on a brand-new prosthetic knee!)  I got the letter announcing the date for going to re-claim your space in the Dauphin County Community Gardens today–did you?! Well, on to the work-related stuff!

Garden Tools. . .oh so very important!

According to Steve Solomon, author of Gardening When it Counts:  Growing Food in Hard Times, most gardeners only need four basic tools to till up to one-quarter acre of ground: an ordinary combination shovel, a common hoe, a bow rake  and a 10- to 12- inch-long metal file with a handle, to periodically sharpen the shovel and the hoe.  After the garden gets started, you will also need a wagon or wheelbarrow, a garden sprayer knives and buckets (especially the 5 gallon kind). This is if you are reasonably physically fit.  If you have health problems, you will probably want the earth rototilled first so that the soil is loosened up for the use of the shovel, rake and hoe.  The truth is, Solomon is probably right.  Last year, I found that the most useful tools for keeping my garden orderly were the hoe and the rake.  I own a tiller, but I used the hoe and the rake more than anything else.   Later on, I added a fork-bladed weeder to get the thistles out.  I used little else, and after the initial (first) rototilling, I did very little additional machine tilling.

I am certain that most people will disagree with me.  After all, we ALL remember those hot, long afternoons with the dry, hard, clay dust of the garden flying off our hoes as we tried (sometimes in vain) to get rid of the weeds.   At those times, those who DIDN’T own a tiller prayed for one, and those who DID own one threw down the hoe and mowed those thistles down with the tiller.  Who could blame ’em?  The weed problem can get pretty bad over there.  In fact, for some people it became too much.  That is understandable when you also have to work for a living, and take care of a family of young children as well as maintain the garden.   In the plots that were abandoned by July we all saw the cases where it was clear that someone had fought the weeds and the weeds won.  But there are easier and better ways to cope with the weeds that will make gardening a dream and not so much of a chore.

Neverthelesss, it is absolutely true that all one basically needs is a shovel, rake and hoe.  The SECRET to easier work is to make sure that the shovel and hoe are of good quality and that they ARE SHARP!

Don’t Buy Tools at the Dollar Store

Enough said. Dollar store tools are made of cheap pot metal that will not take or hold a sharp edge.  Also the poor quality of their construction will guarantee that they will soon break, wasting your money.  A good rule of thumb is to  buy the sorts of hoes, rakes, and shovels that are generally used by landscapers, or tools that are Professional Grade.   They may cost a little more, but you will have  tools that will last for years and that will be easier to use and easier to sharpen.

Medium to higher priced hoes and shovels from local home centers, garden shops (like Stauffers or Ashcombe’s) or hardware stores should be adequate (I’ve found better tools at the smaller hardware stores), but you need to have these tools sharpened.  If you have little or no money to buy tools, it might be a good idea to frequent local flea markets or even try the Goodwill, Craigs List or Salvation Army.  For example, I do know of some flea marketers that sell tools at the Saturday’s Market near Middletown.  Check the newspaper for yard sales where people have tools listed.  It’s better to get a good quality used tool at the flea market or at a yard sale than to buy something  new that’s cheaply made.  The best hoes I have are old used ones that were given to me by a farmer friend of my father-in-law.   They are so perfectly nice and sharp that simply dragging them over the ground cuts off the weeds.

If you aren’t a Do-It-Yourselfer, or if you aren’t familiar with the safe use of tools like the file, you should inquire at the hardware store about whether or not tool sharpening is offered as a service or else consult the local yellow pages. If you are a Do-It-Yourselfer, you can do your own sharpening.  Here are some helpful videos about how it’s done:

Once you have your tools sharpened, you can maintain the sharp edge by touching it up with the file.  Sharp tools will cut through the weeds and soil with ease, minimizing work. 

Tillers!  Did you know that Tillers are controversial?

Did you know that the over use of Tillers can create two very bad soil conditions?  One is called a “plow pan,” and the other is called  “soil pulverization”.

Steve Solomon, whose book, Gardening When It Counts, was previously mentioned, is not a fan of mechanical rototilling.  Why? it is because rototilling creates what is known as a “plow pan” about 5 to 7 inches beneath the soil that is tilled. This “plow pan” is a hard compressed layer of soil located at the fartherest depth that the tiller reaches.  This compacted layer of soil prevents effective root penetration of vegetable plants and causes them to be stunted in growth.  Furthermore, this “pan” of compacted soil causes root vegetables like carrots, beets, potatoes, turnips, radishes and the like to grow in weird ways, such as forming flat or forked roots.  It is the “plow pan” that causes corn plants to fall over in high winds because their root development is limited to the first 5 or 6 inches of soil.  In short, plants cannot grow deep enough to hold themselves up properly.   This sentiment is echoed in the book “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Self Sufficient Living,” by Jerome D. Belanger.  Belanger adds that over use of the tiller can also cause “soil pulverization,” where the soil is so finely ground by the tiller that it turns into a powder that is incapable of holding nutrients necessary to plant growth.  Both books point back to a book by Edward Faulkner called “Plowman’s Folly,” (1943) which condemned the action of the then popular “moldboard plow,”  which worked in pretty much the same way as the modern rototiller.  Did you know that because of problems with the “moldboard plow” type of tilling  most modern farmers have developed a “no-till” method of farming?  After all, it was the pulverization of the soil combined with the “plow pan” that caused the Dust Bowls of the 1920s and 1930s.  Think about that the next time you see dust rising in the Community Gardens. . .

No gardener wants to cause a hardpan of soil to form in their gardens; nor does anyone want to pulverize their soil to a powder that won’t grow anything.  But what to do about the hard clay that we have to work with?  And what to do about the weeds?

The answer is to till DEEPLY the first time and to make sure you add plenty of compost or other organic materials when you do.  The deeper you till the first time, the less likely it is that you will need to use the tiller frequently later.  Also, there are ways to deal with weeds EARLY that can virtually eliminate the use of the tiller as a weed control device.  More about that later.

If you do use a rototiller, make sure you till down a minimum of 12 inches.  Yup.  That’s one foot down.  You may have to make a pass with the tiller, then use a shovel to remove the soil from the tilled area and till it again before replacing all of the soil in the growing bed.  As you till, add compost, cow manure, chopped up straw, grass clippings or leaves to keep the soil loose.  Some townships in Dauphin County have yard waste composting facilities that will allow the residents of that township to get compost for free.  I have listed some resources at the bottom of this post.

Once you have your planting beds tilled up, DO NOT WALK ON THEM.  Walk only in the paths.  This means that your tilled, composted beds should not be so wide that you cannot reach into them comfortably.   This should give you a nice, loose bed or row of soil for your plants that is easy to maintain with just the hoe.

Till the Garden for Your Vegetables, Not for the Weeds–

But what about the paths?  Won’t they become overgrown with weeds?  Won’t you HAVE to use the rototiller to keep the weeds cut down?  The answers are yes and no.  The paths will get overgrown with weeds if you don’t use the hoe regularly to knock down the weed seedlings.   And, no, you don’t always have to use the rototiller.  There are other solutions that work quite well to control weeds in the garden, but they only work if you implement them FIRST, right at the time that you first prepare your garden plot in the spring.

After the first or second tilling to even out the ground, you should not be tilling the pathways of your garden.  We all know that it looks nice to see an entire plot smoothly rototilled, but that is all it does.  It Looks Nice.  What you have done by tilling up the pathways is prepared a nicely loosened up bed of soil for the weed seeds in the ground to grow.  And if you are using the tiller to mow down thistles, you are only helping them to spread.  By NOT tilling the paths, your feet compact the pathways, thus making it harder for weeds to grow.  You just trample the weeds down as you walk the paths.

Another way to control weeds is by heavy mulching. You can cover the paths with a thick layer of straw, newspaper, or even cardboard (which is probably best) which will repel the growth of weeds.  Last year, I saw that one gardener covered his garden with old pieces of carpet, which did a pretty good job of weed control. In the Rodale Press book, 1,001 Ingenious Gardening Ideas, by Deborah Martin, she reported that many gardeners have found a great solution with the following:

–Gather enough CARDBOARD to cover the paths in your garden (you can probably get cardboard by asking for old boxes  at local grocery stores or membership warehouses).

–Tear the cardboard down to the size of your garden paths and wet it down with water.  Place the wet cardboard in the paths.

–Then cover the wet cardboard with straw or with 2-3 inches of wood chips (wood chips may be obtained free from local township yard waste recycling facilities).

This just about guarantees that your paths will remain free of weeds.  It also will stop your boots and shoes from clotting up with mud.  A sidelong benefit is that as the summer progresses, the ground under the cardboard mulch will heat up, killing both weed seeds and ground dwelling bugs and their larva.  You can also leave this in the garden because it is biodegradable and it will enrich the soil as it deteriorates.

One trick that has been recommended in many garden books is that you cover your garden with black plastic mulch early in the season (March and April) and leave that there until the ground heats up in the early summer (June or July).  Then you remove it.  Apparently the heat will be too much for the weed seeds and they will die in the soil.  The problem with this method is that YOU MUST PICK UP THE PLASTIC AND REMOVE IT.  It is against the garden rules to leave plastic mulch in the garden because it destroys the equipment that is used to disc over the community garden in the spring.  Black Plastic is not biodegradable and it pollutes the environment if it isn’t removed.  My choice is to use newspapers or cardboard and straw or wood chips, which is just as effective and which, when it degrades, actually helps the soil to become better.

Last season, I found that straw was very effective in preventing weeds from growing in the paths of my garden. I used the tiller as a weed control mechanism only as an absolute last resort.  In later issues I will mention green manures that can be sown in the fall and that will actually serve as biological controls against weed growth.

Tillers are handy tools, and very necessary at the beginning of the season, but just like any good thing overuse is not a good idea.

Planning, planning and more planning!  Very important to Planting!!

Have you ever gotten your plants and seeds together and started enthusiastically planting them only to find that you’ve run out of space?  Believe me, it has happened to all of us.  However, the answer is NOT to:

—  Plant your leftover seeds and plants in the walkway or driveway spaces by simply (ahem!) moving the blue topped stakes to accommodate the “growing” size of your garden, or

— (Believe it or not) Planting your leftover seeds and plants in the neighboring gardener’s space.

People, PLEASE!!!




People can contact the Parks and Recreation Department to complain if you do the things mentioned above!  People can also destroy any plants that are where they don’t belong.

Do you want to start out the season on bad terms with your neighbor?  It is easy to make an enemy.  Simply block someone from access to their space by putting part of your garden in public walkways or driveways OR put your plants and seeds in another person’s garden.  Unbelievable, yet true!  Some people actually do this!

Last year, I was forced to abandon certain garden spots (13 and 15) because of these very problems.  Bad neighbors who broke the rules.  Someone put prickly squash plants and pea vines right in the middle of the walking paths.  I was forced to cut them down with a machete.  Then the irate gardener who had done this wrong thing accosted my husband about our destruction of “part of his garden.”  HE was the one in the wrong!   The pathway was NOT part of his garden!  SHAME ON HIM!

The blue-topped stakes are there for a reason; namely to provide access to ALL gardeners.  Those set the size of each space at 30′ x 30′ to make it fair for everyone.  You don’t have a right to use the space in the walkways or driveways as part of your garden.  Those are for walking or so that people can drive water and equipment up to their gardens without parking where they don’t belong.  No one has the right to force people to park on Elmerton Avenue so that they can reach their garden!!

But what is the initial cause of this sort of problem?  POOR PLANNING!

In order to have a successful garden, you need to plan!  You need to know WHAT you are going to plant; but, more importantly, you need to know WHERE you are going to plant it.

This is a copy of a garden plan that I made up for a 4 foot by 12 foot garden bed.  As you can see, this space would contain 2 watermelon plants, 8 bush green beans, 2 cucumber vines, 3 tomato vines, 3 cauliflowers, 4 celery plants, 2 bell pepper plants, 4 kale plants, 2 bok choi, 4 broccoli plants, 1 summer squash plant, 3 cabbage plants, 4 heads of lettuce, 27 onions, and 1 winter squash plant.

THAT’S A LOT!  The plan shows the number of plants that can be placed in a square foot.    Did you know that EIGHT 4 foot by 12 foot beds like this will very comfortably fit in a 30 foot x 30 foot space?  Just multiply each of the number of the plants mentioned by 8 and you will see that a single garden plot can produce quite a bit of food.   With planning, there is no need to overflow your space.

And–you row gardeners–all you have to do is imagine that each garden bed contains 4  rows that are 12 feet long each.  Thats 32 rows of vegetables in one single 30 foot x30 foot space.

And if you have more than one space, well, you can do the math!

A garden planner can be found here:

Another one is here:

Planing will help you to get the most from your assigned space AND stay on good terms with your neighbors!


There are basically only two real choices for fertilizing and building up the soil in your garden: Organic/All-Natural or Chemical.

We’ve all relied on chemical fertilizers before.  These come in bags from the home or garden centers, or else they come in little boxes as a powder that is mixed with water.  These are useful, but the problem with them is that they do not build up the soil.  A better way is to add organic materials such as dead leaves, chopped up straw, compost, humus or cow manure.

A really old story centers around how a Native American man named Squanto helped the Pilgrims to plant corn successfully by adding a fish to each “hill” before putting in the corn seed.  This actually works because corn is a heavy nitrogen feeder and as the fish decayed in the hole, it would release nitrogen into the soil.  Interestingly, you can also choose this method of fertilization.  It’s organic and all natural!  Simply add a small piece of fish to each hill or mound where to place your vegetable seeds or plants, or you can put pieces of  fish in your rows.

You can also make your own concentrated liquid fish fertilizer.  Now is a good time to do it as the smells associated with making fish fertilizer will be lessened due to the winter season.  Here’s a how-to:

Here’s yet another way to go all natural.  Steve Solomon offers this formula for an organic fertilizer:

In the next issue of the newsletter, the focus will be on CORN.   Due to the various cultivars of corn that are available, there is very important information that every gardener should know.  We will also be talking about WATER and I will (if you are paying attention) give you some tips on where to get BARRELS.


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