Calling a spade a spade

Publication Date: Friday Jul 30, 1999

Calling a spade a spade

Experts offer tips on getting the right gardening tools

by Jon Wiener

A glance at the gardening tools section in any hardware or garden supply store can dazzle a first-time shopper. Dozens of varieties of shovels and trowels seem indistinguishable. And, specialty tools for every imaginable purpose--from hedge shears to grape shears--can disorient someone who is looking for a simple pair of cutting shears.

The good news is that any gardener, particularly a novice, needs just five tools, according to Kevin Stevens, the manager of Common Ground Organic Garden Supply in Palo Alto. You will need a digging spade, a digging fork, a soil or bow rake (a metal rake with a row of tines), a trowel and cutting shears. Stevens estimates that these five items will cost about $200 total at his store.

Midsummer is also a good time for weed control, as well as planting vegetables from the lettuce family, said Nikki Karimzad, assistant manager at Roger Reynolds Nursery in Menlo Park. For these tasks, she recommends a pointed shovel--good for breaking soil--and a metal rake. Karimzad herself uses Flexrake's floral rake, which has a full-size bendable head.

Although it is not an essential tool, Karimzad uses a "hula hoe" for weeding. It doesn't involve grass skirts, but the simple, wood-handled tool with a sharp metal ring on the end helps gardeners cut weeds at the soil level when they are too plentiful to uproot individually.

Stevens uses the versatile spade more than any other tool. He says that when choosing a spade, it is important to consider its size in relation to your height. Common Ground sells spades in two different sizes. On average, Stevens says, the smaller size is good for people up to about 5 feet 10 inches. When trying to find what spade is right for you, make sure to ask a tool expert in the store if you have any doubt.

Karimzad says the biggest indicator of a high-quality spade, shovel or rake is how deep the wooden handle goes into the metal blade. The deeper the handle goes, the sturdier the tool. She recommends looking for something deeper than 3 inches.

Inexperienced tool buyers will face their greatest challenge when selecting a trowel. According to Karmizad, the tool is available in a wider price range and greater variety of models than any other garden tool. Karimzad prefers Corona, which Roger Reynolds has for $8.79. Although it is expensive for a trowel, Karimzad says it will never break, unlike cheaper trowels.

"When I see a customer purchasing a 99-cent trowel," she said, "I tell them, 'The first time you use this, plan on it breaking.'"

It is this lack of durability of cheaper tools that attracts Karimzad to the more expensive Felco pruning shears. This top-of-the-line small hand-pruner is easy to sharpen and the blades can be replaced. Other shears do not have the same accessories as Felco, which often means that the only way to deal with broken shears is to buy a new pair.

Stevens also uses and recommends Felco shears, and offers a general rule of thumb for determining the life of the product. Figure out the purpose for using the tool. "Are you going to be working with something wet? Doing a lot of heavy work? Or just using them for something light?" He notes that plastic handles molded around aluminum always break.

Stevens' favorite tool, beyond the five essential ones, is a floral shovel, which features a smaller head and a D-handle (referring to the shape of a piece of metal on the end). He uses it for jobs where his spade becomes unwieldy, such as mixing or moving compost.

Stevens discovered his interest in gardening tools when he happened across his grandfather's old tool set, which included a spade and hedge shears that are still usable.

He also places a premium on long-lasting, high-end tools. Stevens swears by British-made tools for his store. He will go so far as to say that British tool companies Spear and Jackson, Record (formerly Bulldog) and Sheffield's Pride make the only tools worth considering. The primary difference between British- and U.S.-manufactured tools is that the British tools are carbon-forged, while most American tools are stamped out of a single piece of sheet metal. This design difference makes British tools far more durable than their American counterparts.

Like his grandfather's spade and shears, these tools are potential heirlooms, said Stevens. Common Ground carries tools from both Spear and Jackson and Record.

While these products can cost three or four times as much as average low-end tools, both Karimzad and Stevens agree that the initial investment saves money in the long run.

"If you pay full price and you care for them, you'll buy them once," said Stevens. "If you pay half price somewhere else, you'll end up having to buy them every five to 10 years."

Of course, only proper tool care can guarantee the longevity of a gardener's tool. You should sand wooden handles and coat them with linseed oil, said Stevens. Carbon steel blades should be protected to keep them from rusting. Keep them clean, sharp and out of the weather, said Karimzad, who also recommends hosing off shears and rubbing them with alcohol in between outings or even between cuts.

If you are cutting a plant that has a problem (such as fungus or a disease), sterilize the shears before each cut, she said. Otherwise, you risk spreading the disease both to other plants and to other parts of the same plant.

Stevens offered one caveat for the first-time buyer: Avoid gimmicky tools, he said, listing dandelion weeders as an example. A lot of them break, and some are so specialized that they can only do one thing.

Both experts say personal preference governs most tool purchases. The ultimate test of a gardening tool is how it feels. If it doesn't feel right in your hand, go for something else, said Stevens.

Once you've mastered the landscape of your local gardening store, it will be time to turn to the one in your back yard. 

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