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Tools that are revolutionizing gardening. Or are they?

Glowing descriptions in mail-order catalogs and enticing displays at nurseries and garden centers tempt buyers with more kinds of hand tools than ever. Choices include innovations that reduce effort or speed certain tasks, old-timers that have been reintroduced, and meticulously crafted versions of basic tools.

But are any really worth the extra cost? Should you buy a different one for each garden chore? Do you need a trowel or spade that's designed to last forever?

To answer these and other questions, we surveyed home gardeners as well as professionals in the landscape, nursery, and garden-tool industries. Their responses were surprising. We discovered that choices are often as much a matter of philosophy and personality as practically.

We also found that no tool is perfect for everyone--though some come closer than others. Here we show basic tools, old favorites, and controversial newcomers, and give the pluses and minuses of each.

Many respondents emphasized the importance of high-quality features, but that even the best tool can be a loser if it's not properly sharpened or maintained.

Most people who bought merchandise by mail were pleased with quality and ease of ordering. For sources, see page 300.

I buy cheap tools

since I always lose them"

Does this philosophy fit you? We discovered two major camps: gadget lovers who find new tools hard to resist, and conservative gardeners who feel most garden tasks can be accomplished with few tools.

Among these, we found "throw-away" philosophers who don't take their tools seriously: they buy the cheapest available and simply leave them lying around, close to the areas where they're used the most. Snaggletooth rakes, bent trowels, and rusting spades don't upset them.

Others prefer to buy the best tools they can find and cherish them as loyal friends.

The gadget lovers include design enthusiasts who get pleasure from a beautiful tool, even if they use it rarely. Other collectors explained they enjoy the thrill of discovery when they try a new model that makes a garden task easier. Many are quality advocates who feel it's worth the extra money to get the best.

"Small tools that can be

quickly made invite

speculators in gimmickry"

The traditionalists among those we surveyed were skeptical about some new items offered in catalogrs. They were especially critical of certain small tools, such as trowels and weeders, that they felt offered only minor variations on basic themes--often as much higher prices.

The gardener at far left has the tools commonly cited as the four used most often in the garden. From our survey, we determined these four--and five more--will cover most garden needs. But even among these, there's some disagreement:

1. Leaf rake: metal and bamboo both had passionate advocates; a few liked plastic.

2. Basic digging tool: a standoff between spades and shovels, with garden forks the choice of a vocal minority.

3. TRowel: much disagreement on best style, but one-piece, or solid shank, construction was often mentioned as a plus.

4. Weeder/cultivator: most chose a hoe, with some preferring a three- or four-prong cultivator.

5. Soil rake: the votes leaned toward a bow rake.

6. Loppers: quality bypass loppers with wood handles were clear winners.

7. Pruning shears: strong leaning toward bypass shears with replaceable blades.

8. Pruning saw: whatever length they preferred, all agreed this saw was great when needed.

9. Putty knife: suggested by many as an alternative to more specialized small tools. It can be used for transplanting from flats, wedding in tight spaces, and light cultivation.

Gardeners who have done major relandscaping also would add the classic mattock with ax blade,but they warn that its weight could cause back strain and that it's dangerous if used carelessly.

Bulb-planting devices were criticized as not being reliable except in perfect soil: "In sandy soil, you can't geg a nice hole; in clay soil, the wad of soil sticks inside the planter." But advocates found them very useful for planting a lot of bulbs. A new short-handled one with movable "jaws" had some fans, but gardeners with small hands found it awkward to operate.

"Snapped handles are

my nemesis--I've learned

to buy the best"

To ensure best buys, even "throw-away" gardeners should look for high-quality features when choosing tools.

Heavy-duty tools such as spades, shovels, and forks should have exceptionally strong handles. Ash (sometimes hickory) is excellent; it's often mentioned in catalog descriptions.

If you're buying at a garden center, you may find the wood type stamped on the handle or mentioned on a label. Ash has clearly visible grain lines, sometimes exaggerated by the stain and finish used.

Also check the grain, as shown in the bottom picture on page 121 (handle 5).

"If a handle or blade is

painted, I'm suspicious. What

is the paint hiding?"

Tools for lighter use, such as scuffle hoes and leaf rakes, can get by with weaker handles. Painted wood handles or ones without grain lines usually signal a weaker wood. Aluminum is another lightweight alternative but tends to blacken your hands unless it has a plastic sleeve.

Consider handle length. Ideally, the handles on rakes and hoes should reach to your shoulder when you hold the tool next to you (see the long-handled spade in the top left photography on page 121).

Some people prefer the short D-handle for spades and forks, as shown in the same photograph. You hold them with the handles in front of you for maximum leverage and control. They're especially good for digging in tight spaces.

But many gardeners like longer handles so they don't have to stoop; they can dig deeper holes without bending and throw soil or other garden materials farther.

When you buy, check to see how the head is connected to the handle (see photograph on page 121).

The weakest connection is the tang-and-ferrule, in which a metal tongue (tang) is inserted into the wood handle and secured by a metal cover (ferrule) attached to the wood. This is adequate for light tasks.

For more strength and durability, choose tools that have the head and shank, or the entire tool, made from a single piece of metal. One-piece trowels (see right) are particularly sturdy and less likely to suffer bent handles. They also avoid a common problem of two-piece trowels, which often rust at the handle junction.

Garden forks commonly sold at garden centers are made with tang-and-ferrule construction. For forks with one-piece head and shank, you usually have to buy through a catalog. In choosing a garden fork, also remember that square tines are sturdier than flat tines and are a better choice for heavy clay soil.

In general, the heavier the metal on the head of a shovel or spade, the stronger. In comparison shopping, see if the label states "heavy weight" or "medium weight" metal. The former is usually much more expensive. If there is no label, compare the thickness of the metal of several tools. Again, these features are described in catalogs.

Just as with handles, paint often signals a weaker metal was used in the head. That's all right for light jobs, but store the tool properly to avoid rust after the paint chips or wears off.

Aluminum is often used for trowels (see the photography on page 119). That's fine, too, but it's best to get one with a plastic sleeve over the handle to keep the aluminum from blackening your hands with extended use. Steel blades are sharper and stronger, which makes them popular. Top-quality ones have a one-piece head and shank.

"I found I left my fabulous

loppers in the shed and used

the cheap ones. The good

one weighed too much!"

In choosing quality, remember there is a trade-off: usually better tools weigh more and thus require more strength to use.

Sometimes this creates a contradiction, such as in the anvil loppers with gears pictured above. The gears add power to each cut--good for gardeners with limited strength--but the metal handles add weight, making them more tiring to hold. A heavy-duty shovel does a magnificent job slicing through soil, but it's tiring to heft if you're using it to move material from one spot to another.

One solution is to buy smaller, well-made versions, such as the border fork and spade shown above and on page 118. These are light--but their small heads don't allow you to dig as deep or move as much with each stroke.
COPYRIGHT 1985 Sunset Publishing Corp.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1985 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Date:Nov 1, 1985
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