Using Hand Tools
Using hand tools for most kinds of garden work, like weeding, cultivating, tilling, and turning compost heaps is not as difficult or nearly as time consuming as most people think if one has the proper, sharp tools.
Unfortunately, the knowledge of how to use hand tools has largely disappeared. No one has a farm-bred grandfather to show them how easy it is to use a sharp shovel or how impossibly hard it can be to drive a dull one into the soil. Similarly, weeding with a sharp hoe is effortless and fast. But most new hoes are sold without even a proper bevel ground into the blade, much less with an edge that has been carefully honed.
So after working with dull shovels and hoes, many home food growers mistakenly conclude that cultivation is not possible without using a rotary tiller for both tillage and weeding between rows. But instead of an expensive gasoline-powered machine all they really needed was a little knowledge and a two dollar file.
Similarly, turning compost can be an impossible, sweat-drenching, back-wrenching chore, or it can be relatively quick and easy. It is very difficult to drive even a very sharp shovel into a compost pile. One needs a hay fork, something most people call a “pitchfork.” The best type for this task has a very long, delicate handle and four, foot long, sharp, thin tines.
Forks with more than four times grab too much material. If the heap has not rotted very thoroughly and still contains a lot of long, stringy material, a five or six tine fork will grab too much and may require too much strength.
Spading forks with four wide-flat blades don’t work well for turning heaps, but en extremis I’d prefer one to a shovel. Also, there are shovels and then, there are shovels. Most gardeners know the difference between a spade and a shovel. They would not try to pick up and toss material with a spade designed only to work straight down and loosen soil.
However, did you know that there are design differences in the shape of blade and angle of handle in shovels. The normal “combination” shovel is made for builders to move piles of sand or small gravel. However, use a combination shovel to scrape up loose, fine compost that a fork won’t hold and you’ll quickly have a sore back from bending over so far. Worse, the combination shovel has a decidedly curved blade that won’t scrape up very much with each stroke.
A better choice is a flat-bladed, square-front shovel designed to lift loose, fine-textured materials from hard surfaces. However, even well-sharpened, these tend to stick when they bump into any obstacle.
Best is an “irrigator’s shovel.” This is a lightweight tool looking like an ordinary combination shovel but with a flatter, blunter rounded blade attached to the handle at a much sharper angle, allowing the user to stand straighter when working. Sharp irrigator’s shovels are perfect for scooping up loosened soil and tossing it to one side, for making trenches or furrows in tilled earth and for scraping up the last bits of a compost heap being turned over.
Once turned, my long-weathered pile heats up rapidly. It is not as hot as piles can cook, but it does steam on chilly mornings for a few weeks. By mid-June things have cooled. The rains have also ceased and the heap is getting dry.
It has also sagged considerably. Once more I turn the pile, watering it down with a fine mist as I do so. This turning is much easier as the woody brassica stalks are nearly gone. The chunks that remain as visible entities are again put into the new pile’s center; most of the bigger and less-decomposed stuff comes from the outside of the old heap.
Much of the material has become brown to black in color and its origins are not recognizable. The heap is now reduced to four feet high, five feet wide, and about six feet long. Again I cover it with a thin layer of soil and this time put a somewhat brittle, recycled sheet of clear plastic over it to hold in the moisture and increase the temperature. Again the pile briefly heats and then mellows through the summer.