Stocking and Maintaining Your Orchard Toolkit

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Pointed and flat-blade shovels, bow rakes, and pitchforks ready for use at Hunting Park Orchard

In the realm of orchard care, there are few things as satisfying as harvesting fruit at perfect ripeness, or the excitement of growing a new varietal, and that is using and maintaining the right tools for the job. Ah, we orchardists are a practical and hardworking lot! The tasks are many in an orchard — from digging holes for trees and shrubs, turning over compost and layering wood chips, to pruning and harvesting fruit from out-of-reach branches. In service to all those who tend orchards with dedication, we offer you this quick breakdown of some of our trusty tools of the trade for home and community orchards and suggestions for keeping them in tip-top, sharp shape.

If you’re care-taking your garden or orchard for the long haul, it’s worth the investment to choose high quality tools that feature thick, wooden handles and heavy-gauge tempered metals that will be more durable through the years. If you choose to share tools, rather than purchase, check out your local tool library such as The West Philly Tool Library, who in partnership with POP in making orchard tools available, offers tool rentals for a membership fee between $20-50 annually.  There is also a Kensington Tool Library in North Philly in the works. 


The Groundskeepers

Shovels, forks, and rakes perform most of the essential functions for groundwork – but which ones to use?

Select pointed shovels for digging holes, as when you’re preparing the ground to plant a bare root tree, and square-blade shovels for moving materials, like the excess soil you’ve dug out. Garden spades have a defined U-shape edge that allow you to work with greater precision and in tighter areas. Long-handled shovels will give you more leverage from an upright position to loosen ground soil when you’re preparing a hole for planting. Good shovels range in price between $30-40.

When you’re working on a smaller scale and a shovel is too unwieldy, trowels and digging knives come in handy. Both will allow you to dig the appropriate sized holes for herbs and groundcovers.  Traditional, digging, or potting trowels of metal will be much sturdier than plastic ones, obviously, but the plastic may be well-suited for planting with children in a well-prepared bed.

Where digging knives or the Japanese hori hori ($13-60) can have the edge-up on trowels is that they have one serrated edge that can assist with breaking up compacted soil, or cutting through tough roots. A word of advice: if you choose a model with a wooden handle, you might consider wrapping the handle in a fluorescent or patterned tape, as they easily get camouflaged against the brush. Don’t let it happen to you!

Like shovels, forks come in a number of forms, so it’s important to understand what function do you need from your fork. Most often, we use garden forks that have four, long and super-strong tines that are helpful for digging compacted soil and tough root systems and a compost fork or pitchfork which is a great choice for scooping materials from a pile like woodchips or compost with its slender tines that curve-up at the end.

When shovels or garden forks may not be strong enough to deal with rocky or clayey soil, pickaxes with their sturdy spike and chiseled ends can be a great asset for breaking up ground and uprooting heavy root systems.  A pickaxe will be your best friend when you’re trying to tear out tenacious, invasive tree trunks to make way for new plantings.

Choose a bow rake for its short, metal tines arranged along a parallel plane for spreading heavy materials like compost or mulch after you’ve dumped them out of your wheelbarrow.  Leaf rakes are of course made for leaves!  

A look at POP’s tool chest for pruning: bow saw, handsaw, isopropyl spray, hand pruners, sharpener, loppers, pole saw, pole pruners, and pole pruner/saw combo.

Pruning Picks: Handtools

When selecting hand pruners, select bypass motion pruners, which are best for close, clean cuts on live branches. The scissor-like motion is ideal for cutting 1.5-2” diameter branches between both sharpened blades, whereas anvil motion pruners can sometimes mash live branches between their sharpened blade and fixed anvil. Keep in mind with most tools, that those that are regularly sharpened with a file will maintain the health and integrity of your plants through sharp, clean cuts. Ideally, sharpen your tools after each pruning session, or at the very least, every season.  

When you’re selecting pruners, choose a tool that fits your hand size to avoid unnecessary hand strain and pick ones with durable hand coverings, sturdy springs, shock-absorbing bumpers and high-carbon steel blades. Pruners you can loosen and tighten will give you added flexibility for making more precise cuts. As with most tools, it is worth investing in quality tools that will perform better and last longer.  We prefer Felco or ARS brand hand pruners for this reason.   

For pruning dead wood and larger 3” diameter branches, a folding hand-saw and anvil-style loppers ($25-50) will come in handy! Refer to POP’s Pruning Guide for more specificity on how to make various types of pruning cuts with these tools.

Pruning Picks: Tools With Extra Reach

If the trees’ branches are beyond your reach for pruning, you will need a pole saw, pruner, or combo tool, which can be extended up into the canopy at heights of 10-30 ft, which are ideal for heading cuts and removing high-up branches. Combo tools feature a rope-pull system that cuts branches and a high-carbon razor-tooth steel blade, as in this model from Corona (under $100).  We also love our long reach pruners from ARS.  

Credit: Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer

Harvest tools

When fruit is beyond reach for picking, a fruit pole picker can help! The basket at one end allows you to reach high into tree to pluck and capture fruit in the basket. Still out of reach? Establish your perch on a tripod orchard ladder, with a wide-flared base and extendable leg to support the climbing harvester (also great for pruning!). Wearable fruit picking bags or buckets allow you to quickly and efficiently store your fruit as it’s being picked.


If you’re trying to grow the more common fruits (apples, peaches, plums, cherries, apricots, and pears), most likely you will encounter pest or disease challenges at some point that make spraying equipment necessary to ensure good production and tree health.  For the most part, organic fruit growing doesn’t mean not spraying, it just means spraying different things!  If you have just a few trees, you might get away with a 1 or 2 gallon hand sprayer.  A 3 or 4 gallon backpack sprayer is much more efficient for larger orchard plantings.  If you are spraying harsher organic sprays like sulfur or copper fungicides, it is advisable to have a separate sprayer used only for those applications.  NOTE: Many of the more unusual fruit options (figs, persimmons, paw paws, etc) have few if any pest or disease problems and thus might not require a sprayer at all!

POP’s orchard tool collection available for borrowing at the West Philly Tool Library includes both hand sprayers and backpack sprayers.  Use is restricted to organic sprays only.  


Keeping your orchard and gardening tools clean and well-cared for ensures your safety and that of your plants. Quality hand tools can last many seasons with proper care. Don’t use tools that need repair!

It is unsafe for you and possibly your plant to use dull, rusted, or contaminated tools.  Here are a few tips and practices to keep your tools in shape. Always remember to wear gloves when cleaning blades!

  • Wipe the blades clean after every use. To remove sap, clean your blade with a cloth and kerosene. Use sandpaper or a wire brush to remove light to medium rust. Coat your tools and blades lightly with oil to prevent further rust damage.
  • Keep moving parts oiled and tight.
  • Keep your tools sharp!  This will both make your work easier and is better for the health of your plants.  The easiest option is a hand sharpener (like this one from Corona), which can be used without disassembling the tool.  Keep the blade steady and sharpen along the beveled edge with short strokes.  Never sharpen both sides of a pruning blade- only the beveled edge!  Blades may also be sharpened using a sharpening stone, but disassembly may be required. Tools like shovels or axes may be used with a hand file.  See further sources below for more details, or to see which technique will work best for you.
  • Sand wooden handles with a medium-grade sandpaper and treat with tung or linseed oil.
  • Disinfect your tools to avoid the spread of plant diseases! When pruning plants that are diseased, always apply isopropyl alcohol or a 10% bleach solution (90% water) in between each cut.  This is also a good general practice for any pruning done during the active growing season.  We prefer an isopropyl spray bottle for easy application, but dipping or wiping tools can also work.  
  • Store your tools in a toolbox or shed to prevent damage from excess moisture and light.
  • Completely rinse and clean your sprayers after each use.  

Caring for your tools can take a bit of time and effort, but your plants and your hands will thank you!


A History of the Garden in 50 Tools by Bill Laws

This edition of POP Tips prepared by Education Director Alyssa Schimmel and POP 2017 intern Abigail Dangler. 

SUPPORT US!  If you found this entry useful, informative, or inspiring, please consider a donation of any size to help POP in planting and supporting community orchards in Philadelphia:  

POP CORE Recap & Orchard Care Through the Seasons

Posted on Categories Blog, Home, Orchard Care, Orchard Pests, POP Orchards, Soil Care, Sprays, Tree Care, Tree DiseasesTags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

POP kicked off its newest training program last Wednesday, March 8th at Bartram’s Garden called POPCORE: Community Orchardist Resilience Education. An endeavor to realize the potential and beauty of fully productive, well cared-for eco-orchards in every neighborhood, POPCORE seeks to encourage the self-sufficiency of our partners and connections between partners in close geographical proximity through group trainings and face-to-face sharing between partners. With increased knowledge, attention, and combined resources, the average community orchard has the potential to produce hundreds of pounds of varied produce per season in addition to being a safe, beautiful outdoor space for gathering and education.

POPCORE combines many elements of orchard stewardship, ecosystem design, and food uses that POP has learned over the past ten years,  synthesized in a 4-part series that can be taken as one-off classes or in pre-season series. Hosted back-to-back over four Wednesdays in March at Bartram’s historic garden, the course covers Pruning and Eco-orchard Seasons (March 8), Pest and Disease Management (March 15); Plants, Fungi, and What To Do With Them (March 22); and Permaculture and The Future of Philadelphia’s Food System (March 29).  Registration info here

The first class taught by POP Executive Director Phil Forsyth and Orchard Director Robyn Mello drew 21 participants, who came from a span of neighborhoods throughout the city to learn about orchard care through the seasons and the specifics of pruning fruit trees, berries & brambles, and fruiting vines, with a pre-class hands-on pruning demo hosted in Bartram’s Community Orchard.

For the health of your orchard, seasonally-appropriate care is important and POP wants you to succeed! Check out POP’s Resource Guide for PDF-downloadable handouts on topics covered during POPCORE’s first session, including orchard care by season (summarized below) a guide to pruning, and relevant POP blog posts linked below. 

Students learn techniques for wintertime pruning of fruiting shrubs in Awbury Arboretum’s food forest.


PRUNING. For best production and tree health, all common fruit trees regardless of age should be pruned during their dormant season every winter, ideally between late January and early March. The basic idea is to open the tree to more air and light.

Check out POP’s guide to Pruning Fruit Trees and  Pruning Bushes, Brambles, and Vines.  

REMOVE MUMMIFIED FRUIT. Any fruit left hanging on the tree is a potential source for disease spores. Pluck and remove any mummified fruit from the orchard during pruning.

SPRAY DORMANT OIL. Apply horticultural oil, neem oil, or vegetable oil at 4% dilution to smother overwintering eggs of insects including aphids and scales.

Check out POP’s guide to Dormant/Horticultural Oil Sprays. 

MAINTAIN ORCHARD EQUIPMENT. Clean and sharpen all orchard tools. Order orchard care supplies. For PHS City Harvest participants, check out a related training on Tool Care on Saturday March 25th from 10am-noon or visit POP Partner The West Philly Tool Library for information on tool rental and care. 

Orchard liaison Tony Dorman spreads compost during a spring workday at Philadelphia Montessori Charter School


APPLY MULCH/COMPOST. Spread chipped winter prunings, shredded leaves and/or compost.

Check out POP’s guide to Ramial Wood Chips and Weeding in Place.  

HOLISTIC ORCHARD SPRAYS. Holistic sprays are composed of compost tea, liquid fish/seaweed, neem oil, and/or effective microbes. For best tree health and resistant to disease, apply up to 4 times in the spring (after bud break, at first pink of flowers, after petal fall, and two weeks after petal fall). Depending on specific pest or disease problems, some orchardists might also consider other organic sprays including the ones listed below. 

Check out POP’s guides to orchard applications of:

TRAINING. New growth can be trained to better angles using clothespins, branch spreaders, or tying to weights.

THINNING. In late May or early June, young fruitlets on peaches, apples, pears and Asian pears, and some plums should be thinned by pinching off with fingers or pruner. Peaches should be thinned to 8” apart, apples and pears to 5”, and heavy-bearing plums to 5” on the tree. Also at this time, all fruit should be removed from any newly planted trees.

Check out POP’s guide on Thinning Fruit Trees. 

BAGGING FRUIT. Place ziplock, paper, or nylon bags around young fruit (especially apples) to protect them from some insect and disease challenges.  

Check out POP’s guide to Bagging Fruit.

Community members pick berries during Strawberry Mansion’s Strawberry Festival


HARVEST. Pick fruit as they ripen, spring through fall according to fruit type. Remove or compost any fallen fruit to reduce potential pests and disease. 

Check out POP’s guide to Summer Harvest Timing and Equipment and Late-Season Fruit Ripeners.

MONITOR. Observe orchard regularly throughout the year for pest and disease problems, identify and respond appropriately with trapping, removal, or possible applications of kaolin clay, neem oil, Bt, pyrethrin, etc.

EMERGENCY PRUNING. Remove diseased or damaged wood, root suckers, and watersprouts any time of year. Be sure to sterilize tools with alcohol or bleach solution between each cut. In some cases, additional structural pruning may be done in early summer to minimize regrowth, but avoid anything but emergency pruning after July.

For more information, check out this POP guide to emergency pruning. 

Executive Director Phil Forsyth brews a batch of compost tea to apply to orchard plantings


APPLY COMPOST. After most leaves have fallen, spread a layer of compost or spray compost tea. An annual soil test can reveal any other specific nutrients or amendments that should be added.

Check out POP’s guide to Autumn Composting. 

We hope this seasonal breakdown provides you with a solid overview to ready yourself for maintaining the health and productivity of your orchard. Hope to see you in a POP CORE class soon!
SUPPORT US!  If you found this entry useful, informative, or inspiring, please consider a donation of any size to help POP in planting and supporting community orchards in Philadelphia:  

Partnership Spotlight: West Philly Tool Library

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A well-stocked work-bench at the West Philly Tool Library Photo: Jacques-Jean Tiziou

With a  library of more than  2,500 loanable tools,  knowledgeable tool librarians and mechanics, and a host of classes, West Philly’s Tool Library (WPTL) is a valuable community resource fostering a DIY-ethic of garden, home, and automotive repair. Since its founding in 2007, the tool library has grown to sustain nearly 2,000 members (800 of whom are currently active) who come to rent everything from the most common of tools like hammers, wheelbarrows, drills, and saws, to equipment for larger jobs like lawn mowers, extension ladders, and a full range of gardening, woodworking, plumbing, and metalworking equipment.

WPTL on 1314 S. 47th St. is among the ranks of 80 nationwide local lending libraries that make tool rental affordable and accessible to tenants, long-time residents, and newcomers looking to build their next project or maintain their home and gardens.

Tool librarian Judson Wood says it’s easy to underestimate the value of a lending library.  “For many of our members, their home is their most cherished and valuable asset. Instead of having to go out and buy a tool that they might use one time for a repair, they can rent the tools they need and save themselves the cost of more extensive damage.”

In August 2016, The Philadelphia Orchard Project joined forces with WPTL to expand access to orchard care equipment like backpack sprayers, fruit harvesters, and pruning tools for WPTL members and community orchardists working to maintain POP’s 56 orchard sites, or glean from the city’s unharvested fruit trees. This partnership was made possible by an initial grant from the McLean Contributionship.  Twenty five POP tools currently exist in the collection with other tools and supplies to be added later this season.  All are available for borrowing during WPTL’s regular open hours on evenings and Saturdays.

POP orchard equipment now available for borrowing at the West Philly Tool Library includes a variety of pruning tools, pole harvesters, and backpack sprayers.

“The POP partnership is an exciting partnership because it leverages both of our organization’s resources and makes them available to our shared community,” said Alison Schmidt, the library’s new director.  “POP essentially long-term lends tools to the Tool Library and we are able to have these available not just for POP members’ use, but also all of West Philly Tool Library’s members. It’s wonderful!”

Sliding-scale memberships range from $20-50 annually for individuals to $25-250 for public schools or organizations. Representatives from POP orchard partners are eligible to become full WPTL members at the minimum individual rate of $20/year.  Two forms of I.D. are required for membership along with two references who can vouch for the member’s reliability to rent and return. Members can borrow tools for up to a week at a time with the possibility of renewal.

Tool Library member Danyell Brent kneels beside his veggie beds that he built with tools from the library.
Tool Library member Danyell Brent kneels beside the garden beds he built with tools from the library.

Farmer Danyell Brent of Friends Urban Garden for Peace and Understanding in the Belmont Section of West Philly is one of the library’s many members who’ve come to rely on the organization. Last spring, Brent rented circular saws, drill bits, and clamps to construct garden beds for his community garden, where he grows vegetables and herbs that he distributes to his neighbors.

“What I like best about the Tool Library is how easy it is to find the right tool for the job,” Brent said. “They give you a week to use the materials – which is great when you’re working on a big project, you can renew your materials, and their staff is very friendly. You can’t beat it.”

Schmidt says she is excited to expand the organization’s impact through education, collaboration with other groups across the city, and developing potential workshop space.

For more information on the WPTL’s happenings, membership offerings, classes, and tool sales, visit their website or Facebook.

This edition of POP Tips prepared by Alyssa Schimmel, Education Director. 

SUPPORT US!  If you found this entry useful, informative, or inspiring, please consider a donation of any size to help POP in planting and supporting community orchards in Philadelphia: