The Charleston Gardener - Tools of the trade
By Louisa Cameron
It’s the middle of August as I write this article, and it’s almost too hot to garden. I say “almost” because I am still plucking away at the weeds, clipping fuzzy summer growth on boxwoods, privets, hollies, loropetalum bushes and rampant vines, and swatting mosquitos. Picking up the crape myrtle debris is almost a job in itself. The trees are not only shedding bark, berries, and faded blossoms, they are dropping leaves and small branches after every rainstorm.
It’s a ritual to get ready for yard work. Sunscreen, light cotton trousers, a long sleeve cotton or linen shirt (frequently an old one of my husband’s), cotton socks, sturdy shoes, light gloves, a big hat and bug spray are necessities. My spray of choice is organic, but Deep Woods Off is sometimes necessary. At Ace Hardware, I was told that the Off thermal handheld devices work well and are best-sellers. I often take a small ice pack wrapped in a bandana and tie it around my neck with the ice pack in the back. A pitcher of iced tea or water and one or two insulated tall cups help with hydration and cooling and, if you have an available electrical outlet, a small sturdy fan will help keep bugs away as you play in the dirt.
Finally, I gather up the tools I think I will need on a given day in a five-gallon bucket along with a couple of kneeling pads. Then I grab another empty bucket for weeds and sometimes another for clippings and leaves that will go in the compost heap. In the summer, one-half to a full bucket of weeds is expected during most gardening sessions. I love to open the tall yard trash recycling paper bags required by the city because I love the smell of the paper and I put the bag over my head to open it fully, inhaling its sweet natural fragrance.
Except for a flame thrower, I have tried every spray combination and every tool I could find to fight weeds. Our bumpy old brick patio with dirt between the pavers is a haven for the worst of the worst invaders and I am now using commercial grade vinegar (six times stronger than kitchen grade) with a little salt and a few drops of dish detergent as a sticker instead of Roundup. I do not use any type of vinegar in the flower beds. Either recycled spray bottles or small pump sprayers work well. Just be sure to label the bottle before using. It’s a sad tale, but I once mixed up the weedkiller and the foliar fertilizer before an internationally known gardener came by for a visit.
For most weeding, we have discovered that a plain serrated kitchen knife with a wooden handle is the very best tool in the bucket. I had to wrap orange sticky tape around the handles as so many knives got lost in the foliage. I buy them in a two-pack at the Dollar Tree. Small sharp hoes are my next line of defense. Have you seen a “hula” hoe? They sell them at Hyams. The hoe is stirrup-shaped and sharp on both sides of the bottom blade. As you push and pull it toggles back and forth for quick and efficient hoeing. Wolf-Garten (sold at Possum’s) makes a line of quick-change accessories and has the stirrup hoe without the toggle. I use the accessories with both long and short handles and have had them for over a decade with no breakage or problems changing the tool heads. The mini-fan rake is particularly useful with both handles. In North Carolina at our son’s cabin, I use this narrow rake to carefully beat around the plants by the house to check for snakes before working in any area with thick foliage. My giant farmer’s hoe stands ready nearby in case of a copperhead or rattler. I have had more than my share of encounters with poisonous snakes and many with the helpful black racers and garter snakes.
I try not to use chemicals, but I have found that pre-emergents are effective on patios and open mulched areas. The granules are easy to scatter and work for several months. I use them on the gravel driveway and on the pine bark mulch around my large pots of tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, and eggplants. Preen is one brand. Possum’s is a good place to go for advice.
A dear friend recently gave me a bright red scooter. It has four wheels, an adjustable swivel tractor seat, a handle for pulling and pushing, and a nifty holder at the back for a five-gallon or more container. Under the seat is a tray for hand tools. Not only does the scooter always provide a comfortable place to sit while weeding, pruning, or resting, the handle locks can be used like a cane to push up from the seat.
When we moved to this house, my mother gave me a shovel she called a “trouble shooter.” This long-bladed shovel was my favorite digger for decades, until I recently ordered a “root slayer” from Gardener’s Supply Company. This is also a long and narrow shovel, but it has large, jagged teeth on each side of the blade and is super for working flower beds filled with roots. It is worth every penny of the $75 price tag. Of course, we also use round and square blade shovels for planting shrubs and trees and for shifting soil, mulch, and amendments. I use a handsome old pitchfork inherited from my mother for turning the compost and distributing pine straw.
I like trowels with both narrow and wide blades. I also purchased a root slayer trowel with serrated sides that is all no-nonsense
when it comes to planting two-to-four-inch annuals and perennials from the garden center or nursery.
A soil scoop (or a heavy ice scoop) is efficient at getting product out of large bags and I leave a plastic one in the bag of potting soil. We don’t have to use a post-hole digger often, but there’s one in the shed. Our son found a general-purpose trench shovel lying on the side of the highway and we find it useful for planting in tight spaces. I don’t know what it’s called, but I have an eight-inch long (including handle) swirled stainless steel blade trowel with a small, rounded point that I frequently use for transplanting and for propagating, as it allows control of the size of the small hole being made in the pot. I have not found it particularly useful in the flower beds. I do not plant many bulbs, so I do not have an augur or other device for making lots of holes in short order. Most of my bulbs go in pots and I cover them with wire because of the squirrels until they have put out several leaves. There is an overwhelming variety of specialty tools to be found online, such as sets for propagating, for tending succulents, and for houseplants, but I mainly just use the basics or adapt a kitchen tool. I keep hand tools in inexpensive or recycled containers in several locations and have most of them stored in the shed grouped by type. Goodwill can be a source of “specialty” tools, such as those wonderful serrated knives and the metal spatula I keep for harvesting and moving moss.
We have a large bucket of hand pruners, light Japanese clippers, scissors and other snips. Felco is my brand of choice for shrubs, but it is easy to find good clippers at a reasonable price that can be sharpened and will last for years. Our son just sent me a thumb pruner that has a very sharp fingernail-shaped blade. It’s a rubber sleeve that fits over the thumb and is great for picking vegetables and for deadheading. I keep a round diamond file in with the clippers and often add it to the five-gallon work bucket. A small Stihl tool sharpener works beautifully on the hand pruners and other blades. To sharpen certain large tools such as loppers we use a vise and a grinder. Start at 90 degrees, then shift the blade to 45 degrees, and finally to half of that. Next to the bucket of pruners is a box with a sandpaper block, a couple of types of oil, a can of WD Forty, a variety of files, spare clipper parts and some rags. Hanging on the wall above the shelves are two pole pruners.
We do not own a chainsaw anymore, but our son handed me a battery-powered miniature chainsaw the size of an electric drill when I was using a tree saw at his place in North Carolina. It was a wonder. Made by Stihl, it is apparently a red-hot item. I am still using the tree saw in our Charleston garden because anything requiring chain saws is for the professionals. I also use heavy loppers for the bamboo and for small diameter woody pruning; the turkey fig trees need to be cut back annually. Short-handled loppers I use for thinning and for close work in shrubs, as they are lighter and more manageable for me. Two sizes of wire cutters hang near a container with various tools such as a hammer, screwdrivers, pliers, nail removers, etc.
My favorite hedge and shrub pruners are also made by Stihl and can be purchased locally at Corky’s on Camp Road. These are light and sharp long clippers and cut precisely, but my husband uses a gas-powered Stihl hedge clipper for the fig vine that covers our approximately 100-foot-long northern garden wall. He also uses it to reach high vine growth and for hardy shrubs. It is too heavy for me to use. It also tends to shred the foliage and stems, so I prefer the Stihl hand shears for less hardy plants such as the loropetalum bushes.
More than15 years ago, I ordered a strange-looking contraption called the garden pruner. Mine is electric and has a rotary blade that spins in a metal cage. While it spins, the clippings are collected in an oval plastic bin that easily detaches and reattaches. It’s light, fun to use and great for clipping the fig vine covering our brick staircases. I have not had to replace anything, and it still works beautifully. It’s shown being used by men on ladders dealing with great English yew hedges in some advertisements and is now available on Amazon.
Finally, I put a whisk broom in my bucket on most gardening days. This little broom works better than anything else I have tried on the moss patio that lies in the shade of four messy crape myrtles. I brush off brick steps and ledges, clean pots, whisk tables and garden furniture, and neaten edges with it, too. There are at least four watering cans placed around the garden near dry spots the watering system doesn’t cover or where it’s a lot of trouble to drag out one of three long hoses. A friend suggested hiding bottles of water and I now have plastic milk bottles with holes punched in the cap for sprinkling. Mosquitoes cannot breed in them, as they quickly do in the rainwater I catch in several five gallon buckets and forget to empty or cover right after the rain. Speaking of recycling, we use pieces of old rubber garden hose to protect electrical wire in places where we often dig around the lighting system, or to slip over wire used to pull back a leaning small tree. Occasionally, I have re-purposed drawers from a trash pile to use as raised planting beds for lettuce, arugula, cilantro and herbs. I either remove the bottom or drill holes for drainage. Plastic produce containers make excellent small greenhouses for seeds. Remember to use an ice pick to punch holes in the bottom.
Wheelbarrows are a must. Years and years ago we bought a Muller’s Smart Cart from a local vendor and have never even tried another cart. It is light, turns on a dime, and has big bicycle wheels. We have had to get new tires only once and I just took the cart to The Bicycle Shop. Muller carts come in several body types.
The tools described above are just a few examples of what we use in our downtown garden. We have a lawnmower, power and manual edgers, and gas and electric leaf blowers, but due to age and achy joints, we have recently hired a couple of young men to take care of mowing, edging and blowing. We do not need weed eaters. I still enjoy getting out my small electric blower, though. It has a vacuum bag attachment that tends to spurt dust from the bag all over the user, so it’s rarely used.
I hope this article has been helpful. Please write to the Mercury if you have any special tools that make gardening easier for you, too.
Louisa Huger Pringle Cameron is a native Charlestonian married to Price Cameron, a retired plastic surgeon. She is the author of three books on the gardens of Charleston, enjoys duplicate bridge and is a proud grandmother of three.