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Want to grow your own food? Then, trust me, get some decent tools

As a novice grower you aren’t always convinced of it, but I’ve learned a thing or two about the importance of good gardening tools.

Michael Kelly Grower

I HAVE AN admission to make. There’s a dark corner of my garage that’s a graveyard for dead, decrepit and defunct garden tools. When I visit the garage to do manly stuff (cutting, sawing, sanding, hammering etc) I have to avoid eye contact (figuratively speaking) with this Boulevard of Broken Tool Dreams because it is an embarrassment to me, a reminder of my appalling lack of DIY skills.

Some of the tools have bits falling off, others are broken in two; there are spades and shovels with handles missing; rakes rusted beyond belief etc. In my defence, I once turned a broken spade handle in to a handy long-handled dibber using an approximation of the ancient skill of whittling which felt pretty darn good – but I think it’s broken now.

So I’ve learned a thing or two about the importance of investing in good gardening tools. Every book on growing your own mentions this as being important of course, but as a novice grower you aren’t always convinced of it. I would generally flick quickly past that chapter, keen to get to the good stuff about growing veg. The result is that either you stick to using the wrong tools for the job (and they take far too long as a result), or you end up buying cheap tools, which inevitably end up on that pile in the garage.

What do you need?

The triumvirate of must-have tools for the GIYer is the spade, fork and rake. Seek out the best and don’t feel bad about paying extra for them – it will stand to you in the long run. I can’t emphasise enough how useful a good hoe will be in your veg patch. Run a hoe over your entire patch once a week or so (it’s enjoyable work) and you will be on top of weeds in no time. I own three of them – an oscillating hoe (for bigger jobs), a small-headed Dutch hoe (for precision hoeing) and a ridging hoe for earthing up spuds. Smaller tools like trowels, hand-forks and hand-weeders are useful too.

A final word – I’ve read in gardening books that you should finish each session in the veg patch by cleaning your tools. I’ve always thought this was the kind of ridiculous advice that no sensible person would ever really contemplate. But, reluctantly, I now have to agree that it has its merits. I now tend to line my tools up outside the potting shed and give them a good hard spray of water before putting them back inside.

Things to do this week: harvest garlic

Knowing when to lift garlic can be a tricky proposition – harvest them too early and the bulbs will be too small, but harvest too late and the bulbs will begin to lose their quality.

The old rule is to sow garlic before the shortest day of the year (Dec 21st) and harvest before the longest (June 21st). Some people also do a spring sowing which wont be ready until late July or August.

A good general rule of thumb is to do a test when a third of the leaves on each plant are gone brown. Carefully push back the soil around one plant and have a look at the bulb to check its size. If its too small, put the soil back around it. Lift all your garlic when a half to two-thirds of the leaves are gone brown.

Recipe of the week: courgette salad

Every year I sow too many courgette plants – we have about six plants this year, and while we have a manageable amount of produce from them at the moment, we are only weeks away from being at full blown “glut” stage when we’ll be eating courgettes in pretty much everything – courgette bread anyone?

For now we are enjoying small, crunchy pencil-length courgettes in this zingy salad.


2 courgettes
3 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp lemon or lime juice
1 tbsp honey
2 tsp poppy seeds
1 small garlic clove , crushed

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Grate the courgettes and then toss them with the oil, lemon juice, honey, poppy seeds and the crushed garlic clove. Season to taste. Serve straight away (it gets watery if left hanging around) – makes a lovely accompaniment to barbecued meats.

Tip of the week: jargon buster – brassicas

Brassicas are a vegetable family that include cabbages, kale and cauliflowers, Brussels sprouts, broccoli and calabrese along with swedes, turnips, radish and mustard – so in other words, pretty much all the vegetables you’re mother told you to eat up when you were young.

While undoubtedly one of the most important vegetable families, they are also the one that is most prone to pest and disease attack. The family requires plenty of nitrogen in the soil to fuel the growth of their big green leaves. A tea made from nettles will help to feed them.

GIY’s vision is for a healthier, more connected and more sustainable world where people grow some of their own food. Each year we inspire and support over 65,000 people and 1,500 community food-growing groups and projects around Ireland, and run food-growing campaigns, events and publications. www.giyireland.com

Michael Kelly is a freelance journalist, author of ‘GROW COOK EAT’ and founder of GIY.

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About the author:

Michael Kelly  / Grower

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