There are certain tools and services which are particular benefit to the urban gardener. Many are the same ones a rural gardener or small farmer might use. Others are ideal for an urban environment. Here are a few things we’ve tried and our experience with using them.
We loved these gloves for a while, which we discovered and tried on at a local shop. The medium size fits both her dainty flower-arranging hands and his muscular brick-hurling hands. When they wore out, we bought more. They are stretchy and fit really well, let your hands breathe in hot weather, allow for handling of damp soil due to their palm-side coating, and are sturdy enough for pushing rocks and dirt around but allow for the delicate work as well like thinning tiny seedlings. They do have a downside, which applies to many rubber-coated gloves: the rubber coating can be degraded by oils. We use neem oil as an organic fungicide, and when a little bit got on the rubber coating, the coating became very sticky over the next few weeks, until they were unusable. Once the coating is degraded, there’s no saving the gloves, and they’re not cheap. We ended up having to throw away four pairs of nice gloves for this reason when they became unusable halfway through their first season.
Much like the bamboo gloves above, but with one key difference: the nitrile palm-side coating does not degrade when exposed to oil. These are our new favorites.
Mini Loop Hoe Weeder
After getting frustrated with weeding in extremely tight spaces with a fence on three sides and concrete and rock walls to contend with, I wanted to try something different than just pulling weeds by hand. I tried this thing out, which is under two feet in length. It cuts weed roots below the soil surface, which is great. It’s also good as a soil cultivator. I found it best to use at the start of the season when plants are small and there is plenty of open soil. Once vegetable roots develop, you need to keep your distance from them when using this tool. Also, as it’s designed to cut roots, the edge needs to be kept sharp. It’s not sharp out of the box and will dull quickly as well… you’ll want a small metal file to keep it sharp. I like it for certain situations, but now find that I reach for it rarely. It’s useful, but not the silver bullet I was hoping for. When the time comes to cut back or turn under the cover crops, it can be used as a scythe and cultivator to good effect.
Cultivator or Weeding Rake
This full-length tool has been of great benefit in breaking up the hard-packed soil I inherited from the previous gardeners in my space. I throw soil amendments over the soil and use this tool at the beginning and end of the season to mix and aerate the soil, break up any big clods, and pull out any touch weeds and stems. It’s the right size for a tiny backyard like mine. The only downside is that it’s not really a replacement for a true garden rake, which would be shallower and wider. Whereas a true garden rake would be good for pulling out finer material and leveling the soil, this cultivator is best for digging and mixing. I use it about twice a year, but at those times it’s invaluable.
I probably wouldn’t have gone out and bought this as my cultivator (above) handles most of this work, but I passed it on my block when a neighbor had left it by the curb for the taking. I grabbed it. For the purposes of the urban gardener, I can’t see it being used more than rarely. Innately I did use it to pull up rocks and to work soil amendments deeply into the top 12″ of soil… but it’s nothing my cultivator can’t handle. I would say borrow one when you settle on a new location and you likely won’t need it again. I’m not baling hay here. If I had a much larger compost pile, I could see it being useful for turning the windrow.
Fiskars Garden Shears (18″)
Ok, I’m going to rant a little about this brand, Fiskars. They seem to be ubiquitous, and I often find them at the big box stores, but I’m not a fan of their quality. The first pair of these literally came unhinged a few days after buying them. These are the size you’d use for trimming hedges (which I since pulled out of the garden), but I also need them for cutting the occasional thick stem or intruding branch from an outside tree. When I brought them back to the store, I went back to the aisle to see what else was available, and saw that half of the identical ones in stock were also broken–probably also returned. When they do cut, they cut poorly.
Fiskars Gardening Scissors (9″)
These gardening scissors do the job, but I find their quality to be lacking. They come apart for easy cleaning, and cut through anything thinner than my pinky, so I use them for medium work, tomato pruning, or snipping herbs. The blades seem to be chronically misaligned, so that one is chewing up the sharp edge of the other. For example, I can’t easily cut simple garden twine at this point– a problem for a pair of scissors. Every few weeks I have to fix them on the sharpening stone. They feel cheaply made. I’ll buy something else when they bite the dust.
Fiskars Micro Snips (6″)
These all look the same, so I’m putting approximate dimensions to give a better idea of what they’re used for. These tiny snips are actually pretty good for the small pruning tasks. Snip a bit of Rosemary for dinner, trim off a sick tomato branch… that’s about it. But they are the ones I reach for on a daily basis. They have a sliding lock which is handy as the tips are very sharp. I do like them on balance, even though they, too, feel a bit cheap. Why so many tools by this brand? It seems like it’s all that’s sold around here, and for reasons beyond me, they seem to get good reviews.
I’ve tried a few types of wooden and plastic stakes over the years. I don’t like the look of anything plastic, although it does last longer and doesn’t get moldy easily. The wood you typically find in most stores is nothing special and will begin to get moldy or rot by the first fall. Bamboo is slightly more resistant than wood, and I find it to be aesthetically nicer than weathered wood stakes. I get long (8′) poles and shorter (4′) ones as well. The long ones are great for building tomato/bean/cucumber trellises and other projects with. The short ones I generally use for staking peppers, eggplant and some of the taller flowers. Don’t buy them in a fancy boutique flower shop, where they’ll gouge you by the stake. Order them in packs of 10 or 25, or hit the garden supply stores up in the early or late part of the season. You won’t find many left in the high season, anywhere.
I’ve tried a few methods of clipping stems and branches onto stakes. Plants get big and will fall over if they aren’t staked. Their stems will break and you’ll lose some of your harvest. Some plants also need to be trained along a trellis or a fence. These clips are one of the best solutions I’ve found. I used to spend hours with a little ball of twine, tying and untying each knot for what seemed like an entire Saturday. These clips are designed so that the larger part of the opening surrounds the plant stem, and the smaller opening at the tip acts as the jaws of the clip, securing to a round or rectangular stake. The plant stem is free to get larger and has some room to move around. It takes all of three seconds to take a clip off and reposition it somewhere new. These have saved me a lot of time. They only last a few seasons, and the smaller size of the two that come in the package are nearly useless for vegetables, but I just buy an extra pack for the big ones. If left on the ground or in the rain, the metal spring will rust. Sometimes they fall apart. But I still like them best so far for their efficiency and ease of use.
I wouldn’t buy one of these. We’ve tried two. One broke within two weeks, with daily use at normal water pressure (60psi). But it sure was handy and lightweight while it lasted. Maybe defective? We got another one, this time with reduced pressure via a reducer we bought for the purpose (10psi, which is basically a trickle). This one lasted two months, then broke. If it can’t handle 10psi then it’s not even marginally useful. There is a lot of marketing behind these, but there is no model out there which holds up to the hype.
Carpenter Bee Trap
I like living things… but not if they’re chewing up my house. Carpenter bees are not as bad as termites, but I still don’t want them poking holes in my walls. A very simple trap design is out there and I’ve found it to be pretty effective. No poisons or chemicals. It looks like you need one every 8 feet or so. Can be bought online, or made easily from scrapwood and a jar or bottle.
Large Plastic Storage Tub
OK, I’m only mentioning this guy because it’s a handy and cheap place to store tools until I can afford a nicer one made from reclaimed old-growth redwood. In here go most of our smaller tools, twine, bug spray… all the usual gardeny stuff. I prefer the transparent ones because the daylight coming through the sides will allow for much easier rooting around in there. Get one with a cover that secures solidly, overhangs the sides, and is a single piece rather than the hinged kind. Moisture and rain will inevitably sneak in there, so prop the side away from you up on a brick, tilting it towards you, and drill a few tiny holes (too small for most bugs) up in front. This will allow any collected water to drain out. Take the lid off on hot sunny days, which will allow the contents to dry.
Teak Planters (24″x24″x24″)
We needed something to contain the hops so they would not take over the garden beds. I didn’t want chemically treated wood. After being priced out of $400 teak planters locally, we found another way. We got these nice ones from Diamond Tropical Hardwood, which has their own new-growth teak plantation in Costa Rica. They are not a retailer; they’re a forester and lumber mill. Teak is endangered, so it’s critical to get it from a sustainable supplier. They got two of these shipped to us for a far better price. I’m sure they will outlast me in the garden.
Repel Natural Bug Repellent
Like us, you may have been casting about for a natural bug repellant that actually works. Let’s just say we go through about four bottles per season. It works and smells pleasant to us (lemon/eucalyptus). We wish it would spray upside-down, but we’ll take what we can get. We reach for this before we do anything else.
This soil amendment is great for loosening and aerating densely packed soil. It blends in fairly well with the look of organic soil, it’s made from a natural mineral, and it’s easy to work with. Mix it into your garden soil and you’ll see healthier root systems and better drainage after heavy rains. Unfortunately it can be hard to find. At best you may find one or two tiny bags of the finer grained stuff– don’t bother. Call ahead to a real garden supply store and order it weeks ahead of time. Make sure it’s the coarse stuff, not the fine stuff. If it’s a windy day, wear a mask to avoid inhaling the finer dust.
As I have mentioned a few times on this site, I don’t like perlite. It gives the soil the appearance of a potted office plant’s soil. Its white color does not seem to fade rapidly, and after heavy rains or waterings it floats to the surface of the soil, making the whole area look like the spewed contents of cheap popcorn packing material. Unfortunately it’s also commonly used in packaged soil products such as “potting soil” or “garden mix”. If you are buying any soil product in an opaque bag, tear a little hole and check what it looks like before you buy it. Choose vermiculite over perlite if you want the soil to look like soil, I say.
Peat moss is dried moss dug up from ancient bogs of layered dead moss. It’s a light, fluffy material. There are sources in the U.K., but most of what we might find in the U.S. would be coming in from Canada. It’s been recommended over the decades as a great soil amendment to loosen soil while retaining moisture. There are many environmentalists who say that its harvest is not truly sustainable and that harvesting it does the planet more harm than good. Then there are suppliers who say they are harvesting it sustainably. There are well-known recipes for garden soil that depend heavily on peat. I’ve used it as a soil amendment to improve very hard soil. I like it for some things, and in a tiny environment like mine I don’t use much of it. I’d say if you have to use it, use it sparingly and know that it’s not a 100% renewable resource. It also has a slight acidity to it; many gardeners mix in some lime when applying it to balance its pH out.
If you’ve ever looked into organic gardening, you’ve heard a lot about compost. If you’re like most people interested in this subject, you might already be saving your food scraps and bringing them to the local pickup spot or leaving them curbside to be turned into compost. So you’re already familiar. When starting an organic garden, you’re going to want a lot of this stuff unless your soil is already in peak condition. Someday you’ll make your own compost, but to get started, you’ll need to source some. It may come in bags at the local big box store; it may come in truckloads from a local nursery or supplier; it may come in wheelbarrows full from a local community organization. These are all good places to start, but when buying bagged compost, prefer it from a local nursery or garden supplier. If you have no choice but to buy from a big box store, buy a few different brands and mix them. This will ensure that you get a mix of nutrients into your soil. If you’re buying compost from a local community organization, realize that they probably don’t have total control about what goes into it–I’ve found fruit labels, bottle caps, and bits of plastic in my otherwise pristine local compost. Partway through the season, add more compost to your plants to give them more nutrients for their fruiting phase. Start making your own– that’s a subject that whole books have been written about.
Jobe’s Organic Vegetable Fertilizer Spikes
Jobe’s is a pretty well-known brand, common to find in most gardening stores. Our garden is so dense, and we don’t grow in rows, so it’s hard to fertilize midway through the season, trying to side-dress between each and every plant without sprinkling fertilizer on the leaves. These plant spikes are designed to feed your plants for the whole season. I like them, and I use them, but the downside is that they recommend eight per plant. Do the math on your garden first. For me, that’s hundreds of spikes. That’s a whole lot of bags to buy, and a whole lot of time pushing spikes around each and every plant in the garden. It’s a lot of bending over and not much of a fun task for me. The best way is to take care of this early in the season, maybe a day or two after transplanting. This way you get it out of the way and you don’t risk crushing the next plant over while to try to reach way over to push in that little fertilizer spike.
Organic Vegetable Garden Fertilizer (Various Brands)
I use whatever brand I can find. I like to buy locally and avoid shipping heavy things so I buy whatever is in stock when I need it. This is granulated fertilizer, meant to be thrown down by hand and mixed into the soil. Most common where I live are Espoma, Jobe’s, and Dr. Earth. I buy the stuff that is balanced and formulated for vegetables, as opposed to general gardening or flowers for example. Whenever you buy fertilizer, look at the N-P-K percentages on the side of the label. For example on Miracle Gro you might see 10-15-10 or even 30-30-30 on some products. That’s because they are basically raw chemicals, the bare nutrients themselves. On organic fertilizers, these numbers are usually closer to 3-4-3 or something similar. A 12-12-12 conventional fertilizer would contain four times the nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium of a 3-3-3 organic fertilizer. Using organic processes and ingredients, it’s very difficult to produce a fertilizer that packs a serious punch. It’s gentle stuff, and that’s a good thing. It also comes with plenty of micronutrients in there as well. Who knows, maybe some mycorrhizae thrown in for good measure. Which is great for our gardening philosophy and what we want to achieve. We add a ton of compost every year as well to add more nutrients to the soil. You should also take a look at the ingredients that the organic fertilizer you’re buying is made from– you might be surprised… it’s not all grass clippings and unicorn poop in there.
I found out about azomite this year. It is a powder which is a crushed mineral, and contains dozens of micronutrients for plant growth. I’ve mixed it into my soil this year; we will see how it performs, but so far so good. I’ve been trying to bring up the quality of the soil every year, and this seems like a good source of the nutrients that might not be found in the typical N-P-K fertilizer.
These are beneficial fungi that research has shown create a symbiotic relationship with a plant’s roots. They help the roots out by extending their reach and pulling in more nutrients and water, and the host plant responds in kind by giving the fungi a little shot of sugar. A few years ago nobody had heard of them; now I’m seeing them advertised on more and more soil mixes. Try them when planting your seeds, transplanting into the garden, and as a general soil amendment. You basically won’t know they are there, but they should increase the health of your plants.
Coir Pots / Coco Pots (for seedlings)
Coir is the fiber from the husk of coconuts. It has many uses, in this case being pressed into the shape of a pot. Seen as more sustainable than peat moss pots, and in our experience more rot-resistant than other types of pressed-fiber biodegradable pots. You can sow seeds into these pots, and when the time comes to transplant, you plant the whole pot in the soil. The roots will quickly penetrate the permeable coir fibers, and the coir will gradually degrade into the soil over the course of a season or two. I like them and they’ve become my go-to seedling pots when I want something that will break down. They are stiffer and more resilient, and I’ve never seen one get moldy which is an issue with some pressed pots. A bit more expensive is the drawback. You can actually use them more than once in a season if you are careful with them. I prefer the square ones so that they will fit into trays with less lost space than round ones would.
Large Fabric Pots (for growth and harvest)
These are soft fabric pots typically made from recycled plastic spun into fiber, not unlike most of the clothing you are likely wearing—synthetic fibers have snuck into seemingly every part of life by now. These are relatively tough pots that are said to ‘air prune’ the roots of a plant—essentially meaning they prevent the roots from becoming rootbound. I haven’t seen root binding to be a problem in a vegetable garden, and we do keep some greens and herbs, even a couple of tomatoes, in pots. Anyway the idea is that when the roots extend to the side of the pot, they sense that they don’t need to grow any more and the plant can put its energy into above-ground growth. For our purposes, I mostly like them because I know they can’t be easily waterlogged during heavy rains or by our irrigation system should it spring a leak. In our small space, they are also easier to smush into tight corners than a plastic pot would be. I have seen them in use in a couple of large-scale urban farms as well, so they must have a decent track record. They are said to only last a few years, but we will see—our plastic pots clearly wouldn’t last a lifetime either. Scraping the bottoms with a metal garden tool, say when mixing soil, is likely to cause unwanted wear and tear.
LED Grow Lights
Before LEDs (light-emitting diodes) hit the home consumer market, they were catching on with indoor gardeners for their high efficiency and low heat output. Still not cheap, they are vastly cheaper than they used to be. I’ve tried growing seedlings under fluorescent tube bulbs, which are far cheaper, but they can be awkward and need constant adjustment as they need to remain very close to the plants and therefore need to be raised frequently as the plants grow to different heights at different rates. If you break one, you get a nice face full of toxic mercury gas as well. LEDs solve these issues and are even more efficient than fluorescents. They are not perfect, but they gave the Nobel Prize to a scientist who helped bring their usefulness into the mainstream for a reason—they are good things. Plants are green because they reflect the green spectra of light into our eyes. The light the plants need to grow is on the opposite end of the light color wheel: magenta. More specifically it’s a mix of a range of red and blue wavelengths. While there is no ‘magenta’ LED, the diodes have evolved enough that manufacturers can assemble a mix of red, blue and white LEDs on a panel that give off a fairly accurate representation of this range. Over time, they will cost you less money to run. It will also give your propagation environment a magenta glow. The ratio of light intensity to heat is quite high, so you can keep the light fixture a fair distance away from the soil level and keep it there pretty much for good. Even if the plants get so large that they bump into the fixture, they won’t get burned. For seedling propagation and also for growing micrograms (which is on our to-do list for this winter), they are the best in class if you are willing to spend a little extra up front. Buy from a reputable retailer who knows what they are talking about, and be sure to tell them exactly what your needs are, as there are different models for different situations.
Wicking Seedling Propagators
I’m a big fan of wicking systems, but they still require careful attention during the early days of seed germination. These systems are designed as follows: A water tray is the bottom layer. On top of that sits a platform which puts the bottoms of the plant pots well above the water line. On top of the platform lies a wicking fabric, which is kind of a thick synthetic cloth. The edges of the fabric dip into the water tray below, and osmosis pulls water up from the tray and wets the entire layer of fabric. On top of the fabric sit the pots, which have holes in the bottom. The seed-starting soil mix in the pots absorbs the water from the fabric they sit on through the holes. So as the water in the soil mix evaporates and is absorbed by young plants, water is still pulled up from the reservoir. This all works pretty well, but you should still let your soil dry out a little bit and keep an eye out for mold, before adding more water. Also consider adding chamomile or cinnamon to the water (see Seed Starting) to prevent damping-off. Sometimes, these systems water irregularly—some pots get more damp than others. Also the wicking fabric that’s out there can vary in its effectiveness—we have bought some that didn’t absorb at all, oddly.
Neem is a tree nut used for many purposes by a few cultures. It’s used in mouthwash and body lotion. In the agricultural context it’s used as an organic fungicide and insecticide. After going through a few bottles of diluted spray, now I just use the concentrated oil and dilute it myself. It works pretty well when used regularly. Some people think it smells odd. It does smell a bit odd, actually, but not terrible. I dilute it into a sprayer and add a few drops of dish soap as a wetting agent so it does not bead up and roll off of the plant leaves. It can be used on seedlings if you’re careful, and even on vegetables and greens within a short time of harvesting–eating it won’t hurt you. It should keep fungal diseases at bay, and also be able to kill off very small insects. It won’t do much to a full-grown beetle or caterpillar, however. Be careful adding any oil product to a regular spray bottle or handling it with rubber gloves– oils will gradually melt most plastic and rubber.
Captain Jack’s DeadBug Brew
I’m not sure who Captain Jack is, but this is a popular insecticide for the organic gardener. We use this stuff more rarely, but turn to it for infestations of small insects like aphids and anything else hiding on the underside of a leaf. We dilute it and use a sprayer.
After getting tired of all the hand spraying we have to do, I decided to try out a low-end professional sprayer. I’m glad I did. They’re not expensive and they’re easy to use. You just pour in some concentrated insecticide or foliar fertilizer, add your water, close the top, and give it a few pumps with the handle to add pressurized air. Adjust the nozzle from a wide mist to a targeted shot and press the sprayer handle. What used to take me 20 minutes of annoying hand spraying is now a 5 minute stroll, and it’s much easier to reach into the nooks and crannies of the garden this way. It can handle oils, foliar feed, and organic insecticides. My one complaint is that if you finish the job while there is still pressure in the tank, releasing the pressure is an awkward afterthought in the design of the low-end models.
A beneficial garden insect, you can buy them live in bulk and set them loose to devour aphids and other pests. As a test to try to control our aphid problem on kale and collards, we introduced a few hundred of these girls out into our little wilderness. We followed the instructions, but within a day or two they all seem to have left for greener pastures—wherever those might be. We’d try them again… maybe with a ladybug house, which is a place for them to hide when they’re not hungry.
Red Wriggler Worms
You can buy these live in bulk as well. They aerate the soil, digest organic matter, and improve soil health. We bought about 1000 of them which seemed to be babies, and which came in a little bag. We dug a hole and set them loose. The next day they had all disappeared into our soil. We keep seeing them around, and we see their traces as well, so we figure they’re happy in our garden.
As cheap as bleach but nicer to work with and not as harsh for the environment, hydrogen peroxide can be found in larger sizes at some pharmacies. What do you need it for? Cleaning and disease prevention. At the start of the season, dilute it and use it to clean your seed-starting trays, markers, wicking cloth, reservoirs, etc. This way your seeds and seedlings will have the best possible chance of survival. Add a few drops to water when signs of illness strike the young seedlings. Outdoors, use it to kill off any lingering mold or disease on garden tools, gloves, plant stakes and clips, and anything that might touch your plants. At the end of the season throw some into a large bucket with dish soap and clean your equipment for winter storage. You’ll find you go through it quickly, so get the largest size bottle you can find.
Soil Testing Services
I highly recommend having your soil tested if you plan on growing in the ground. (I do recommend comparing the results of in-ground, container, and raised beds to see how they differ.) Find a lab online or call your local agricultural extension and ask to be pointed in the right direction. Take a good mix of several locations and follow the directions you are given. Set some of the exact same final mix of soil aside and do a home test, so you can compare the results you get from the lab. Do this in the fall before you plant or as soon as the soil softens enough in the early spring– it may take weeks to get your results, which you’ll need in order make important choices about what you plant, where you plant it, and what to add to the soil to improve it.
Where we live, Brooklyn College has a lab dedicated to soil testing. I’ve used them for two years now, and I’ll say up front that while I want to root for the home team, unfortunately my experience has been widely mixed. Their forms and instructions are confusing; it’s not entirely clear what specific tests you’re paying for; there is no customized advice to help improve your soil based on your results; they take weeks or months to get the results back; and they often do not respond at all to inquiries or followups, leaving you wondering what has happened to your order. That said, I have been to the lab, they are very friendly in person, and I have gotten enough results to make the decisions I need to make–but often far too late in the season. I don’t have much comparison on pricing but I’ve spent quite a bit on the tests. In the future I’ll look for another lab.
- Yellow Sticky Traps