Gifting a gardener? Try hoe, hoe, hoe
December 6, 2006
If you are thinking of getting a gift for the gardener in your life, tread carefully.
Most tools are not casual implements to the serious gardener. They are loyal workmates, and sometimes for life. I am fussy about these companions. I want things that are well made, well balanced and ready for hard work. Gardening clothing should be durable, protective and look good. (Sorry, dear brother, but the socks embroidered with watering cans you gave me will never see the outside of my drawer or the inside of my wellies.) Woolly gloves aren’t my thing. Give me manly rawhide.
Just as the hobby woodworker is picky about chisels and should let you know what present to get, I have to believe that the dedicated gardener would want to do the same. Both parties may sacrifice that moment of joyful surprise, but the recipient gains a tool that he or she will want and use – and avoids that awkward moment when the wrapping falls away and delight must be quickly feigned. That’s my view, though it’s not universally held.
James Adams, the horticulturist at the British Embassy garden, is more canny – and furtive. He observes what his gardening friends are doing, quizzes them about current interests and then divines what they might need. “One of my sisters became interested in roses, so I got her the West County garden gloves,” he said. The gloves are made of high-tech synthetic materials, including a thornproof palm. (www.westcountygardener.com)
I rely on many different tools for various garden tasks (certainly the wheelbarrow and the trowel are both indispensable), but if you were to force me to pick three that might aid in your search, here’s the list.
High-Quality Hand Pruners
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Pruners fall into two basic types (other than cheap and good): those with bypass blades like scissors, and those that mash together, called anvil types. Bypass pruners give clean cuts that aid healing of woody stems and are preferred by most gardeners. The widely favored brand is Felco, which offers a line of sturdy, comfortable pruners that range in price from roughly $24 to $53. They are made in Switzerland of high-quality carbon steel and have a distinctive red covering to the handles. The blade keeps its edge but can be easily sharpened or, eventually, replaced.
The classic model is called No. 2, but the line includes the No. 7, with a rotating handle for improved ergonomics, and the No. 10, the same but for lefties.
The holster is sold separately, but it is as vital a part of this as the pruners themselves. Pruners should be by your side at all times. Plants are in constant need of grooming, and seeing to them is deeply satisfying.
Some gardeners don’t like Felcos. Alternative, ratchet-cut pruners can amplify the force needed and are useful for people with weak hands or large jobs. Audrey Faden, a gardening friend, says she fell out with Felcos because the locking mechanism is awkward. She moved on to Italian-made bypass pruners with a clasp. Another brand, called Bahco, is touted as being highly ergonomic. I’m with Adams, though, when he says that Felcos are the best. “The perfect price, the perfect gift,” he said. “Everybody loves them.”
Some people like to move dirt with shovels, others with spades, but in heavy clay soil, the garden fork is the excavating tool of choice. The tines penetrate the soil with ease and go deep into the subsoil. The prongs are useful too in removing soil that is stony – the chances of the tines hitting a stone (or daffodil bulb) are less than with a shovel. It is also easier on the roots of trees and shrubs being moved and essential for harvesting root vegetables without slicing them. And while it is not as efficient as a pitchfork, it can be used as one to move compost, mulch and leaf mold.
There are two basic types: the larger digging fork, whose head is often eight inches wide and 11 1/2 inches deep, and the border fork, (9 by 5 1/2 inches) whose smaller size can be used for more surgical digging in and around existing shrubs and perennials. It is also a better fit for smaller gardeners. The fountainhead of the garden fork is Sheffield, England, where good garden tools and steelmaking are rooted in tradition. Lee Valley Tools (www.leevalley.com) sells carbon steel forks made in England, both the larger garden fork for $46.50 and the border fork for $44.50. I have their border fork and, for many years, a garden fork purchased from Smith & Hawken, although that company has discontinued the tool and is planning to launch a new line of digging tools in the spring, said a spokeswoman. Lee Valley also is importing stainless-steel tools crafted in China. They may be as durable, and they certainly look the picture, but I have not tried them.
Hoes are used for two fundamental functions: moving dirt around – hilling – as plants may need additional soil, and for weeding. This has given rise to two basic forms: The hilling hoe head is the traditional heavy plate on the end of a stick; the weeding versions are designed so the blade angle to the soil is much more acute.
Weeding hoes take different forms. I like the Wolf-Garten tools from Germany because they are sturdy and the heads are interchangeable. I use a straight-edged hoe for regular weeding, the diamond-shaped hoe for close work, and the scuffle hoe for large areas of the vegetable garden where baby weeds are emerging en masse. The scuffle hoe is pushed and pulled and soon dislodges the weeds. It’s as quick as any herbicide spray but a lot better on the environment. Available from Gempler’s (www.gemplers.com), the 59-inch handle costs $9.95 and the basic weeding hoe attachment, called the draw hoe, is listed for $12.95.
Other gardeners have different types of landscapes and other preferences. I seem to have missed the boat on a tool called a soil or grub knife. It is a handheld knife (mean-looking and surely a samurai’s best friend) with one side serrated for slicing through roots. This is good for a number of essential chores, “weeding, planting, dividing,” said Holly Shimizu, executive director of the U.S. Botanic Garden. “It’s a tool you would have for a lifetime,” she said. Adams also commends it.
Christine Flanagan, public programs manager at the U.S. Botanic Garden, said she would like to have a pole pruner for her wooded landscape. “I love to prune. I have a lot of oaks that have gypsy moth damage and with branches that are one to two inches” in diameter, she said. “I would also like a never-ending supply of gloves,” she said. “I prefer leather.”
With my essential gear accounted for, what more could I want from Santa? Nothing really, except perhaps a Guarddog belt watch for hands-free time-telling in the garden ($49.95 at Gempler’s). If anyone should ask.