Judith Irven on Gardening: A few of my favorite things

GOSHEN — It’s mid-December and the catalog avalanche is continuing unabated, not only in my physical mailbox, but also in its electronic equivalent.
In the commercial world I am surely marked as an avid gardener! So now whole catalogs, devoted to clever tools and gadgets designed to solve any garden problem one might ever encounter, arrive around now, to be followed in January by plenty of seed catalogs, with their tantalizing pictures of unblemished peppers and frilly lettuces.
But over the years I have learned to avoid rash purchases of new garden gadgets that ultimately get little use but still take up valuable space in the tool shed.
Now, when I head out into the garden, rather than hauling a heavy cartload of tools with me, I work on the principle that “fewer is easier.”
I rely on a small number of easily carried tools to accomplish all my everyday gardening tasks, along with a few more which I keep on hand for specialized jobs like digging and pruning.
So, with the holiday season upon us and people asking what you want for Christmas, I thought you might enjoy hearing about my favorite tools and how I use them. Or perhaps you will glean some gift ideas for your own favorite gardener.
Pruners at the ready
I rarely step into the garden without my hand pruners, so useful for tidying-up perennials as well as grooming shrubs. I mostly use hand pruners to cut soft, live plant tissue, and for this purpose the bypass design (where the blades pass across each other in a scissor-like motion) is the best. I prefer this to the anvil design, which tends to crush the stem.
Pruners come in many shapes and weights, and of course peoples’ hands vary widely in strength and size. Since you use your pruners a lot, it is really important to find a pair that truly matches your hand. Take the time to shop for them in person at a store that offers several brands and sizes which you can hold and feel before you buy.
Felco is usually considered the “gold standard” for pruners and they are certainly beautifully made.
However, after trying out the motion and weight of several different brands and models, I finished up buying an ergonomically designed Bahco pruner with its distinctively angled blade assembly, and I have been very happy with my choice.
A steel hook with many uses
My “Cobra head” weeder, an unlikely looking tool that Dick gave me many years ago, is one of my must-have garden tools. It is amazingly versatile; I use it for everything from weeding and cultivating, to transplanting small plants. And, by pushing the tool deep into the soil, I can lasso those stubborn dandelion taproots, usually getting them out intact.
A new addition
Recently I discovered the Japanese “sickle-saw,” a handy tool that has joined join my list of indispensables at fall clean-up time. The sickle-saw has a curved handle and an extremely sharp 6-inch blade; it works beautifully to slice through the squishy decaying leaves of Siberian Iris and daylilies.
Tools belts
All the tools mentioned so far fit nicely into my gardener’s tool belt. This has an adjustable belt together with a medium sized pouch for my pruners plus a larger pouch that takes both the Cobra head weeder and the Japanese sickle-saw.
Both pouches also have outer pockets that snap shut, perfect for carrying a roll of tape, packets of seeds, plant markers and a marking pen.
And, when not in use, the whole assembly hangs on the hook inside the back door, readily available at a moment’s notice.
Clean hands, warm hands
“Dirt under the fingernails” may describe a real gardener, but, since I also like to cook, if at all possible I would rather keep my fingernails clean. So finding garden gloves that were durable yet breathable, and flexible enough that I can feel the soil, was a must for me.
The Atlas brand “370 Garden Club“ mesh gloves provide all that functionality. They have a pliable nitrile coating on the palms and fingertips, they wash well and, besides, they come in pretty colors.
I balance these out with pair of lined waterproof gloves for cold weather work. Vinylove 360, also by Atlas, fit my hands perfectly.
Strong and sturdy
A good fork and spade are two larger items that are crucial for the gardener’s toolkit. I use mine to prepare the soil for new beds, to move (or remove) larger plants, and also to lift and divide over-grown perennials.
So my fork and spade must be both strong and sturdy, while not overly heavy for me to use. From personal experience I can attest to the false economy of buying cheap thin forks, which sooner or later always bend or break.
Fifteen years ago I felt a bit extravagant and purchased a digging fork and narrow transplanting spade, each forged from a single piece of steel with a smooth ash handle, made by Spear and Jackson.
Spear and Jackson has been making tools in England for over 100 years and their products come with a 10-year guarantee (not bad considering the stress many of us put on our garden tools). I use my fork and spade constantly and still they retain their original shape and strength.
Light-weight power assistance
My final recommendation is to invest in a few battery-powered tools. They are light-weight, start on a dime and are surprisingly robust. They are also beautifully proportioned for the body of the typical gardener.
I have three, all from the Black and Decker, that run off identical 20-volt batteries, so I always have several charged up and ready to go.
My first acquisition was an electric string trimmer. Oh, I can hear you say ? “an electric trimmer, that sounds really flimsy. Surely a gasoline engine would be preferable.”
The answer is that, while a gasoline powered trimmer is great for heavier jobs like cutting down tall tough grasses, you will be amazed at the host of smaller tasks where the speedy lightweight versatility of an electric trimmer is extremely welcome. For example: I have several stepping stone paths that meander through my beds as well as a couple of field-stone patios. Now, instead of attempting to weed them (or use weed-killers), I zip around the spaces between the stones with my electric trimmer, giving everything a monthly haircut. The delightful discovery is that, especially in the shade, an inviting velvet carpet of moss is gradually taking hold.
More recently, to help with my annual fall clean-up, I acquired an electric hedge trimmer, which cuts through the stems of sturdy perennials and ornamental grasses like butter.
And finally the last member of my power-assisted tools is a small but sturdy electric chain saw. No ? this will not cut through a 12-inch tree branch! But last winter it made short work of cleaning up several 6-inch stems from my serviceberries and several branches from the crab apples which all broke off in the ice storm. And it is surprising the number of such mid-sized cutting tasks that arise in a typical winter.
Golden rules for garden tools
Seek out quality tools properly proportioned for your own body.
Look for a few versatile tools that cover all your everyday gardening needs.
Judith Irven and Dick Conrad live in Goshen where together they nurture a large garden. Judith is a Vermont Certified Horticulturist and teaches Sustainable Home Landscaping for the Vermont Master Gardener program. You can subscribe to her blog about her Vermont gardening life at www.northcountryreflections.com. Dick is a landscape and garden photographer; you can see more of his photographs at www.northcountryimpressions.

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