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Gardening in the Sierra Foothills with Carolyn Singer

The seasoned gardener

published in The Union in Grass Valley CA

TOOLS OF THE TRADE Essential garden tools make perfect gifts

by Carolyn Singer
December 18th, 2010

ratchet prunersRecently I introduced a friend to a tool that would make his storm damage cleanup much easier. He was quickly convinced to invest in his own, and I loved the expression on his face when he made the first cut with my ratchet pruners. With dormant pruning season from now through February at most elevations, this is a tool anyone pruning trees will value.

While most gardeners own loppers, with the long handles and short blade, few are aware of ratchet loppers. A few years ago, I discovered these loppers make pruning much more enjoyable. I have a pair (made by Fiskars) with extra long handles, and I keep the sharpening file in my back pocket.

ratchet loppers kept sharp!A good garden fork is also a necessity. Many gardeners would not think of moving bulbs when the foliage begin to emerge, but with the right tool and weather conditions, a clump of bulbs is easily lifted and divided. With a garden fork (not a pitchfork), the entire clump may be lifted without damage to the roots. This essential tool is carried by local nurseries and hardware stores.

In my garden, some of the bulbs are in too much shade, naturalizing near trees and shrubs that exclude light. Others are small clumps that will grow faster and bloom sooner if they are lifted and replanted with soft rock phosphate available to the roots. Each year I relocate dozens of bulbs to a sunnier location or to friends' gardens. Working quickly so the roots do not dry out, replant the bulbs in their new location. Sometimes the new hole may be dug with the fork also. The fork also allows the gardener to dig into moist soil with less damage to the soil texture. Shovels are more likely to cause compaction, especially in clay soil.

Whether you divide the bulbs or replant without separating, use plenty of phosphorus below the bulbs. Soft rock phosphate is an excellent source of phosphorus, and will not burn the roots. A little oyster shell should be added at the same time.

Using a garden fork is a key to success with any transplanting. This garden tool allows you to lift a plant without cutting into its roots. To dig up a clump of daffodils, insert the fork a few inches from the foliage and use the tines as a lever to lift the root ball. Usually one or two insertions of the fork will accomplish the task.

Moving a larger plant such as an ornamental shrub may also be accomplished with the garden fork. If a plant is particularly deep-rooted, a good shovel may be needed to finish the task but always start with the fork to minimize damage to the root system. The first insertion of the fork should be eighteen to twenty-four inches from the center of the crown. Determine how extensive and widespread the root system is before digging too closely (and losing roots in the process).

Hori HoriThere is another tool I consider necessary. The "Hori Hori Weeder-Root Cutter" (photo right) is described in the Peaceful Valley Farm & Garden Supply catalog as a weeding tool for tough soil. However, it is much more than that. In my rock garden it is the perfect tool for lifting or planting small bulbs and alpine plants. I have not used trowel since I discovering this marvelous tool!

The weight of the Hori Hori makes it a good tool for breaking up root balls when plants are removed from nursery containers. Smack the flat of the blade against the root ball several times to loosen the roots before planting. The serrated edges of the tool may be used to score roots that are too tight.

This versatile tool is also perfect for dividing mature perennials and ornamental grasses. Cut a mature clump into two sections with the tool, then try to pull apart smaller divisions by hand so that roots are not cut again. Dividing plants is a garden task that should be finished by the end of March when active growth will increase the chance of shock. I haven't used a trowel in years since I discovered the Hori Hori.

Glazer 4-tine cultivatorThis year I discovered another tool that I cannot believe I have done without all these years: a Glazer four-tine cultivator (photo left) from Peaceful Valley Farm & Garden Supply in my own hometown of Grass Valley CA. I was attracted to the description: "used to break up soil clumps to produce a fine bed". Just what I needed! In my vegetable garden I have not used a rototiller for decades. Even with all the compost and cover cropping I have done, some beds occasionally need gentle cultivation for seeds or small seedlings. I used to use a fork, but even that tool is a bit heavy-handed for my permanent beds. This cultivator is perfect!

Garden with tools that make tasks easier. I think that I could almost reduce my tool supply to these four essential tools plus a shovel. And a sharpening file and wheelbarrow, of course.

©2009 by Carolyn Singer. All rights reserved.

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