Will buying swivel hose guides, a sonic mosquito repeller, or a new propane gas push-button weeder really make you a better gardener?
The number of gadgets on sale at nurseries (and these examples are real) can leave the new gardener feeling overwhelmed. It’s easy to walk out with a cart full of stuff and a big bill. And it’s depressing to trip over this same stuff, unused, in your garage months or years later. Contrast this, if you will, with the quiet satisfaction of owning a few well-made tools that you use over and over again. The path of virtue is obvious.
It makes sense to invest in a few good tools, but which ones? Everything for sale sounds so sensible, so necessary, so seductive.
So we asked some experts to help us to put together a list of truly essential tools for growing back-yard flowers or vegetables. Here’s a rundown of their top 10 tools:
When you try to pull weeds by hand, often you get only the top of the plant. The roots mock you. Well, cultivators help get at the root of this problem. There are more kinds on the market now than ever. Just as every culture has its own version of noodle soup, so each region has its own favorite weeding tool.
Importers now bring you exotic cultivators from every corner of Japan and Europe. And they all work! But many veterans we talked with have a soft spot for the traditional three- or four-pronged cultivator, which also aerates the soil as it loosens weeds. Long-handled versions allow you to weed standing up.
Whereas cultivators loosen the roots of large weeds so you can pull them up, hoes decapitate small weeds. Cognoscenti such as Horticulture magazine editor Tom Cooper, senior Arnold Arboretum horticulturist Gary Koller, and Tower Hill Botanic Garden director John Trexler particularly love their English scuffle hoes, also known as oscillator hoes. “They’re great for scuffling annual weeds out of a gravel path. I have a shrub border where thousands of annual maple seedlings come up, and this saves me from having to pluck them by hand,” said Trexler. Some of the many types of hoes are also essential in vegetable gardens for creating rows and planting seeds.
Watering cans are picturesque, but the many new nozzle, spray and sprinkler attachments on the market make hoses more practical and versatile. Koller uses an inexpensive faucet timer to turn off sprinklers. You can now even spray and fertilize by hose with the proper accessories. Buy good-quality hose that won’t kink. It’s worth buying some kind of storage reel or at least keeping hoses coiled in shade when not in use, since constant sunlight will shorten their useful lives.
There are different kinds, including loppers, shears and saws. But the most essential for everyday use are the hand clippers. I never walk through the garden without them. Because if I forget them, I have to go back again. Even a casual walk through the back yard reveals plants that need thinning and trimming, flowers, fruit and vegetables that need harvesting, broken vegetation that begs for a clean cut to promote healing. Many experts swear by the Swiss Felco brand because of its easily replaceable parts. It comes in many versions, including a model for left-handers. Like many female gardeners, I like the No.6 for small hands.
For heavy work, like digging a bed, you need a shovel (and preferably someone else to use it). Buy shovels, spades and spading forks that have a metal shank that extends part way up the handle. This makes them stronger. Though carbon steel is used for most garden tools, more expensive stainless steel makes digging easier because soil slides off the blade. Some tools also come with nonstick coatings, but these may wear off.
A spade differs from a shovel because its head is flat instead of curved. It’s good for edging grass and for digging a hole you put a plant in. Narrow border spades are for digging in crowded perennial gardens without disturbing neighboring plants. Stainless steel blades are lighter and rustproof.
People used to call these pitchforks. They are handy for lifting and dividing perennials without severing roots, for turning compost, and for breaking up soil.
You want the plastic type for raking fallen leaves off the lawn, but for flower and vegetable gardening you need a metal flat-backed rake for grading dirt and raking beds.
These are essential for digging small holes for planting. Landscape designer Henrietta Light uses one made of heavy cast aluminum because “the handle and shovel part are all in one.”
A metal contractor’s wheelbarrow will carry compost, plants, and other tools down narrow garden paths. It is also a useful container for mixing soil amendments together before planting. People really do get attached to their wheelbarrows. Tom Cooper owns an old-fashioned wooden one with sides that open that was manufactured by his father’s company. “The company never sold more than a couple of hundred because they were too expensive,” he says. “But they turn up in yard sales occasionally, and if you linseed them and keep them out of the elements, they last forever.” Many people, especially those with bad backs, prefer high-wheeled garden carts that allow them to carry loads without lifting.
xxxx A FEW MORE TIPS Tools are extensions of your person. It’s often better to buy tools in a local store than through a catalog so you can make sure they’re scaled right and comfortable to use. Many companies are offering scaled-down versions of tools like spades and spading forks in proportions easier for women gardeners lacking upper-body strength to work with. Garden tools are like clothes. They have to fit. A tool that’s too short can cause backache. One that’s too heavy can be difficult to handle. So don’t send someone else to buy tools that you will use. Switzerland’s Felco has ergonomically reshaped a lot of their handles so if you have carpal tunnel syndrome or other wrist problems, you can handle their tools. And tools by the Ames company have cushioned handles to prevent blisters. Bob Scagnetti, owner of the Clapper Co. of Newton, Mass., which specializes in garden tools and ornaments, estimates that these 10 items can run you about $1,000. The wheelbarrow is your big-ticket item, easily running $200. Too much? Yard sales are a great (cheap) place to find high-quality tools. “They may look rusty, but they’re easy to recondition with sandpaper, steel wool and some oil,” says Trexler. Although there have been many modern additions, most of today’s essential tools haven’t changed much since your grandparents gardened, so ask for hand-me-downs, too. Power tools can make jobs go fast, but because they are expensive and need careful handling and maintenance, you’re often better off renting them when needed or using regular hand tools. To get the longest use from your tools, clean each one promptly after use. It’s like washing dishes. The dirt comes off more easily if you wipe it off before it dries on. And, like the tools themselves, a well-organized toolroom or tool corner in your garage will be a source of satisfaction.
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