Saturday, June 30, 2012

The Tools’ Tales

Gardening is a solitary business, and that’s one of its charms. For me, a day alone in the yard, digging and weeding, usually cures whatever’s been ailing me. But I’m not really alone out there. Oh no—some old friends are always with me. Lots of gardeners can tell tales about their favorite trowels and pruning saws. Here are some of mine, not all of which started their lives as gardening tools.

1) The broken Sheffield Bowie knife
This relic is one of my most versatile gardening tools, and also one of my oldest possessions. It slashes open bags of manure, cuts twine, slits open seed packets, derails dandelions, and does the work of about a hundred snootier tools. And because it’s dinged up already, I don’t worry about abusing it, like calling on it to sharpen a stake when I’m too lazy to go find the “good” knife. The way it came into my life had an air of divine providence: When I was about ten, I found it while I was out horseback riding one day. It was half-buried on a trail deep in the woods. At that age, I was obsessed with cowboys and outlaws, and finding this knife—dirty, pitted, and with a smashed handle that looked like a horse had trampled it—well, I thought it was the coolest find ever. I still do.

2) The two hand hoes
These two beauties were already antiques when I bought them at an estate sale about 30 years ago. The man who sold them to me said they’d been outlawed on commercial farms because you have to stoop to use them, making them hard on the backs of farmworkers. But these hoes, especially the larger one, are by far my most-used tools. I hack out hard, compacted soil with them, dig furrows, loosen weeds, and smooth out mulch with the these babies. One of them is at my side at all times as I work in the garden. I worry about the handles—the wood is deeply grooved from wear, more so every year. The fittings are good and tight, but the handles keep narrowing, like old bones. It’s hard to say how many decades of work they put in before I met them; I think of them as old draft horses who used to labor in front of the plow and the haywagon and now are called on only for a little light duty, like pulling a kid’s cart around the farm on the occasional Sunday. The rest of the time, they doze happily in the tool basket. They’re beautifully built, and I’d be hard pressed to find anything like them again.

3) The $1 paint bucket
This yellow one is the latest in a dynasty of cheap paint buckets that have served as weed bins, compost movers, fish emulsion mixing bowls, and precarious stepstools. I prefer paint buckets over fancier trugs and pails because they’re sturdy and lightweight, their handles don’t pinch, and they’re quieter than metal pails, which is handy when I’m out working early in the morning. I’ve never bought a new paint bucket; I always find them at garage sales for about a buck. I’ve only owned three or four of these in my life; each one lasts about 10 years. Eventually, they start to photodegrade and break apart, and the chunks are as sharp as shards of china. When one finally, well, kicks the bucket, I get a little choked up as I (carefully) carry the pieces out to the trash can. Then I hit another garage sale.

4) The fancy-schmancy spading fork
Okay, this one is a snooty tool, and I paid a lot of money for it. But I paid that money about 20 years ago, and this English beauty has never, ever let me down. Before I got this, I ran through a string of shoddy spading forks. Digging out a new bed was an exercise in frustration; I still have a muscle memory of straightening out bent tines by setting the points on a brick and stepping on them, one at a time. Finally I scraped together $100 and marched over to Smith & Hawken (now defunct), a very dangerous store for gardeners, and walked out of there with this fork and, I’m sure, a half-dozen pretty things I didn’t need. I’ve used this fork so much that the brand name has completely worn off the wooden handle, so I don’t know what kind it is. But the metallic “Made in England” decal still blazes like new, and its tines are as straight as the day it was made. This one never gets left out in the rain, not even for a minute.

5) The no-name aluminum hand tools
I don’t remember when or where I got these, but it was at least 20 years ago, and I’m sure I didn’t pay more than about $10 for the set. But I’ve never wanted another trowel—this one fits me perfectly, is lightweight and tough, and never rusts, bends, or splinters. And the fork is indispensable; I’ve dug out acres of burdock and Bermuda grass with that thing. The thin little transplanter, great for putting in two-inch seedlings, is just icing on the cake.

6) The homemade soil sieve
This one isn’t old—I built it a few months ago—but it’s a replica of two old sieves I used in my first garden back in the ’80s. Those earlier sieves sort of came with the place—I found them in an abandoned shed—and, as weatherbeaten and creaky as they were, they still worked like a dream. Nothing else separates rocks from dirt quite as well: You place the sieve on top of a wheelbarrow, put a few shovelfuls of dirt in it, and shake it. The rocks stay in the sieve and the beautifully sifted soil goes in the barrow, where you can mix it with manure or whatever before putting it back in the hole. These sieves are hard to find in stores; I saw one about a year ago, but couldn’t find one again when I needed it, so I made one out of pine and ½-inch wire mesh. The secret reason why I love these sieves so much: They make me feel like an archaeologist.

7) The perfect pruning shears
I don’t have a picture of these . . . because they don’t exist. I use pruning shears constantly—aside from the hand hoes, they’re my most-used garden tool—but I’ve never found a really good pair. Oh, I’ve had pruners that lasted for years, but they’ve always been a grumbling compromise: They don’t cut cleanly, they don’t fit my hand, or they’re awkward and slippery and I keep dropping them on my foot. Right now I have a high-tech pair of Fiskars that looked like a million bucks hanging on the wall in the store. They have a sweet spot, which sounds good in theory but drives me nuts: If you don’t cut in just the right spot on the blade, they just mash whatever you’re trying to cut, and then you’ve got a fibery mess that you have to saw at two or three times. Their big selling point is an ergonomic rotating handle thingy that, via some law of physics, gives you added leverage. The result is that, if you manage to find the sweet spot, they cut through heavy branches very easily. Too easily—I live in constant fear of lopping off a finger with those things.

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