Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Pacific Northwest
August, 2008
Regional Report

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My favorite use of pruners is cutting flowers for my table.

A Handy Set of Tools

I'm a sucker for a new garden tool. I've got more than six shovels, a dozen pruning shears, loads of trowels, a boxful of pruning saws ... and the list goes on. In my backyard there is a shed full of stuff. So when I taught a class on garden tools to Master Gardener trainees, I opened up the shed, pulled out all the tools, and took them to class. I wanted to show the students what they didn't need.

Over the years I've learned that you don't need many tools to get a lot done in the garden. Shovels, of course, are indispensable. So are rakes. But beyond those two garden workhorses, a few basic hand tools are all I need to comfortably tend my rock gardens, perennial borders, and shrubs.

To me, a good tool is one I enjoy using. It feels right in my hands and does many jobs well, or does a specific job perfectly. It doesn't take much to fill out a basic gardening toolbox. You can go a long way with several pruners, a digging implement or two, and, believe it or not, a dustpan.

Assess your Needs
When deciding what tool to buy, ask yourself this question: Will this help make gardening easier and more fun? If the answer is no, then it's probably not worth buying. When you do find a tool you need, make sure it fits you physically. Is it the correct shape and weight for your hands? How does it feel to heft? Try it on for size. You might not be welcome to try a little impromptu pruning at the garden center, but at least you can go through the motions. If a tool seems too big and heavy -- or too small and light -- don't buy it. Grownup gardeners ignore tools made for kids, but pint-sized tools could be just the thing for working in tight spots or for smaller-sized gardeners and gardens.

Whenever and wherever I'm gardening, I can always find a use for hand-held pruners. There are broken or dead twigs that need to be clipped, and faded blooms that need to be nipped. When I'm planting, I use pruners to cut the pots off rootbound plants, and to score or slice rootballs in order to encourage growth. At the end of the day I may cut a few flowers for the table, or start a whole new project and take a few cuttings to root.

Pruners come in two designs: anvil and bypass. Anvil pruners have a sharp blade that cuts against a dull, flat surface, so they tend to squeeze or crush a stem rather than slice it. I prefer bypass pruners, which work sort of like scissors and make a good, clean, almost surgical cut. Whichever kind of pruner you use, it will need to be kept sharp, and I've found it a lot easier to sharpen the blades of a bypass pruner.

I like Felco pruners, but whatever brand you buy, make sure the heft feels just right in your hand, and that the tension it takes to squeeze the pruners in order to make a cut can be adjusted easily. You'll want blades that take a good edge and stay sharp, and pruners that are also easy to take apart quickly, which you have to do in order to sharpen the blades. It should also be easy to buy new blades or other replacement parts, so if a pair breaks, you can fix it rather than rush out and spend $50 on a new pair.

Digging is the essential gardening activity, so tools for it abound. Shovel options range from short-handled hand trowels to long-handled shovels, with numerous sizes and shapes in between.

For general digging jobs -- from turning a new garden plot to making a planting hole to scooping and moving soil -- a long-handled round-pointed shovel is the tool. If you're working in tight places or under trees and shrubs, switch to the shorter D-handled version. A well-made shovel will be drop-forged of steel with an all-one-piece blade and collar that holds a handle made of ash.

Every gardener I know has a favorite style, shape, size, handle length, and grip type of hand trowel. Try out a few to see which feels most comfortable. It's a tool you'll use for planting, weeding, scooping, dividing, and many other tasks, so make sure you really love yours. Keep in mind that inexpensive hand tools aren't very durable. You'll be rewarded over and over again if you invest in quality one-piece stainless steel or aluminum hand trowels.

Weeding is a major gardening task for most of us. Pulling a few weeds in loose soil can be done by hand, but larger jobs are much easier with the right tools.

A traditional garden hoe works for deep weeding between rows in the vegetable garden. A heart-shaped warren hoe fits in narrow spaces and is also useful for making furrowed rows at planting time.

Three or four-pronged cultivators fit in narrow spots and go a little deeper, to lightly loosen packed soil. I use a cultivator around my tender annuals and perennials to dislodge small weeds.

Raking falls into two general categories based on what you're trying to move around -- soil and rocks, or leaves and plants. Soil rakes have inflexible metal tines and can come in either a bow or a flat style. The more common bow style absorbs shocks and is useful for spreading or lightly furrowing soil.

Leaf rakes, which also clean up plant trimmings, come in a wide variety of styles. Made of plastic, bamboo, or aluminum, these are usually fan shaped with flexible tines hooked near the ends. You can find every size from the smallest shrub rakes to large lawn rakes. There's even one that adjusts to several sizes for a variety of tasks.

Don't Forget the Dust Pan
Another tool I depend on is a wide aluminum dust pan with a handle large enough for me to grip with both hands. I use it to scrape soil and as a mulch and stone spreader. It's indispensable at cleanup time. I can lift the dust pan with one hand and hold a bag, broom, or rake in the other. That lets me take a big scoop of debris for the trash bin or compost pile, and cuts cleanup time in half.

Opinions, Opinions
Every gardener I know has preferences for garden tools, and you will, too. Have fun exploring what types of tools are essential for you. Then carefully evaluate each tool and make a good choice for yourself, whether or not it comes highly recommended by another gardener. The right tools make for a more enjoyable experience in the garden.

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