In the Garden: Choose Your Weapon

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Some of the author’s gardening arsenal. L to R: mini-mattock, shovel with CobraHead in front, spade with Hori-Hori knife in front, ensilage fork. Note abundance of red duct tape.

What’s the difference between a spade and a shovel? We’ll discover the answer to this not-so burning question; plus, you’ll learn about some tools that have become favorites over my years of gardening.

According to some sources, a spade is actually a type of shovel. A spade has a nearly flat blade across the bottom and a straight edge. Notice that “spade”, “flat” and “straight” all have an “a” in them, so there’s your mnemonic. (And I need a device that helps me remember the spelling of mnemonic.) A true shovel has a rounded blade and a pointed edge.  And note the “o” in “shovel,” “rounded” and “pointed.”

More important than the nomenclature are the respective uses of the spade and shovel.  With its sharp, straight edge, the spade is good for cutting, as in edging a bed, peeling up turf, or whacking through roots.  Its relatively shallow, small blade is not so good for moving much soil. That’s where the shovel excels. Shovels more typically have long handles, and spades have short ones, although I happen to own all four possible combinations of handle length and blade shape.

A mattock comes in handy when digging in tough Piedmont clay. I own a cutter mattock, with a non-sharpened axe blade on one side of the handle, and an adze on the other. Using the adze, I can quickly bust up a lot of soil, especially when it’s become dry and brick-like.  The axe blade can then deal with any roots in my way. Once the soil and roots are broken up, I can easily use a shovel to clear out the loose dirt. I also own a mini-mattock, a type of planting hoe. About one-third the size of a true mattock but with the same configuration, it’s ideal for planting perennials when you’re down on your hands and knees.

For moving mulch in the garden, I’ve found an ensilage fork to be indispensable. Typically with ten tines that form a scoop about sixteen-inches square, you can move a decent amount of mulch with one stroke. One caution: if the mulch is really heavy and wet, don’t overload the fork, or you’ll risk straining your back. A pitchfork can also be used to move mulch, but it tends to drop between the tines if it’s dry. A cultivating fork, with its flat tines and short handle, is good for dropping a small dollop of mulch in close quarters. And a garden rake with its hard tines excels at quickly spreading a mound of mulch dumped from your wheelbarrow.

Something in the garden always seems to need pruning, so “Real Gardeners Always Wear Their Pruners” needs to be emblazoned on your T-shirt. Any time I wander out into the garden for a few minutes and neglect to hook my pruners to my belt I always regret it. The best pruners have bypass blades, rather than the anvil type, and the more expensive the pruner, the sooner you’ll lose it. I prefer ones with red or orange handles so I have a chance of spotting them when they’re lying on the ground, but some red duct tape will work if yours have green handles.

Hand pruners are good for twigs up to about finger-size, but beyond that you’ll need loppers. Depending on their size, loppers can handle limbs up to two or even three inches in diameter. It’s tempting to buy the biggest one you see, but remember that it might be difficult to wedge it into the space where you’re cutting.

For some pruning jobs, a saw is better. (I don’t own a chain saw, so I won’t be talking about those.) A bow saw can cut through some sizeable branches if you have the time and want to burn a few calories, but can be difficult to maneuver into tight spaces. In that situation, you’ll need a pruning saw, with a curved blade and teeth that cut on the pull stroke. Models with a longer blade cut more quickly; smaller models are sometimes foldable and can fit into your pocket or a holster.

And what gardener doesn’t have his/her favorite weeder? Or better said, a stockpile of weeders. Like the weeds themselves, new and better weeders are always turning up.  Someone on television or in a pop-up ad will inevitably be offering the new “WonderWeeder—instantly pops weeds out of the ground, no stooping or bending!” Right.  Probably 90 percent of your weeding could be taken care of with an old screwdriver or a discarded kitchen knife, but you just wouldn’t feel like a serious gardener, would you? One very versatile tool I’ve found is the Hori-Hori knife, sometimes sold as the Gardener’s Friend. The six-inch blade is serrated on one edge and can cut small roots. The blade is sturdy enough to get down into the soil and dig out taproots of dandelions. A totally different type of weeder could be considered a mini-hoe, with a small triangular blade on a fifteen-inch handle. (If you Google mini-hoe, or mini-cultivator, you’ll end up with power equipment, however.) Regardless of what it’s called, it’s good for scraping under small, shallow-rooted weeds like winter cress. With its curved blade, my Cobrahead also handily dispatches most weeds.

And now that spring is upon us, it’s a good time to go out to your shed, knock the dirt off your tools and give them a good cleaning, sharpening, etc. You’ll probably see favorites that you’ve had for decades; others, you might wonder, “why did I buy this?!”

But throw any tool away, and next week you’ll truly need it. 

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