Category Archives: Equipment

How to help your nozzle head get its flow back.

Dramm One Touch FanWhatever watering hose nozzle head you use, it can get plugged up! At first I thought the water pressure had been turned down for the community garden, but eventually I figured it out.

I use the Dramm One Touch Fan Nozzle, which is fantastic for gentle watering, good control, and durability. For my Dramm, I discovered that it has a filter, known as a “hose filter washer” that filters the water before it gets to the head. With the water I’m using, this tends to plug up within about a month. Fortunately it’s not too hard to clean it or even replace it.

For the Dramm One Touch, I unscrewed the head from the base, revealing the hose filter washer. You can even try dislodging debris using your finger–didn’t work for me, but might work for you and save you time.

Then (the tough part) I used a small flat head screwdriver to pry the hose filter washer out of the fan head. You’ll note that the rubber gasket is connected to the filter, and so you need to get between the outside of the gasket and the inside of the hose head.

Now that you have the hose filter washer out, you can try cleaning it. Since the deposits on mine were tough, I couldn’t just rub them off. So I soaked it in vinegar for about 10 minutes and then I was able to rub off the deposits. The vinegar didn’t seem to degrade the plastic–I didn’t get any leaks upon re-installation. You may need to soak for longer, but personally I wouldn’t leave it in there for days.

hose filter washerIf your hose filter washer just can’t be cleaned out, or if you accidentally poke a hole in it when trying to uninstall (been there) you can always buy more online. I got this pack of 3 filters online for just over $1 per filter–not bad. You’ll need to double check what size you need. I believe the size, 1″ in the case of my hose head, refers to the outer diameter.

It also appears that there are filters with different sizes of mesh, so that’s another thing you can shop for depending on what you want. A larger mesh means it won’t plug up as soon, but then the actual hose head will get the ugly deposits, and my sense is those are harder to clean than the filter.

What it takes to create an urban garden bed in hard clay

A fellow Master Gardener, Emily, who has space in a different community garden recently asked me for help setting up a new garden bed. She’s gotten interested in the system that I’m using to grow grains in order to make high-quality compost and so she wants to give it a try. I’m very excited to help, and I’m learning a lot from the experience.





Here’s the funny thing: I had an idea in my head about what it would take to grow in that space and prepare the bed. However it has of course turned out to be a lot more complicated than I first thought.

Fortunately before I showed up there with seedlings ready to plant, I stopped by to have a look at the soil. I brought my usual digging tools and thought that we would dig a test hole in order to see what we were up against. Well I discovered very quickly that we were up against a very solid clay. In the course of about half an hour I was able to dig a modest 9 inch hole that held water for as long as we looked at it. Obviously we weren’t going to do the whole hundred square feet this way.

Options for setting up a new garden bed

Another raised bed?

The normal advice in this case would be to get wood and do a raised garden bed. However I didn’t want to advise this road for a few different reasons. For one, it’s been my experience that having at least 2 feet of loose soil for plant roots is a big win. It would take a lot of ways and construction in order to make a 2 foot deep, 5 x 20 raised garden bed. Also we had no reason to believe that the heavy clay soil was polluted and so I figured that we might as well try and make use of it. Emily had a soil test done, and it didn’t indicate any problems.

So we basically had two options: a slow one and a quick one.

The slow way: water, forking, and patience

The slow route is one that takes a reasonable amount of effort over a long period of time. The general idea is to wet and then loosen the soil with a garden fork on a regular basis, and work further and further into the soil. This can work especially well if it’s done during the rainy season, when there’s lots of water falling from the sky and when the ambient temperatures are not going to dry out the bed. However given that it is late May in San Francisco, and also given that Emily and I have energy around this project right now, I encouraged her to look at the fast option.

The fast way: water, jackhammering, and guts

Normally I wouldn’t use the words “jackhammer” and “organic gardening” in the same sentence but it just made too much sense here to ignore. When I was doing under slab plumbing last year for a habitat for humanity development, I got lots of first-hand experience on the magic of a 30 pound jackhammer outfitted with a clay spade attachment. If you were to naively watch this tool in action, you might think that the soil was a little on the hard side, but not too bad. However if you were to then try taking your strongest garden digging fork to that same soil, you would find it bounced right off. The jackhammer is a thing of beauty in this situation. However I have discovered that it is not quite as simple as I thought.

So I admit that going in I had a model in my head that I would simply be using the jackhammer as I use my digging fork. And that as such I could do a standard double date using this jackhammer, and get it done in a reasonable amount of time. Well I discovered that it isn’t so simple.

Before you dig

Emily did a fantastic job of covering the many checkboxes that one needs to cover before doing a dig like this:

  • Check with the utility companies to make sure that there aren’t any gas, electrical, or communications lines where you’re digging. They’ll either tell you that there aren’t any lines nearby, where they will send somebody out to mark the spaces where the lines are. Fortunately we didn’t have anything nearby.
  • Do some “exploratory poking” to see if there’s any existing hardscape where you plan to dig. We discovered a concrete curb about 3″ underneath half of the area we’d planned to dig.
  • Get a soil test done to check for heavy metals such as lead. The University of Massachusetts offers inexpensive soil testing that many people like to use.
  • As appropriate, check in with the neighbors and see if there are any special events to know about. As an example, her garden is next to a church and so we timed our dig so that it didn’t intersect with any of their activities.
  • Get familiar with your city’s noise ordinance. I looked into this and discovered that we were allowed to make this kind of noise between 7 AM and 8 PM, seven days a week, including holidays.
  • Research the safety equipment you need to properly use a tool such as a jackhammer. Some typical pieces include hearing protection, eye protection, gloves, a hard hat, steel toed boots…you get the idea–look into it. We had no injuries, btw.

And I’m sure there are other things to check as well.

Key learnings from double digging with a jackhammer

Displacement Area

  • The displacement area on the clay spade is much less than that on a digging fork. As a result, every dig down into the soil (if you can call solid clay soil) displaces far less ground than a digging fork would, if one were using it in a normal situation. But in terms of the sheer number of digging motions, I’d say it’s about four times as many. This is particularly an issue when you go to loosen the soil for the second foot of the dig, in part because it’s hard to tell how much you’ve actually loosened.

Inserting in the Ground

  • Furthermore the amount of energy to do each dig is much greater. With a digging fork I merely need to position it in the right place and then step on the side of the fork with my right foot and transfer my weight. Then I can lean my weight on the handle in order to move the fork up. But with the jackhammer it’s a different game altogether. In order to get the camera to do the hammering action, it needs to feel resistance underneath it. If you are hammering solid rock band this isn’t an issue at all but if you are hammering clay than is sometimes very hard and sometimes not. As a result I found that I needed to both transfer my body weight on September and also continually reposition the hammer so as to find a hard enough surface to pound into. Granted, it’s much much easier than it would be with hand tools, but it’s not effortless either.

Lifting Out of the Ground

  • And then with the jackhammer there is an extra step of needing to lift it out of the hole each time. It’s easy to forget about this when you have a 5 pound garden fork, but with a 30 pound plus jackhammer, the extra lifting adds up.

Moving the Soil

  • The start of a double dig is the digging of a 1′ x 1′ trench. So for a 5 foot wide bed, 5 ft.³ of soil need to be removed from the bed. And as you might imagine, heavy clay soil is indeed heavier than typical garden soil. So it takes more effort to get out it out of the trench and move it around. I also noticed that when we dug the second trench and moved that soil into the first trench, that soil was more “unruly” than I’m used to. As a result it was hard to clear space in the second trench in order to cleanly do the second foot of digging on the second trench.


  • Given the amount of dirt to move around, and the weight and power of the jackhammer, your posture will make you or break you. Get savvy about how to do this well. The same thing goes for shoveling–if you know how to do it properly, it’s much easier and you won’t hurt yourself.
  • I’ve taken the foundation courses at The Balance Center and Gokhale and both were excellent. Accordingly, the day after this intensive dig, I have no pain, no soreness. It’s not because I’m a tough guy, it’s because I used biomechanical principles that work.

How the dig turned out

In the end, through a lot of effort by the five of us, we were able to take the entire bed to varying levels of depth, from 2 feet to 6 inches, depending on the spot. We simply ran out of time to do it all. And as I describe further below, I have some specific ideas on how to structure the dig differently next time to make the best use of time and energy.

Watering before the dig

For several days before the date, Emily had been watering the space thoroughly. Granted it was so compacted that were not sure how much of the water actually made its way down, but during the dig I was able to clearly tell which areas got more water than others. Needless to say they were much easier to work with.

Setup and first (slow) hour

Emily rented the jackhammer locally for four hours and so including transit time that gave us about three hours of digging. The initial hour went relatively slowly as we got set up and figured out what we wanted to do. One of the participants sagely pointed out that we’d be better off digging from both ends of the bed at once, so that two crews of people could be working parallel to clear away loose dirt. He was absolutely right, as this sped things up, although it meant less breaks for me and for the jackhammer.

Steady (but slow) progress on the second hour

The next hour was more steady however we ran into the realities that I described earlier concerning how a jackhammer is different from a digging fork. Nonetheless we were able to dig some trenches 2 feet deep, and work in straw and a fertilizer strong in humic acid, to help break down the clay. We had originally planned to put this humic acid mix on some of the bed, but not the rest of it, to see if we would notice a difference. But between heat, fatigue, and a nagging worry that the clay would reharden if not properly tamed, I decided to just put it everywhere.

Third hour: we’re almost out of time!

The final hour was an increasingly frantic scramble to loosen as much of the remaining area as possible, even to a shallow level.

I would say that we dug about a quarter of the bed 2 feet deep, another quarter of it about a foot deep, and the rest somewhere between 6 inches and 9 inches deep. It isn’t what I was initially hoping for but it’s a start, and I think it’s something we can build on.

As a sage teacher once said to me, “With the ideal comes the actual.” To me this means “do what you can and keep moving forward.”

How I’d do this next time

If I had to do it all over again here’s how I’d do it. One of the key points is that in “version 1.0” I tried to do a traditional double dig, and parts of it took forever, for limited marginal benefit. So for “version 2.o” I’d focus my time and energy on the methods of digging, given the tools, that give the best return.

Dig the bed at least 6″ wider than needed on each side

When we came back to set up the corners and the borders of the bed, I discovered that the length was a bit on the short side. In practical terms it just means that one side of the bed will be “hardly dug,” and so the alfalfa that grows there will have to work that much harder. But if I’d just loosened another 6″ beyond, then we wouldn’t have that problem.

Do an initial pass on the entire bed down to about 6 to 9 inches.

I observed that the deeper I got the jackhammer into the ground, the harder it was to maneuver it and pull it out again. Thus I optimize for only going down as deeply as I could do quickly.

Have people with shovels following the jackhammer and moving that top 6 to 9 inches off to the side of the bed.

A complication of the jackhammer is that it can be hard to tell at a glance what soil is loosened and what isn’t. Thus it would have been very helpful to get the loose soil moved away so we could more easily get to the next part in layer.

After the loosened soil is moved to the side, have somebody hose down the hardened layer that’s now exposed.

I noticed that if an area had been watered just a few minutes before, it made a big difference in terms of how easily I could maneuver the jackhammer.

Do a second pass on the whole area of the above process, in order to get 12 inches or more of soil moved off to the side.

My thinking is that this would make the next loosening step a lot easier, and is a reasonable trade-off in terms of how deep to go.

Now that the top 12 inches have been cleared away, use the jackhammer to loosen the next 6 to 9 inches of soil.

Although ideally we’d like to get 24 inches down, my experience with the jackhammer is that it was a tremendous amount of work to try and loosen any further than 9 inches down at a time. So this is about going after the somewhat low hanging fruit, although nothing is particularly easy about this process.

After each trench is loosened, add in materials intended to help break down the clay and generally improve soil texture.

One of the big concerns with a project like this is preventing the soil from returning to its previous compacted state. Thus we added materials that we thought would help with texture. Ultimately, I think it’s the roots of the grains that we’ll grow that will do the most, but for now, we wanted something to at least make us feel better.

Water each trench thoroughly.

Or as the bag of clay loosener said “Water it good,” which I got lots of amusement out of while sweating behind the jackhammer. Anyhow, this is a unique opportunity to get a lot of water into the soil while it’s loose, which will support plant growth.

Move the original layer of soil back into place, and water thoroughly.

Not surprisingly, we found that the bed was now a fair bit higher than it had been when we started. We had injected a lot of air into the soil by loosening it.

A few other things to keep in mind

Keep people off the garden bed

It is really critical to keep your soil at and fluffy as possible. This way the soil can hold a lot more moisture, support more biological activity, and be the best possible home for the roots of your plants.

Thus I strongly advise having some kind of barrier to remind people not to step on your garden bed. Put up signs if you need to.

If you need to get into the bed to work on it, have a plywood digging board. I have a main one that is 2′ x 4′, and several smaller ones that are 2′ x 2′. They spread your body weight and really help to minimize soil compaction.

Keep the bed moist

Now that you’ve put all of this energy and effort into preparing the bed, it’s really important to water it every day in order to establish a good level of moisture and have the bed ready for growing. Once you get your garden going, then it’s the plants, the roots, and the canopy that’s going to hold in the water.

I also think it’s a smart idea to put landscaping cloth on top of the soil in order to hold in more of the moisture. I am consistently delighted when I peeked under the hardware cloth that I put down on a recently prepared and watered area of my garden and find a day or two later that it still looks moist and is considerably moisture to the touch than surrounding uncovered areas.

Add your compost to the top 3 to 6 inches

The core of the root systems will be in the top 3 to 6 inches of soil and so this is where you want the compost to be present. Although the next 18 inches of soil are very helpful for the root system, and for things like drainage, you’re going to get the best bang for your buck by having your apply compost be in the top 3 to 6 inches.

Last thoughts

After a pretty intense three hours on jackhammer duty, you might’ve thought that I would’ve wanted to do nothing but lie down under a tree. However I was so excited to see the workable garden bed that we’d just created that I couldn’t help but take my trusty garden fork and do some additional loosening. We went from an impenetrable clay to a heavy but workable garden bed that I am confident we can plant into. It was a wonderful team effort of hard working people. I look forward to discovering how well our grains grow on this elevated, windy spot in San Francisco.

Go team!

Go team!


The 10 Small Gardening Tools I Use All the Time

One of the challenges I’ve found with getting started in growing food is that many decisions need to get made. I like tools, and I want to spend my tool money smartly, and so I’ve put a lot of time into selecting tools that I think have a good cost/benefit balance. And now that I’ve had a few years to try them, I thought might like to know which tools I use *all the time* and why.

1.    Home Depot Nitrile-Dipped Gloves ($1)

Let’s face it: the soil will suck all of the moisture out of your hands if you give it a chance. I long ago got over the “tough guy” thing of not wearing gloves. Why put up with dry, cracked skin? I wear these gloves religiously, and they are cheap enough that I can have pairs lying around all over the place. Lowe’s has the same gloves in blue, if you prefer them over orange.

2.    Dramm One Touch Fan Nozzle

This is Dramm’s latest fan nozzle, and it’s a sturdy one. It can be readily cleaned out, and has a metal base. The key point is that it delivers a gentle, steady stream of rain-like water to minimize soil compaction. I love it.

3.    Daiso Pruning Sheers ($2)

The good old $1.50 store has cheap garden pruning shears that work great. They are affordable enough that I can have a pair in several different places. They are great for simple pruning, and for cutting slugs. I have the Very Fancy pruners too, which are much stronger, but are also much heavier. 95% of the time my Daiso pruners are good enough.

4.    Harbor Freight Headlamp ($5)

The oppressive heat of mid day is no time to be outside! But sometimes I’m not able to get to the garden in that sweet 4pm to sundown window, and so I end up out there at night. And it’s beautiful! It’s cool, I see different insects, and the slugs and snails come out of hiding where I can find them. A good LED headlamp is all I need to be productive at night. It takes a bit of getting used to, but I swear it takes me a third of the energy to work at night than it does in the heat of mid-day.

5.    Spear and Jackson Hand fork ($15)

A great tool for loosening soil just before transplanting, and for easing seedlings out of flats. It’s shaped just right, and feels sturdy.

6.    Bountiful Gardens Widger ($6)

A great tool for plucking seedlings out of flats, for placing seeds, and for precision plucking of weeds.  Yes, you could just use an old metal butter knife, but I love the feel and curves on this.

7.    Bountiful Gardens Transplanting Trowel ($9)

I’ve tried a variety of tools for transplanting, and this is the one that I keep coming back to. At a glance it isn’t an obvious winner: it looks on the short and chubby side. However I’ve found that it moves just the right amount of soil, and that its stoutness gives it the strength to hold up where other tools bend.

8.    Hori-hori ($10-$25)

This is a Japanese garden knife with a serrated edge. It is generally useful for a range of garden tasks, from digging holes to cutting twine, to chopping slugs! I bought mine in Japan, but they can be had from a variety of US suppliers. I even saw something just like this at Home Depot once labeled as a “duct knife.”

9. Sharpie Industrial Permanent Markers

The sun really does seem to wear away most inks, some shockingly quickly. Pair that with forgetting what you put where, and your garden can become a jungle. After having a more expensive “garden pen” go dry after a season, I’m trying out this product from Sharpie. Although it doesn’t write on very wet surfaces, the ink does seem to stay. Also the product seems to lack some of the scary ingredients that some permanent inks have.

[2015 update: These didn’t work at all. I couldn’t even tell anything had ever been written on the garden labels.]

10. Headcase Multi-Purpose Headwear ($10)

When I’m out working during the day, the sun can really be a factor. I find this multi-use loop bandana is great for keeping the sun off of my neck. Also I can dunk it in water to cool me down. I found one on ebay at a discount.

Garden Fork Buying Advice

I named my blog “The Ground View” because I want to talk about practical, real, ground-level topics, but so far I haven’t written much about actual “ground” aka soil. Going forward I’ll be working in more topics around soil and growing food.

Earlier this year I needed a garden fork, and so I set out researching the possibilities through Amazon and other customer reviews. However I had several false starts, for a simple reason: many garden forks are easy to break.

When I say Garden Fork, I mean the long handled one that you use to loosen soil about 9″ deep or more. In moist or sandy soil, this isn’t a big deal at all, but if you get a heavy soil, or one that is sufficiently dry, or some combination of those, then once you lean your weight against the fork, drying to raise the soil, it can put a tremendous force on the handle.

As an example I came across a very innovative looking handle design that has a circle, instead of the usual D handle, that looked really fantastic. However upon a careful reading of the reviews, I saw that more often than not, they eventually break–sooner than you’d think–and I also saw that the manufacturer had a poor return and repair policy.

And so I ended up in the land of $90+ garden forks. Yikes! But it actually makes sense economically, and here’s why: a top quality garden fork, assuming it doesn’t get stolen, will last you a very long time. But a cheap garden fork has a good chance of breaking in a couple of years. So I can spend $50 on a fragile garden fork every two years, or I can speak $90 once and use it for many years–I’d say 5 years is a conservative guess, and 10 might be more likely. Suddenly $90 isn’t looking like a lot, assuming I’m still growing food then. And I get the benefit of a great tool!

Clarington Forge All Purpose Garden Fork

A mentor of mine swears by Clarington Forge, because of the quality, workmanship, and versatility of their tools. You get a strong tool that lasts, and that is relatively light weight. Also as he puts it “you can feel the quality in your hands,” and I get that. I smile every time I pick up my garden fork! Yes it’s that good.
Here is their U.S. website. In the UK they go by “Bulldog Tools.” I have the D handle long garden fork. When I bought it I considered the strapped fork but it was out of stock at the time. Also I don’t think the strapped fork comes in a long handle version, although I think I could live with it.

D-Handle Garden Fork

What I love about this fork is that I can use it for so many different things. It’s easy to handle, comfortable in the hand, and versatile. I’ve used it to double dig a bed, to dig potatoes, to turn compost.

The one criticism I have of this fork is that I wish they had an option for a more modern handle. When I was into the challenging part of my double dig, I found it difficult to get two hands on the D-handle in order to transfer all of my weight into the soil. I did a little experimenting with building a slip on handle-width extender out of PVC, but I never finished it.

A big driver of the cost of a Clarington Forge fork is the way it’s made.  This video: shows that they make the head of the fork from one piece of metal, rather than with any welding, which is much weaker. It’s worth the money.

And by the way, if you are in the San Francisco Bay Area, you can go directly to their warehouse to buy your garden tools, without any shipping costs! That’s how I bought mine. Just give them a call for directions, hours, and stocking information; see their website for the number.

Boeren Fork by deWit Tools

Boeren Fork

This could be strongest fork out there. Yes it’s heavy, but watch the video! I think this sucker is tough!

I haven’t (yet) bought one of these, but I think about it sometimes. I think in particular if you have a lot of land to prepare, and it’s never been dug, then this’d be an alternative to a tractor.

The one potential downside to this fork is that it’s heavier than a normal fork, but for the times when it’s called for, I think I can put up with the extra weight. I’d still want to have a normal fork for general use.

Digging and soil moistness

One “game changer” tip I got about double digging is to use water to moisten the soil. This made “difficult soil” into something much more feasible and safe to work. My routine now on tough soil is:

  • water first
  • fork the soil to put holes in it
  • more water, then wait for it to soak in
  • fork and shovel if possible, or continue the fork/water cycle

This routine has got me through some pretty heavy soil, and definitely was much easier on my body–and on the soil as well. Another version of this is to fork just before a rain, and then come back after and fork and shovel. Note that you don’t want to work soaking wet soil that has no structure, just moist soil.

And by the way, if you are ever tempted to use a pickaxe, PLEASE try watering and forking first. I think you’ll be glad you did, your body will be glad, and the soil will be glad. Let’s leave the pickaxe as a last resort, shall we?

The Zen of Double Digging

This year I did a lot more double digging than in previous years, to the point where I started to get philosophical about it. I have a ways to go, but what I saw this year was that it’s about translating your body weight, as directly as possible, into the fork and then into the soil.

I know, this sounds obvious, right? But it’s very easy to try using hand and arm power to move the soil, and this is a fast track to soreness and even injury. What I kept thinking of was using my hands to move and position the fork, but after that my hands were simply the interface between my body weight and the fork.

As I mentioned, I wish I had some way to get both hands onto my Clarington Forge Garden Fork, “Pogo Stick” style, like with the Boeren fork, because I think it’d put less straight on my wrists and hands. I’ll have another go next season at the PVC handle extension, and if I have any luck, I’ll post my design.

Final word is yes, a good fork is worth the money. But rest assured, I won’t say that about every tool. For instance a fancy spading shovel? I’m not yet sold on that because I don’t put nearly as much strain on it, nor do I use it much. In any case, I’ll continue to be very frank going forward about which tools I use all of the time, and are worth the money, and which aren’t.

A simple tool for placing seeds at 1″ centers in flats

Seed spacers for placing small seeds reliably in a flatI was struggling to place seeds–especially small ones–at 1″ centers. Also I was struggling to make a chicken wire frame, as described in How to Grow More Vegetables. Plus upon measurement I discovered that the chicken wire is at larger than 1″ centers anyhow. So I made these seed placers using 3/4″ PVC, cut in half, and then drilled holes at 1″ centers.

Here are some construction tips I learned along the way: 

  1. make the length of the seed placer a little narrower than your flats so you can move them for offset spacing. 
  2. drill the first hole 1/2″ from the end of the side placer, so you can get started in the right place. 
  3. the 3/4″ PVC (inside measurement) is very close to 1″ wide on the *outside*, and so you can line up these spacers next to each other (like in the picture) and you’ll get 1″ spacing between rows. 
  4. some drill bits are better than others for cutting holes in PVC. If you’re having trouble (as I was with the larger one for corn at the bottom) you might have the wrong kind of bit. 
  5. be VERY CAREFUL when cutting the PVC in half. If you’re not a safety expert, find someone who is and ask them how to do this safely.

Also some tips about using these seed placers:

  1. I’d recommend that you not water the flat before you place the seeds. The reason is that if the seed placer gets wet, the seeds will tend to stick to it. If you’re worried about seeds moving when you water, you can mist them first, then sprinkle with soil to cover, then water.
  2. Get a Dial Seed Sower to help you place small seeds. You should only pay about $3 for it. Mine is made by Luster Leaf Rapiclip and I bought it at Common Ground Palo Alto. It makes it much easier to keep tracking of the seeds and manage them as you place them.