Best Tool in the Shed

I am impressed by the number of families in our region that are embracing permaculture landscape design and management. I have been out and about across the city and around the region advising couples who live on small sections, large sections and lifestyle blocks.

If busy is the new black, then call me midnight. But I’m not complaining. What a pleasure it is to share my experience and enthusiasm for eco-design with a wide range of people who see the clear benefits of low-input / high performance systems.

During a consultation the first things I ask are: What is your vision? What are your motivations?

Last weekend I was working with a lovely couple on their lifestyle block and they said one of their motivations was to “work smarter, not harder.” As a former market gardener, that phrase runs through my head like mantra. When I am working my land it is an automatic way of operating. How else can I get 12 hours of chores done in 8 hours?

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In my opinion, the key to working smarter is good design, and the best designs are holistic and four-dimensional. (Time is the fourth dimension.) For a market gardener, four-dimensional design conjures up another mantra: tools, timing, technique. In other words, using the right tool at the right time in the right way.

For example, I would never use a pitchfork to turn a large compost heap – way too much work!

Ironically, the best tool for low-effort / high production vege gardening is essentially unknown in New Zealand. It is the best tool you have never heard of: the stirrup hoe. Screen shot 2015-02-13 at 10.22.48 AM

I have been using stirrup hoes for over a decade. When it comes to managing my annual vege gardens I use the stirrup hoe for roughly 80 percent of my entire tool use. In other words, when I pick up a tool, four times out of five it is a stirrup hoe, and the other time it is any other tool in the shed. This dominance is akin to the All Blacks who have held the world number one ranking for over 80% of the time and all other nations combined have held it for less than 20%. Screen shot 2015-02-13 at 10.24.21 AM

So why haven’t you heard of the stirrup hoe? Probably spending too much time weeding your garden!

Like a torpedo hoe or Dutch hoe, it is a surface weeder with the advantage that the leading edge always digs into the soil because it pivots between pushing and pulling. This back-and-forth motion accounts for its other name: the oscillating hoe.

That’s the tool, now what about the timing? Sorry, another mantra: “Once a week, every week, on a sunny, windy day.” Screen shot 2015-02-13 at 10.24.27 AM

Gently working the soil surface back and forth uproots tiny weeds as soon as they germinate. The sun and wind desiccate them within hours and they simply remain on the surface until they decompose back into the earth. Ninety-nine percent of my weeding is done without ever bending over.

As you can imply from the description above, the technique involved is gently working the soil surface – 10 to 15 mm deep only. The tool is held with the lightest of touch between your hands. It reminds me of my childhood when I spent spring afternoons raking the long jump sand pit for my father who was a track coach.

After about six weeks the soil surface is essentially devoid of weed seeds. That’s when another tool comes in handy: a bottle opener. Sit back, relax and enjoy a cool drink as you admire the immaculate vege garden. That’s working smarter!