Fewer is Better

The annual catalog avalanche is now well underway, not only in the physical mailbox at the road, but also in its electronic equivalent.  In the commercial world I am surely marked as an avid gardener! Now whole catalogs, devoted to clever tools and gadgets designed to solve any garden problem one might ever encounter, arrive by the dozen.

At one time I was a real sucker for the latest garden tool and I even had a thing that looked like a golf cart for hauling everything around on weeding expeditions.

But over the years I have learned to avoid rash purchases of new garden gadgets that ultimately get little use but still take up valuable space in the tool shed.

Now, when I head out into the garden, rather than hauling a heavy cartload of tools with me, I work on the principle that—


To accomplish all my everyday gardening tasks I rely on a small number of versatile tools that are well-crafted and easy to carry, plus a few more which I keep on hand for specialized jobs like pruning. These are my favorite everyday tools and how I use them.

Pruners at the ready

All it takes is a quick snip here and there with my pruners to stop this azalea from encroaching into the path

I rarely step into the garden without my hand pruners, so useful for tidying-up perennials and grooming shrubs.  I carry them in a leather holster slung on an old belt, where they are always handy. And, when not in use, the whole assembly hangs on the hook beside the back door, readily available at a moment’s notice.

I mostly use my hand pruners to cut soft, live plant tissue, and for this purpose the bypass design (where the blades pass across each other in a scissor-like motion) is the best. I prefer this to the anvil design, which tends to crush the stem.

Pruners come in many shapes and weights, and of course peoples’ hands vary widely in strength and size. Since you use your pruners a lot, it is really important find a pair that truly matches your hand. Take the time to shop for them in person at a store that offers several brands which you can really hold and feel before you buy.

Felco is usually considered the ‘gold standard’ for pruners and they are certainly beautifully made. However, after trying out the motion and weight of several different brands and models, I finished up buying an ergonomically designed Bahco pruner with its distinctively angled blade assembly, and I have been very happy with my choice.

For best results I hone my pruners regularly with a small folding Diafold sharpener that I keep in a handy spot near the back door.

A steel hook with many uses

My ‘CobraHead’ weeder and cultivator, an unlikely looking tool that Dick gave me a few years ago, is now one of my ‘must-have’ garden tools.  I use it for all kinds of weeding and cultivating, as well as for digging holes and transplanting small plants. And, by pushing the tool deep into the soil, I can lasso those stubborn dandelion taproots, usually getting them out intact.

Because I find my CobraHead so indispensable, I added a small loop to my garden belt that allows me to carry it  ‘hands free’ next to my pruners.

A new addition

This past fall I discovered the Japanese ‘sickle-saw’, a new tool that promises to join my list of ‘indispensables’ at least during the fall clean-up. The sickle-saw has a curved handle with an extremely sharp 6”serrated blade that make short work of slicing through large clumps of perennials like Shasta Daisy stems and Siberian Iris leaves.

Clean hands, warm hands

Dirt under the fingernails’ may describe a real gardener. But since I also like to cook and  bake bread, if at all possible I would prefer keep my fingernails clean. So finding garden gloves that are durable yet breathable, and at the same time, flexible enough that I can feel the soil, was a must for me.

The Atlas brand ‘370 Garden Club’ mesh gloves provide all that functionality. They have a flexible coating of nitrile on the palms and fingertips, they wash well and besides they come in pretty colors.  I buy mine in packets of six from the Palmflex website so I always have a clean pair ready for use.

I balance these out with a lined waterproof glove for cold weather work. Vinylove 360, also by Atlas and available through the Palmflex website, fit my hands perfectly.

Strong and sturdy

A good fork and spade are two larger items that are crucial for the gardener’s toolkit.  I use mine to prepare the soil for a new bed, to move (or remove) any larger plants, and also to lift and divide over-grown perennials.

So my fork and spade must be both strong and sturdy, while not overly heavy to use.  From personal experience I can attest to the false economy of buying cheap thin forks, which sooner or later will bend or break.

Ten years ago I felt a bit extravagant when I purchased a digging fork and narrow transplanting spade, each forged from a single piece of steel with a smooth ash handle, made by Spear and Jackson. I bought them at Gardener’s Supply in Burlington, where I was able to try the various makes and models to find tools that were compatible with my body and my stamina.

Spear and Jackson has been making tools in England for over 100 years and their products come with a 15-year guarantee (not bad considering the stress many of us put on our garden tools). I use my fork and spade constantly and still they retain their original shape and strength.

Last but not least

My final recommendation is to invest in a battery-powered string trimmer. Oh, I can hear you say—‘an electric trimmer, that sounds really flimsy. Surely a gasoline engine would be preferable’.

The answer is that, while a gasoline powered trimmer is works best for longer jobs like edging beds, you will be amazed at the host of smaller tasks where the lightweight versatility of an electric trimmer is very welcome, all through the season and especially during fall clean-up.Every four weeks or so I give my stepping-stone paths a quick hair cut to keep them open, like the one in the top right picture.

For example: I have several stepping stone paths, like the one picture on the right, above, that meander through my beds. But, rather than attempting to weed between the stones, I use my Black and Decker electric trimmer with a lithium-ion battery to give each path a monthly haircut.  The delightful discovery is that, over time, an inviting velvet carpet of moss is gradually replacing the weeds.

B&D claim that the Lithium-ion batteries have a longer life than their NiCad models; however it is worth investing in a couple of extra batteries to provide additional run time.

Golden rules for garden tools

Seek out quality tools properly proportioned for your own body.

 Carry a few versatile tools for everyday gardening needs.

Keep tools clean and cutting edges sharp.


2 Responses to “Fewer is Better”

  1. Daryle Thomas EMG94

    I agree that well-made tools are a long term investment that ultimately cost less than cheap products. A box of “blue” disposable gloves can be handy. Anvil cutters for dead-wood pruning keeps the bypass pruners working longer. I made my own version of a Hori-Hori from a broken kitchen knife. The broken tip was sharpened square to the edge to harvest asparagus and dispatch weeds. I like my Worx brand electric trimmer, which can also be used as an edger.
    The pictures referred to didn’t show up, for some reason. Good article, as usual.

    • Judith Irven

      Great suggestions Daryl, especially the suggestion about using a pair of anvil pruners for taking care of dead wood, and keeping the more vulnerable bypass pruners for live branch prunung.


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