At the top of everyone’s prepping list is an abundant food supply. Gardening is an essential part of making that food supply as resilient as possible. Maintaining a garden does take a substantial amount of time and energy, both of which may be in short supply in a TEOTWAWKI situation. As a farmer running a market vegetable farm, there are a number of tools that I have come to rely on, many of which would be similarly helpful on a non-commercial scale as well, allowing you to spend less time maintaining the essential food source that is your garden.
The soil on which I farm, and accordingly on which I am familiar with these tools, is heavy clay loam. This means that I have a very dense soil that is sticky when wet and quite hard when dry, by contrast to sandier soils that would be looser and less prone to forming a hard, crusty surface when dry. Many of the tools that I will described will perform differently on different soils and in fact may be easier to use on a lighter, looser soil. Please note that I am not affiliated in any way with any of the retailers or producers of these products; I am just a retail customer.
Tillage & Bed Preparation
Tillage is the process of turning over, mixing, or otherwise mechanically preparing your soil for planting. There are a number of ways to do this, which I will describe in order of decreasing cost and scale.
A rotavator is a rotary tiller, or rototiller, powered and pulled by a tractor. If you already have a tractor and also have a very large garden, you may want to consider one of these. For most this is both prohibitively expensive and prohibitively large for a smaller space. However, rotavators are generally more capable of preparing your soil deeper, more thoroughly, and faster than any other method.
Walk-behind tractors are often referred to simply by the function of the implement that is attached to it, like a rototiller. Another common example would be a snow blower. Basically, this is a relatively small engine with a power-take-off (PTO) that runs an implement while you walk behind it. For a small to homestead sized garden a walk-behind rototiller should be everything you need to prepare you garden for planting. Rototillers are generally measured by the width or soil that they work, and range in size from 6” to 36” with sizes in the 16”-24” range being most common.
Prices range from $200-$500 for a used unit to over $5000 for a top of the line unit like a BCS or Grillo. Less expensive models are available from many outdoor equipment makers like Husqvarna, Troy-Bilt, and many others, and many of these will work great. It has been my experienced that older models (like pre-1985) are much more solidly built and if well maintained are less likely to have issues than more recent models. If you can afford it, I recommend BCS as a quality manufacturer with an outstanding reputation. With a BCS you also have the option of a number of other attachments aside from the rototiller, include mowers, snow blowers, and even a generator.
Hand Tillage Tools
Both tractor-mounted rotavators and walk-behind tillers make soil preparation much easier and faster than hand tools. However, both have a number of drawbacks in that they are major investments, require fuel to function, and are hard on the soil. If these options are outside of your budget or you would like a non-fuel powered backup, there are some hand tools that can be used in their place
The largest and most efficient is the broadfork. This allows you to lift and break up a relatively wider piece of soil than the other hand tools. Additionally, broadforks do a good job of aerating and deepening your soil due to the depth the tines reach. They can also serve as a harvest tools for digging root crops, like potatoes or carrots. One caveat of this tool is that it is breakable. In very dense soil, like the clay loam that I farm on, you can bend the tines just trying to work the soil up. And even in lighter soil, if you happen to catch a root or something, you can wind up with bent tines, and once they are bent they will never again be as sturdy as before bending. That said, folks working in lighter soil have told me that broadforks can be used effectively and efficiently.
Tillage can also be done with just a simple shovel or digging fork. This is obviously much slower and more labor intensive than any of the other options, but shovels are much easier to find and are far less expensive than any of the other tools mentioned.
Many seed and supply companies also sell a number of other soil preparation tools. These include things like tilthers, bed rollers, or hand tillers. In my experience there is rarely, if ever, a need to have your bed so finely prepped that those tools are merited.
Planting in a home garden is a relatively minor task and can generally by quickly and easily accomplished by hand simply by dropping the seeds into a prepared furrow. As you increase the size of your garden, hand-seeding can quickly become a tedious and time-intensive project. A push seeder can make this process much faster, more accurate, and more efficient in terms of seeds used by spacing them more evenly than you can easily do by hand. The Earthway seeder is a good, low cost push seeder. To use the Earthway, you fill the hopper with seed and as you push it down the row the front wheel turns a seed plate that picks up the seeds and drops them into the soil. Another option is a Jang seeder, which works much the same as the Earthway but uses rollers instead of plates to pick up the seeds. The Jang is substantially more expensive than the Earthway, plus has the additional cost of purchasing rollers for the various seed types. It is, however, a much higher quality product and is capable of being more precise, thus further reducing waste from over-seeding. One particular drawback of the Earthway is that it can’t be used to plant small, round seeds, as it will crush the seeds.
Cultivation & Weed Management
Controlling weeds can be one of the most challenging and time-consuming components of gardening. The preferred method of cultivation is killing the weeds pre-emergence or extremely shortly thereafter by mechanically stirring or scraping the top layer of soil with a hoe or similar tool. There are many, many tools available for this, which I will again list in order of decreasing scale and cost.
There are many, many tractor cultivation tools out there. They are nearly all beyond the scope of even a very large home garden, so I am not going to get into them here, but if you find yourself approaching a commercial scale operation keep in mind that they are an option.
Wheel hoes, I think, are one of the most indispensable tools you can have for a garden. They are a bit of an investment but quickly pay off in time and effort saved even in a smaller home garden. There are a number of brands out there, of which the Glaser is my preferred model. A wheel hoe allows you to cultivate the space between your rows quickly and efficiently. Also, it allows you to do so while standing, thus saving strain on your back and knees, which generally take a lot of abuse with many other garden-related tasks. The major drawback of a wheel hoe is that they lack the precision to control weeds close to your plants, meaning that you need to come back with a more precise tool for those weeds.
There are a number of attachments available for wheel hoes. I almost exclusively use 8-inch or 12-inch stirrup hoes, but there are tine cultivators, hillers, and even a single row seeder like those described above available for your wheel hoe.
There are a number of types of long-handled hoes. I personally prefer scuffle hoes, collinear hoes, and stirrup hoes, but any kind of hoe can accomplish the same task. Scuffle hoes are essentially sharpened wedges on the end of a long handle that you push in a sort of ‘scuffle’ along through your rows. A collinear hoe works in reserve of a scuffle hoe; the blade is set to the handle such that you pull it toward you rather than push it away from you, like with a scuffle hoe. Both of these have the advantage that they can easily be used from an upright standing position. A stirrup hoe has a stirrup-shaped loop of metal at the end of the handle, the bottom of which is sharpened. These are more aggressive hoes and may work better than scuffle or collinear hoes in hard, crusty soil. Stirrup hoes do, however, require more bending to use effectively than the other types, thus putting more strain on your back.
The long handles hoes just described are much more precise than wheel hoes, but even so are sometimes not precise enough for some tasks. In that case you may need a hand hoe. Hand hoes allow you to cultivate extremely close to your plants. However, this are a much more labor-intensive and time-consuming task than using any of the other hoes. Also, using a hand hoe requires being on your hands and knees, thus making it physically challenging work.
Bear in mind that any of these cultivating tools rapidly become less effective as your weeds move past their very early stages. You truly do want to be cultivating as soon as (or even before) the weeds emerge from the soil. Once the weeds grow past an inch or three tall, it becomes difficult to impossible to hoe effectively and you may wind up having to pull the weeds by hand to remove them.
Nearly everything that you would grow in your garden must be harvested by hand, due to the delicate nature of the produce, even on our ten-acre market farm. There are a few tools that can be helpful, the first of which is a good knife. We use these Victorinox serrated paring knives, as they come extremely sharp, cut well even after lots of use, and are inexpensive enough that I don’t mind when they get lost or broken. At this point we treat them as essentially disposable, which is something that would have to change in a TEOTWAWKI situation, but for now I can hand them out to my employees and not worry about what happens to them.
A hand pruner can also be a helpful tool for harvesting. I use these for harvesting things like peppers and eggplant, where cutting them with a knife increases the odds of both damaging the plant and cutting your hands. Also, a pruner or even a lopping shears can come in handy for cutting full stalks of Brussels sprouts before they go into the root-cellar.
Crops like carrots, garlic, or potatoes have to be dug up. I already talked about broadforks in the tillage section above so will not go into detail on those again, but they are a more efficient option than a regular shovel or digging fork. I prefer to use a shovel for digging root crops rather than a digging fork because I seem to damage more of the roots with a fork. The fork may be more effective in a looser soil than mine though, and they do come in handy for other tasks so are worth having around.
Once crops are harvested you need something to store and transport them in, and while any tote, bucket, or bag will work I highly recommend crates from Intercrate Container. I use the 6.7, 8.5, and 10.5 crates for transporting and storing nearly everything on the farm. Their major advantage over other types is their swing-bar stacking design. Basically there is a bar on either side of the top that you swing in, allowing the crates to be stacked without crushing the contents, and when the bars are swung out the crates nest inside each other, saving on storage space.
On a farm scale we use heated greenhouses, unheated hoophouses, and row cover to extend the season in which we can grow certain crops. The larger scale and greater cost of the greenhouses and hoophouses makes them impractical for a home garden setup, but row cover is something that can be fit to any scale. Row cover is a very lightweight non-woven fabric that is used to cover your crops, giving them a little bit of cover from cold and frost. It also traps heat like a greenhouse would, warming the soil faster, adding to the season-extending benefits. Additionally, row cover creates a physical barrier to insect pests and can be used in place of sprays for some crops. For many of the sturdier crops, such as broccoli or summer squash, I let the row cover simply lay on the plants directly. For more fragile crops like peppers, tomatoes, or sweet potatoes the row cover needs some support to keep it off of the plants. I generally use hoops of heavy wire (less expensiver in other places) or you could use bent electrical conduit or pvc. The edges of your row cover need to be buried slightly or thoroughly weighted down with something to keep it from blowing away.
Row cover is reusable, but it is also quite fragile and tears easily. It can make a big difference in crop health and can extend your growing season upwards of two weeks on either end. So, it is definitely worth using but may not be sustainable in a long-term TEOTWAWKI scenario.