Want to Get Your Favorite Gardener a Truly Useful Gift?

Written by Desmond

December 16, 2021

I may be a home gardener, not an arborist or full-time landscaper, but I still want tools with the professional-quality performance that professionals demand.

Like a chef impatient with a dull knife, I want them to cut cleanly into whatever medium I am working in, whether branch or soil. And I’d just as soon skip any implements with clunky grips or unnecessary weight.

The tools that follow are the ones worth waiting for — and you may have to wait for some of them, if supply-chain snarls or shipping delays so conspire.

But whether you’re shopping for gifts or your own personal use, there is no real worry. Even the earliest spring tasks are a ways off.

Cleanup is where every growing season begins and ends, so the first gear out of the barn each spring — and the last stashed in fall — is dedicated to that purpose.

With jobs that yield mountains of plant debris, including pruning, a basic tarp makes the most efficient conveyor, easily dragged to the compost heap or brush pile. But most days of the growing season, I’m happiest with my tip bag beside me. As it goes with Linus and his blanket, it is always within reach.

Tip bags come in many forms, from wide-mouth versions shaped like big, low tubs to those with a somewhat narrower, upright cylindrical shape, resembling giant pop-top beer cans. The ones from Bosmere are my preference for holding the proceeds of sessions spent weeding, deadheading or cleaning up after smaller cutbacks. (The XL Hard Bottom PopUp Bag from Bosmere is about $48.)

The tip bag’s partner is a rake, to do the gathering. Specifically, a flexible rake, or spring rake, for most day-to-day chores. For heavier jobs, like spreading and leveling soil or mulch, or redirecting driveway gravel dispersed by the snowplow back into place, I’d grab a bow rake, with its head of stiff, short tines.

But a spring rake is the one that lifts leaves off the lawn or, even more strategically, out of beds full of plants. A proper, flexible rake can manage that without mishap, grabbing without gouging the precious growth beneath the litter.

Let’s mostly skip my lament about why quality bamboo rakes are apparently no longer available, replaced by ones with ill-shaped tines fastened together in a manner that defines planned obsolescence. Likewise, we can skip the extended version of my rant about rakes with molded-plastic heads, which are no substitute for the original implement.

There is hope, though. I was relieved some years ago to discover the Yard Butler LT-20 ($39 at Ace Hardware), with 20 steel tines arranged in a fan that is 18 inches wide at the broadest part. It can handle tougher jobs, but what I most appreciate is how springy those teeth are, for getting in among shrubs and perennials and lifting out unwanted materials without harming the plants.

My well-worn right hand was grateful when I realized that larger, heavier conventional pruning shears weren’t required for most everyday cuts. For deadheading, harvesting fruit and vegetables, and pruning vines like clematis and other woody shoots that haven’t hardened yet, smaller needle-nose snips, often called fruit pruners, are strong enough.

Yes, traditional bypass pruners can tackle thicker wood, but my Felco 2’s weigh eight or nine ounces, while the snips from ARS Corporation, a Japanese company that has specialized in agricultural and horticultural cutting tools since 1876, weigh about four. These slim-handled fruit pruners are available with carbon steel blades (HP-300L, about $18 on Amazon) or stainless ones. Felco makes a slightly longer fruit snip; a good third choice is the one from Vesco.

Why overpower any task, really? There are heavier-duty (and heavier) loppers; one such pair hanging in the barn rarely gets called into duty anymore. The scaled-down ARS vineyard loppers (LPB-20S, about $79 on Amazon) are 19 inches and just 1.8 pounds, easy to maneuver and plenty tough for most tasks.

I learned about the ARS brand many years ago at a trade show, from an orchardist who was stocking up on various extended-reach pruners for his crew. For me, a six-foot long-reach aluminum model (the LA-180LR18 Heavy Duty Long Reach Pruner, about $160 on Amazon) has meant less time on a ladder, but caveat emptor: You may find that a lightweight four- or six-footer is a gateway to longer, more robust implements, including those with saw blades on the working end.

From the first vegetable seedlings transplanted each spring to the garlic cloves tucked in a couple of weeks before a fall freeze, we dig a lot of little holes every season.

A sharp, well-shaped trowel and a Japanese digging knife, or hori-hori, are essentials. The best performance in each comes from a stainless steel head of a quality that holds a sharp edge, does not rust and is attached to a comfortable wood grip. (The Flower Bed Trowel by Sneeboer is $59 at Garden Tool Company; the 12-inch Hori Hori Garden Knife from Nisaku is about $38.)

The hand-forged stainless trowels produced by the longtime Dutch toolmakers Sneeboer & Zn make most other trowels look like crude, blunt instruments. I use Sneeboer’s flower-bed model, but the collection includes broader and narrower heads from about two inches across to four, some half-round in profile and others slightly more flattened — there’s one to suit any hand-digging purpose.

A solid, gleaming and widely available hori-hori choice is made by Nisaku, leather sheath and all.

Where beds meet lawn or lawn meets path, a turf war always ensues, with grass inclined to creep into the other territory and blur the lines. A half-moon step edger, or edging knife, is the traditional answer, and nothing makes the garden look sharper than a clean edge followed by some fresh mulch.

Just as it sounds, you step on a tiny metal shelf on the top of the tool’s half-moon-shaped head, inserting it into the soil and rocking slightly. Then you lift, reinsert the tool one blade-width farther along, and repeat. Continue down the desired line, and then double back to remove the loosened, unwanted turf bits (another job for that tip bag).

A well-built edger has a T-grip that reaches about waist height. The head should not be too deep or have a point; we are not digging trenches here, merely sharpening lines. Sneeboer’s edging tools are well proportioned, with comfortable wood handles and the extra benefit of being stainless, for long service. (The Garden Edging Knife with Steps by Sneeboer is $129 at Garden Tool Company.)

When it comes time to water, you don’t want to be lugging around unneeded baggage. The polyurethane hoses (about $45 to $210) from Water Right, an Oregon-based family business that manufactures its products there, are ultralight and drinking-water safe, free of lead, BPA and phthalates. They’re also beautiful (the subtle olive color is my favorite).

Water Right makes hoses in three diameters, each corresponding to a maximum gallons-per-minute flow rate, and in lengths from 25 to 100 feet. A 50-foot hose in the midrange diameter weighs just five pounds.

Knowing, rather than guessing, when your garden needs watering is facilitated by a simple rain gauge that can confirm if that downpour yesterday amounted to anything. Friends and family of mine have found their stockings stuffed over the years with the clear acrylic one from Johnny’s Selected Seeds (the Shock-Proof Rain Gauge, about $8), which can measure up to five and a half inches accurately to the nearest 10th of an inch.

Weather-obsessed? (Yes, I’m guilty.) A simple analog rain gauge isn’t winter-proof, and it won’t reveal each 100th of an inch as the rain is falling; it also won’t record humidity, wind speed or other weather metrics. That’s a job for a digital weather station — with its addictive indoor console displaying all the stats in real time, plus keeping cumulative records — like my Davis Vantage Vue.

Some recent mornings, there has been a bit of frost on the ground, and the gardening shovels have now been retired for the season, in favor of the snow-removal version.

How they’re retired matters. Tools should be hung up, not left touching the floor — even if it’s paved — or leaning against a wall, said Blake Schreck, who owns Garden Tool Company, in Kerrville, Texas, with his wife, Anne Schreck. Moisture is the enemy, and such contact points give its destructive tendencies an opening.

Before your implements go into hibernation — and after every use, if you adhere to best practices, Mr. Schreck said — remove any soil with a stiff brush, then rinse and dry the tool. He recommends oiling wood handles and metal parts, especially if they are not stainless steel. Use boiled linseed oil, not motor oil, letting it soak in for 15 minutes and then wiping off any excess. If the wood grain has raised uncomfortably on a handle, sand it with 80-grit sandpaper and then finish with 120-150 grit before oiling.

As for pruning tools, Mr. Schreck said, following every use you should “treat them like the silverware after supper.” With a nail brush or scrub pad, clean the blades at the sink, using soap and water, and let them dry well. If they have sap residue, remove it with mineral spirits.

Once the tools are clean and dry, oil the pivot point, he said, with a drop of 3-in-One oil. No, not spray lubricant; it’s too lightweight and short-acting.

These tools deserve every drop of special effort. They’ll repay it with years of solid service.

Margaret Roach is the creator of the website and podcast A Way to Garden, and a book of the same name.

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