The Gardener's Toolbox - Simple is Best

By: Susan Handjian , 7:05 PM GMT on August 24, 2012

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The subject of garden tools is endlessly fascinating for me. Always a sucker for gadgets, I’ve purchased many seemingly indispensable tools over the years that turned out to be completely useless. The wisdom that comes with age has tempered that desire, but I readily admit to being sorely tempted from time to time, especially at flower and garden shows.

The best advice I ever got (and actually followed) about tools was from Don Mahoney, Curator of the San Francisco Botanical Garden , who admonishes against those very gadgets I love so much, urging gardeners to keep it simple. I now pass that advice along to my clients and students and add to it – keep it simple but purchase the highest quality tools you can afford. It trThe subject of garden tools is endlessly fascinating for me. Always a sucker for gadgets, I’ve purchased many seemingly indispensable tools over the years that turned out to be completely useless. The wisdom that comes with age has tempered that desire, but I readily admit to being sorely tempted from time to time, especially at flower and garden shows.

Hand shears and hori-hori

What tools do you use the most? Those you reach for most often are investments that should last and last. For me, it’s my Felco hand pruners and hori-hori. They both have to take quite a beating without bending or breaking. I discovered Felco pruners over 30 years ago and am so attached to them it wouldn’t be possible for me to garden without them. The variety offered by Felco is staggering, and I immediately settled on the Number 6 pruner for smaller hands. It’s almost as though the tool had been custom designed for my needs.



Yes, they are expensive, at about $50 and up, but they are fabricated of highest quality steel and aluminum alloy, and best of all, every single element of the tool is replaceable. There are a number of You Tube videos demonstrating how to clean, sharpen and replace parts of many styles of pruners.
I encourage you to shop around. There are many high quality pruners available, and you’ll find the style and brand that suit you best.
My hori-hori is a more recent discovery, and without a doubt the most versatile tool I own. I favor the long-handled version, with a heavy duty, slightly concave Japanese steel blade that is smooth on one edge, serrated on the other. I know that the stainless steel version is very sharp, but mine is not. I really don’t need it to be super sharp. It’s a formidable looking tool, an excellent weeder, chopper, perfect for planting out 4” pots, and dividing the often very tough root systems of perennials. I tend to lose it frequently, so have two, which means I can still have one to fall back on while I search for the missing one. You can see I have red tape on the handle, which alerts me – sometimes - to where it is.
Hori-horis are available online, and cost about $20 to $25.

Shears

For small shearing jobs, I favor the sheep shears I picked up at a hardware store in Fort Bragg, California, back in the '70s. They’re now readily available online and at many nurseries. They’re carbon steel and have to be cleaned regularly, but they take a sharp edge and do a fabulous job of shearing faded blossoms off ground covers or naturally globe-shaped plants like Helichrysum (curry plant) and Santolina (lavender cotton) and harvesting lavender.




My arsenal of garden tools does not include a pair of standard garden shears. I’ve developed a real antipathy for this perfectly fine tool because it’s so misused in gardens and in the hands of ignorant landscapers is responsible for the desecration and wounding of innumerable plants. I could go on and on (and will, in another post) about the havoc wrought on the landscape by this single tool and its power driven versions. Unless you have a hedge, put it aside for now.

Loppers

For tougher pruning jobs, loppers are a must. I currently have a pair of Felcos, but also own a number of Japanese loppers, one with telescoping handles that are a tremendous advantage and keeps you off a ladder. Look for a blade heavy enough to meet the needs of pruning larger branches, and balance between blade size and size/length of handles.



Saws

I’ve owned lots of saws, large and small, but none pleases me more than a tiny (5 inch blade) Japanese folding saw I bought on a whim. It looked so delicate, but I couldn’t resist. What a workhorse it’s turned out to be. It can get where other saws can’t, and is so razor sharp it cuts through formidable limbs like butter.



There are many sizes and shapes available, and the kind and number of saws you have depends greatly on what kind of garden you have and whether or not you actually do the pruning and trimming of woody plants.

Garden Fork

My English garden fork is a favorite that my sister Linda gave me for a birthday present in the late 1960s.





It was a great tool to use for deep digging, but now that I don’t cultivate the soil much anymore, I use the fork to improve drainage by simply inserting it into the soil and rocking the tines gently back and forth a few times. It still does a wonderful job digging up perennials for dividing and moving plants from one place to another.

My Treasure – Margaret’s Shovel


One of my most coveted possessions is a “Lady’s Shovel” given to me by Margaret Evans, my former landlady and garden mentor. This little shovel is the perfect size for planting one gallon pots, although I don’t use it much anymore because I’m afraid the handle might snap. I just like to have it around, marveling at the way the wooden handle is worn in the middle, smoothed by many years of her hands then my hands putting it to use.



When I see it I can still see her in her blue smock, tending her huge garden, the handle of a hatchet, her favorite garden tool, protruding from one of the giant pockets. You can’t have Margaret’s shovel, but Ames Tools still makes this smaller scale implement.

Sharp and Clean

You’ll be amazed at how much work you can get done without tiring your hands, arms and back if your tools are sharp. There are many great sharpening devices available. See which one works best for you. I’m lucky enough to have a blacksmith nearby who expertly sharpens garden tools. Once he puts an edge on my Felco’s, all I have to do is keep the blade clean and run it over a sharpening stone before I use it. A drop of oil keeps hinges operating smoothly.
It’s also important to clean tools with some sort of disinfectant after each use. Rubbing alcohol or a very weak solution of bleach destroys any harmful organisms the tool might pick up.

Sand Block

Last year I read that soaking tools in strong black tea removed any rust buildup on tools. I immediately gave it a try, but found it nearly worthless.



The absolute best way to remove rust and discoloration from a tool is with a simple little item called a sandflex hand block. It reminds me of a gritty art gum eraser. I have fine and medium versions, and they are nothing short of miraculous. They’re easily found on the internet.

A Few Other Necessities

I have tried so many gloves I could write a full post about the different varieties, but have two favorites – a thick, stiff cotton glove with a gauntlet that protects the tender underside of the forearm when pruning in close quarters, and a short glove made of bamboo with a rubbery palm, very soft, yet protective.
Having a short apron or belt isn’t necessary but comes in very handy if you have lots of smaller tools.
A comfortable stool and kneeling pad are helpful and even necessary as the years begin to take their toll.
Do you have a favorite tool? Your gadget-loving fellow gardeners would love to hear about it.



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5. Susan Handjian
5:23 PM GMT on September 27, 2012
The good old hula hoe. I use mine for a decomposed granite pathway that can get choked with weeds. Just a quick run over the surface when I first start seeing the seedlings in the spring completely fixes the problem. Thanks for mentioning it.

I hope your Xmas hori-hori dream comes true! You'll love it.
Member Since: October 4, 2011 Posts: 17 Comments: 7
4. dewpoint
2:01 AM GMT on September 27, 2012
I also love my Felco's! My bosses at a landscaping company that I worked for in Idaho bought them for me back in 1999. I've never had to replace anything...yet. I just keep them sharp and clean.
My other favorite garden tool is the hula hoe. I love to use it for general weeding. It works like a charm.
I have always wanted a hori-hori. I think that this is the year that I ask for one for Yule. :-)
Member Since: September 22, 2005 Posts: 1 Comments: 372
1. GardenGrrl
7:31 PM GMT on August 24, 2012
My favorite tool is the Hound Dog tiller. This thing is great for breaking up the top soil which bakes to a hard crust here in Texas.
The blades are customizable. You can just use two if your garden is rather congested and not tear up shallow roots getting between plants.

Hound Dog Link
Member Since: March 25, 2007 Posts: 252 Comments: 9438

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About gardencoach

Susan Handjian is a garden educator in the San Francisco Bay Area. She was a contributing editor of Plants and Landscapes for Summer-Dry Climates.