A good tool is a gardener's best friend

In The Garden

October 14, 2001|By Marty Ross | Marty Ross,Universal Press Syndicate

Digging: Those who work regularly in the yard understand how important it is to have just the right shovel, spade or rake.

To a gardener, tools are gorgeous. People may think there's nothing special about a shovel, but a gardener's spade is not just a spade. It's a beloved collaborator in the work of turning a yard into a garden.

Tools are not often put on display in a garden, but good gardeners admire as well as use them.

"The best gardeners need very few tools, but they need good tools," says Jack Allen, whose interest in having the right tools landed him a job as the tool expert at Smith & Hawken, the retail and mail-order gardening specialty company.

"Of course, you need a good spade, pruning shears and a rake," he says. "But really good gardeners could grow things with a pointed stick."

A gardener once showed Allen a tool her grandfather had made. It looked like a cross between a cricket bat and a golf putter, he says, and it could be used for digging, weeding, raking, planting and cultivating.

"It was her favorite tool," he says. "But this woman could garden with her fingernails."

Tool racks at garden shops seem especially appealing in the fall. There are leaves to rake, bulbs to plant, new beds to dig and mulch before the winter.

Among the familiar shovels, hoes and shears, bright and new, there always is some clever design, revolutionary material or ingenious new idea that just might make it even more pleasant to spend a day with your hands in the dirt. "The hot categories are always the gadget categories," Allen says. "The temptation is always there to go away from the classics."

But tools designed along the lines of the Swiss Army knife, with a trowel on one end and a rake on the other, for example, inevitably feel awkward in the garden. Bulb planters designed to simplify the task of planting 100 tulips seldom work any better than a trowel or a shovel.

Most tools actually haven't changed that much over the years.

"People have been gardening in the current form for a couple of hundred years, and all the tools are very mature," Allen says. "They have been refined to a highly evolved state."

The traditional shapes, heft and jobs of various tools are as familiar to gardeners as a wooden spoon and a paring knife are to a chef. You can buy rakes with colorful plastic, steel or bamboo tines, or trowels made out of cast aluminum, plastic or steel, but their functions -- and, by and large, their forms -- remain the same.

In modern times, most of the innovation seems to have been dedicated to attaching motors to common garden tools. For many gardeners, leaf blowers have replaced rakes, and string trimmers now hang in the tool shed where grass clippers and edgers once were.

In our effort to make gardening easier and the tasks lighter -- or in an attempt to accomplish too much, too quickly -- we have added an arsenal of loud power tools to the gardening repertoire. But while blowers may blast the leaves into the next county, you just can't lean on the handle of a leaf blower, as you can on the handle of an old-fashioned rake, and contemplate the autumn sky.

High-quality workmanship and materials are what separate good hand tools from ordinary ones. Price is usually a good indication of quality. New gardeners tend to go through a number of inexpensive hand tools before graduating to something considerably more satisfying -- and probably cheaper in the long run.

"Some people struggle along with what they have, but if you do enough gardening, it leads you to better tools," Allen says.

All tools last longer and work better with proper care. After a long day in the garden, sit down and clean the caked soil off the edges of shovels and trowels with a stick or a sturdy brush. Rust keeps a tool from slicing easily down through the dirt, but a small amount of oil rubbed on the blade with a paper towel from time to time prevents rust from developing.

Spades and hoes can easily be sharpened with a file. Rub the soil off wooden handles before you put your tools away. It takes only a few minutes, and if you keep it up, you'll run through an entire fleet of gas-powered lawnmowers while your good hand tools grow old as gracefully as you do.


Here are a few mail-order sources for tools of all kinds:

Gardeners' Supply Co.

128 Intervale Road

Burlington, VT 05401



Catalog free

A.M. Leonard

241 Fox Drive

Piqua, OH 45353



Catalog free

Smith & Hawken

P.O. Box 431

Milwaukee, WI 53201

800-940-1170 or www.smithandhawken.com Catalog free

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