You need surprisingly few tools to start a permaculture food forest.
I’m going to tell you the minimum amount of tools you need to get started, as well as the extra tools you’ll need for some optional stuff.
First of all, you’re going to need these essential tools that I’m about to talk about:
A good rake is the bread and butter of permaculture tools. You simply can’t do without one.
When you’re starting your food forest, you’ll be using a rake right away.
The first thing you’ll be doing is raking your garden area flat so that you can put down brown contractor’s paper without it being all uneven. This will also break the bigger weeds down so that they decompose more quickly under your sheet mulch, and it’ll stop the stronger ones from being able to break through.
Once the contractor’s paper is down, you’ll be hauling a whole load of wood chips onto it, and then using the rake to spread them out evenly, so that you have at least 3-4 inches of wood chips above the paper.
That’s what you’ll be doing if it’s fall or winter when you’re starting anyway. If you’re starting in spring, you’ll need a layer of a couple inches of compost on top of the paper before you put your 3-4 inches of wood chips on top of that.
“Why is it different if you’re starting in spring?”
Because wood chips are a mulch, not a growing medium. Plants can’t grow in wood chips, but they can grow in the compost layer below.
You see, if you started in fall or winter, the wood chips will have composted nicely towards the bottom, and your paper will have dissolved, with the weeds that were once below having broken down completely.
When the time comes to plant your seeds, you’ll want measure out a line with a couple of garden stakes and some twine tied between them, and rake back the wood chips along that line to expose the bare soil underneath.
It’s in that narrow line of bare soil that you’ll be dropping your seeds. Don’t bury them in or anything. Just drop them right there.
In nature, seeds are not buried. They grow where they land.
That’s all there is to it. Just leave the wood chips raked back until your plants have grown tall enough and strong enough to handle having the wood chips moved back around them.
You can do that right away if you use a garden sieve to screen some of that bottom layer of composted wood chips, but that’s an optional step. More on that later when I talk about the optional tools.
What Kind of Rake is the Best?
Anything other than one of those leaf rakes that have thin, bendy prongs. They’re sometimes called lawn rakes too. Avoid them at all costs.
You’ll want a nice, strong, straight rake, because they’re so much more versatile.
First of all, you can rake straight lines with them so much more easily than those curved leaf rakes. That’s something that makes that last step I was talking about so much easier, and you end up with neater rows as a result.
Secondly, if your soil is compacted before you’re starting off – as I’m sure it will be – then you’ll end up just bending the prongs of a leaf rake if you try raking the weeds down with one like I mentioned as being the first step.
Those leaf rakes are also called lawn rakes, because they’re meant to not damage something like a lawn when you rake leaves off of it. That’s precisely the opposite of what you want to do.
I’ve always used a level head rake, because they’re the strongest, straightest and stiffest. They’re the classic style of rake that you immediately think of when you imagine a farmer using a rake.
I prefer level head rakes over bow rakes because bow rakes can tend to vibrate or jump when pulling hard, compacted soil. Bow rakes are the ones that have a gap between the wooden handle and the rake’s straight prongs.
If you already have one, then it’ll do you just fine and it’ll get easier to use each year as your soil improves, but if you’re buying your first rake to start a new food forest then without a doubt go for a level head rake.
This is for hauling wood chips to your food forest.
Sure, you can do without one if you’re buying bags of wood chips and you’re strong enough to haul them bag by bag, but a wheelbarrow makes things so much easier.
You can also use your wheelbarrow for harvesting if you’re doing a large-scale food forest to feed one or more families. A basket becomes impractical after a certain point.
Any metal wheelbarrow will do. There’s no special considerations you need to make here. A wheelbarrow is a wheelbarrow.
This is for harvesting root vegetables like carrots and radishes in the early years when your soil is still pretty compacted.
You can also use it to dig holes for transplanting trees and shrubs if you’re doing a smaller scale food forest, but generally a spade is a better tool for this job.
A Pruning Saw
This is for – you guessed it – pruning trees and shrubs.
Pruning saws are just easier to use than pruning shears, and they get a nicer, cleaner cut. You can also use them as a kind of grafting knife if you’re interested in doing some grafting. Shears could never be used for that, because they’re so limited in their uses.
A Scoop Shovel
This is for scooping wood chips into your wheelbarrow if you need to move them around, or if you’re moving a giant heap of them rather than using bags of wood chips.
Scoop shovels aren’t for digging. The name says it all. They’re designed to scoop things as easily as possible. Get one of these if you have a source of wood chips that doesn’t arrive in bags.
Purely for transplanting trees and shrubs, or removing pesky brambles that are too strong to be defeated by sheet mulching. You won’t be digging in your food forest for any other reason, so only get a spade if the thought of doing all this with a small trowel makes you shiver.
A Nice Cold Glass of Iced Tea
This is a highly underestimated tool that’s unparalleled for keeping you refreshed and hydrated on those hot summer days.
Okay, this one is a joke, but I’m actually kinda half-serious. Iced tea is amazing, and you can even grow tea plants in your food forest if you wanted to. You’ll thank me later.