Sunday, September 16, 2012

My Favorite Garden Tools

It wouldn’t take much—an awkward turn of the ankle, a slip of the pruners, or a jolt of the knee when spade unexpectedly hits rock. One stupid move and my life and my livelihood could be upended. So I step carefully.
Favorite tools: Radius stainless steel transplanter, Cobrahead weeder, Felco pruners, holster, Swiss istor sharpener, Fiskars PowerGear Lopper, OR cotton hat, nitrile gloves, and white bucket, all in a Tipke marine cart.

My goal is to become, someday, an old gardener. The alternative—not seizing the first cool September day to sow spinach, or not having too many tomatoes on the counter and too much pesto in the freezer—is unthinkable. To this end, I try never to overestimate the capabilities of my body or my tools. The older I get the more I value my body. Imperfect as it is, it has (so far) ably enabled my excesses.

My mother taught me that cheap shoes are no bargain. I have learned, repeatedly, that the same is true about garden tools. We all meet people who say (endearingly, or so they think), “I have a black thumb hahaha.” To them I reply (with a dead serious look), “There’s no such thing as a black thumb. You just don’t have the right tools.” I truly believe this, being of currently sound body and perpetually dirty fingernails. If they had my #1 weeder, the Cobrahead, they would be equally driven to use the side of the blade to decapitate weeds just under the soil line, and use the curve of the arm as a lever to oh-so-gently unearth whatever it is that doesn’t belong there. I am sure of it.

It took me a long time to declare this my favorite weeder, due to an unfortunate misstep by the designer and chief promoter of the Cobrahead, Noel Valdes. So sure was he that his tool was “the best tool on earth” that he sent out an initial run to garden writers. Sadly, the curvature of the blade stretched with time and use, rendering the tool practically worthless. So I wrote it off and went back to my old #1, the Korean hand hoe. I still have several hand hoes, but they have shown their weaknesses: blades detach prematurely from handles; inconsistencies in manufacturing can affect the “feel.” At some point I gave Cobrahead another try. The current version is truly the best tool on earth. The blue handle is attached securely to a strong blade, which serves as a cultivator as well as a weeder. You can stab it into the soil using the force of your arm, sparing the wrist for gentler tasks, like picking tomatoes. Or sowing spinach. I never, and I mean never, go into the garden without it.

And would it even be possible to own a pair of Felco pruners and not want to use them constantly? The two things I like most about my Felcos are, 1) the blades open really wide, and 2) spare parts are readily available. Every winter I sit down in front of CSI New York, or some other comfortingly familiar set of characters and plot, with my four or five Felcos, a bag of blades, springs, and bolts, a spray can of WD-40, and my Swiss istor professional sharpener. You don’t even have to dismember the pruners to sharpen them with this nifty tool. I give them all a little love (the Felcos not the FBI guys). They deserve it.

And my pruner holster. Yes! The one mistake I make, over and over, year after year, is not clipping my holster to my jeans when I venture out into my own garden. I’ll just do this one thing, I tell myself, and four hours later I am searching through tall blades of grass (lawn maintenance not being my thing) for the pruners I set down … somewhere. When I am “on the job” I am never without my pruner holster.

For bigger cuts, I like to use my Fiskars PowerGear Bypass Lopper. As in, I look for low hanging limbs and dead branches just so I can lop them off with this powerful yet lightweight tool. This is how you know a garden tool is great—it energizes you to do stuff. Another case in point: Since I bought my Radius Garden 200 PRO Ergonomic Stainless Steel Transplanter a month or so ago, I have been edging, transplanting, and digging new beds like a crazy woman. I blame this tool. I punch it into the soil with my upper body (my knees are in good working order and I intend to keep them that way).
--> Believe me, Black Thumb, when I say that the trapezoid-shaped blade with the circle on top is fun to use and will make a gardener of anyone. And the handle’s purple! 

While admittedly not as entertaining as spades and loppers, hats and gloves are important to the garden experience. My criteria for the perfect garden hat are: 1) It must be washable; 2) It must be big enough; 3) It must have a chin strap; 4) It must be sufficiently brimmed. This OR (Outdoor Research) 100% cotton hat fulfills all the necessities, plus it has a UPF rating of 50+. 

I buy Atlas Nitrile gloves by the dozen. They’re cheaper that way. Not that this saves me any money—I give a pair to garden-coaching clients so that they’ll think to call me when they puzzle over plant choices and pruning decisions. I go through about four pairs a season myself, which is not bad considering that I spend the better part of my life in the garden. About the only task I remove them for is sowing seeds. 

For hauling flats of annuals, loads of compost, and piles of weeds from here to there, I use a Tipke Cart. Though billed as a “marine” cart, it is perfect for garden use—lightweight, rustproof, and it folds for winter storage or for transporting to plant sales and such. You’ll need a bicycle pump. I need a bicycle pump. 

Oh, and the white bucket. It’s free. And though I like tub trugs, you can’t sling them over the arm like you can a plain ol’ white bucket. And they’re not free. 

Suggestions for additions to this incomplete list are more than welcome. I’m still looking for the perfect hose nozzle for one thing. But the above favorites serve me well; they keep my knees, wrists, and shoulders in shape …  for the rest of what makes life worth living. My advice to Black Thumb is this: Step carefully, stop frequently to breathe in the whole big picture—life, that is—and carry a purple-topped spade, a blue-handled Cobrahead, and a white bucket. The proverbial green thumb will be yours.  

Note: None of the above tools were sent to me for testing. I bought and paid for every one.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Flowers that Dance

I love flowers that scent the air with intoxicating fragrances, flowers that rest in neat colorful mounds, flowers that coat the ground like a fluffy puddle. 

Late summer dance: Gomphrena 'Fireworks' and Nicotiana 'Whisper Appleblossom'
But most of all I love flowers that dance. Whisper Appleblossom nicotiana, woodland tobacco, Fireworks gomphrena. They hover over the others in a lilting cloud, like syrphid flies over sweet Alyssum, like fluttering cabbage moths over wet muck. Like lightning bugs. 

They drift aloft in a Debussian rhythm, unregimented, suspended. You forget for the moment the details of genus and species, morphology and function. You lose yourself in the whole of the dance. Everyone is keeping the beat. The eye is not directed to any one spot. It doesn't matter.

Until the scene is broken by a single frosty night, or ferocious late season storm, they dance. And then the music stops. Frosty air chills the fallen seeds. Its fingers reach into the pores of the soil. Rhythm and tender green are on hold.

And so we dance, furiously, to strings and keys and pounding palms, to keep our spirits alive.
image from Country Dance and Song Society (