Published in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle May 1, 2016, “Must-have garden gear.”
By Barb Gorges
Gardening smart and using the best tools for you and your garden situation means gardening can be less of a chore and more fun, leaving you with time to enjoy your results.
With that in mind, I decided to survey the Laramie County Master Gardeners to find out which tools they consider essential for gardening. I also looked into best garden tool maintenance practices.
Like a good scientist, I checked the literature online and had my own hypothesis on what would surface in the top of the list: tools for digging, cutting, watering, hauling and composting.
Surprisingly, only one person listed a power tool, a rototiller for tilling vegetable beds.
Apparently, most of the Master Gardeners that responded have gardens small enough to use only hand tools, just love gardening by hand, or are in the no-till or minimal till camp.
[Soil science shows that over time the tradition of tilling every year, turning over the top inches of soil, whether by machine or shovel, breaks down soil structure. This disturbs the microbiome community that stores water and provides nutrients to plants. Tilling also exposes weed seeds to light and germination, mandating the use of a hoe or more tilling later.
No-till methods use plant-based mulch as a way to suppress weeds and add nutrients to the soil gradually. The soil is disturbed as little as possible when flowers and vegetables are seeded or transplanted.]
The following is the result of the tools members suggested as we head into the new season.
Outside of the lone rototiller, all the other favorite tools mentioned were split evenly between digging and cutting.
One tool does both: the hori hori.
A Japanese tool, the hori hori is “a cross between a knife and a trowel and I use it for everything,” wrote Salli Halpern.
Wanda Manley said, “This is my ‘go to’ tool…great for fluffing soil, transplanting, making furrows, etc. Does not rust.”
Rosalind Schliske said, “In the last couple of years, my new favorite garden tool is a soil knife.” The “knife” she mentions seems to be a modern hori hori, with a composite handle instead of wood.
The hori hori’s 7-inch cutting blade, serrated on one side, is formed into a shallow length-wise v-shape. It can be used to cut and scoop out a small planting hole and makes a fabulous weed remover.
Susan Jones swears by a hand weeder sold under the Corona brand. It also has a serrated edge, but a molded plastic, more ergonomic handle and a v-shaped tip that helps pop out weeds with taproots like dandelions.
Only Kathy Shreve and Mike Heath mentioned shovels on their lists. Shreve finds a tiling, or trenching shovel to be most useful. The flat-edged, straight and narrow blade is just right for inserting new plants into her established perennial beds. The weight of the wooden handle adds to its heft, she said, giving her a little extra oomph as she digs in.
Shovels and spades (the distinction between them is not clear) come in a wide variety of blade and handle options. It takes some experience to match one with what fits your hands, height, strength and type of digging you need to do. The same is true of hand trowels or hand spades. In our clay-type soils, go for better quality tools that won’t snap as soon as you encounter a tough situation.
One favorite cutting tool was mentioned by both Shreve and Manley by brand name: Felco hand pruners. I finally have a pair myself, after years of being frustrated by cheaper pruners falling apart. Plus, Felco has replaceable parts and accessories available at area garden centers.
Felco pruners are bypass-type cutting tools, meaning the two halves slide by each other as they cut, like scissors, rather than the anvil-type, where one side is a blade and the other side is a flat surface.
Hand pruners might not be the best at snipping chives—you’d want a scissors for that, but they do work fine for cutting flowers and are tough enough for cutting pumpkins off the vine, not to mention doing a little tree and shrub pruning.
Once your trees and shrubs get beyond hand pruner size, it’s time to look for loppers.
Both Bud Davis and Shreve swear by their ratcheting loppers, which can handle more than my regular pair, rated only for a maximum branch diameter of 1.25 inches. Shreve prefers the Fiskars brand while Davis got both of his pairs, a bypass for green wood and an anvil-type for dead wood, from Garrett-Wade. His loppers even have telescoping handles to help reach farther or get more leverage.
No matter what digging and cutting tools you invest in, maintaining them will save you time, money and effort.
Jim Stallard has been in the seasonal tool sharpening business for 16 years. This year he is at Fort Collins Nursery on Fridays and JAX on Saturdays, both in Fort Collins, Colorado.
Stallard has seen it all, including dirt left on metal long enough that the moisture from it caused rust. He uses a wire brush to clean off dirt before putting away tools. More of us need to think about providing a convenient place to store tools out of the weather—and then train ourselves to put our tools away.
Stallard uses silicone spray lubricant on the metal parts of tools—it’s especially nice on the blades of pruners and loppers because it doesn’t cause them to bind up or rust the way some products do.
Keeping tools sharp—even the blades on shovels and hand spades—makes gardening work easier. You can check online for tips on how to do it yourself, but there is nothing like letting a professional like Stallard put a fresh edge on a tool at the beginning of the season. He’s got the power equipment and the experience to put the right angle on your blade for just a few bucks.
The other essentials
One can make do with old buckets and wheelbarrows for hauling, and make compost with just a simple pile of plant debris. Watering can be as complex as drip irrigation (see www.CheyenneGardenGossip.wordpress.com for a previous column) or as simple as a hose. I was hoping someone could recommend a hose that never kinks. That would indeed be a tool that makes the work easier.
However, it was Master Gardener intern Richard Steele, who said, “The best tool…is having access to the knowledge of the Master Gardeners.” With that in mind, feel free to call the Laramie County Cooperative Extension office with your garden questions at 307-633-4383.