The Best Garden Tool That Money Can’t Buy

Reader Contribution by Alexia Allen and Hawthorn Farm
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Holding up the sky in the squash patch.

Our tool wall bristles with handles, blades, and tines. Many of those tools see daily use during the growing season. But I am going to tell you about our most important too, one we use every day of the year. Best of all, it won’t cost you a dime.

In the sudden surge of interest in home-grown food these days, I’m flooded with questions from people about how to start gardening. 

But before you rush out in a panic and sprinkle seeds all over—slow down! The most successful gardens are born out of observation and connection. Get to know your garden, and productivity will follow. I garden for the bulk of my food calories, and I want to make sure I’m using my energy wisely. So I take my morning cup of tea out to the garden and have a seat. I’ve been doing this ever since I moved here in 2003, and the show has never gotten boring. 

Daily observation has shown me when and where to plant, tied me to the seasonal rhythms of my home, and revealed which creature was eating my strawberries! Watching the garden for 15 minutes a day saves me loads of time in the long run. Plus, I enjoy it. I think the garden does too.

Here are some tips for starting your garden observation, though there are no hard-and-fast rules. 

Choose one spot to observe from, to give a consistent perspective. An overturned bucket to sit on might make this more inviting, or even a lawn chair. Set yourself for success by making it comfortable. Is it something you can sit on in the rain?

Sit for long enough to notice more than first impressions. Fifteen to 20 minutes is good. Longer is fine too, of course. In my early days of sitting, I would set an alarm for 20 minutes to avoid impatient clock-watching. 

Simply observe with all your senses. Ideas may float into your mind. My garden time is where I get most of my best ones, so I bring a notepad to capture inspirations. But otherwise I keep simply paying attention to what is actually happening. What can I see? Hear? Smell? What direction is the wind coming from? Can I see the moon from here? Am I facing north, south, east, or west? Basic sensory engagement gets me out of my mind and into reality.

Come back in and record your notes.This is a powerful part of the process, though I acknowledge it can be easy to skip. Notes on first and last frost, wind direction, temperature, and patterns of sun and shadow have all guided my planting decisions over the years. They have led to much more produce than if I were simply going “by the book” and ignoring the microclimates of this place. For instance, last frost dates published for the city of Seattle, a mere 20 miles from my garden, are a whole month earlier than here. The better I understand the actual place I’m working, the more effectively I can use it. Keeping basic notes from year to year helps me do that.

Even in a spring frenzy of hoeing and planting, observation will yield tangible and intangible rewards. If I don’t take the time to appreciate the apple blossoms, wink at the mating earthworms, and soak in the bird song, why am I gardening in the first place? Get connected to your place, and the veggies will taste that much better. The place you live is sure to appreciate an attentive human, whether or not you even garden there. Practice your observation skills wherever you are. Might as well!

Alexia Allen is a farmer, teacher, and homestead orchestrator at Hawthorn Farm in Western Washington State. She taught at Wilderness Awareness School for 12 years before moving into farming full-time and enjoys a Renaissance woman life with something new every day of every season. Read all of Alexia’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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