Thumbnail Mel Bellar (1)By Mel Bellar

I have never met a serious gardener who wasn’t passionate about his or her tools.  I have seen gardeners, including yours truly, go into a panic, if confronted with even the possibility that their favorite tool might be missing. I know that this is hardly unique to gardeners and gardening tools. For instance, my wife feels the same way about certain kitchen implements; heck, she has been known to evangelize for a beloved gadget at dinner parties. Some people are passionate about gear in general. For these “gearheads” as I call them, the gear is almost as important as the associated activity or the desired result.

I am definitely not a gearhead. I love love love playing my cello, but it was not expensive; I haven’t changed the strings on it in several years; I barely know what my bow looks like and I have no idea what kind of rosin I use. I enjoy skiing but I don’t really care about what kind of boots or skis I use as long as they don’t hurt.  However, when it comes to my gardening tools I actually horde certain tools of certain brands in case they get discontinued. My tools aren’t fancy or expensive (again not very gearheady), but they are important. Tools tend to get lost and broken so I don’t buy the expensive English pedigree ones from the cool English online stores. I do, however, know which stores within a 50 mile radius might have the tools I want, so I often stop in when passing by to see if my coveted tools are on the shelf.  I often buy them all. They rarely have more than a couple of any given tool, so it is sort of like being rationed. I go from Dubben’s to Brookside to Wadler’s to the hardware store in Woodstock and beyond to make sure I don’t miss anything.

Even so, I still find it really amusing that folks can feel so strongly about which tool to use and how to use it to accomplish the very same task.  I know that I am a light-weight when it comes to my neurosis over tools.  I recently read a garden blog entry about “digging” and in the following comments there was a serious discussion over what a proper trowel is and how to use it properly.  I am not so proper.

As a gardener and professional landscaper I use all sorts of tools but even as a hobbyist and homeowner I have quite an array. However, when I get out into the garden to “tool around” or when the crew goes to a job site for a routine maintenance visit, we all start out with “a kit” which consists of:

Two spackle buckets for collecting the weeds and debris, a pair of scissors for cutting things back, a small pair of pruners for woodier stems and light pruning and the all-important “hackey-hoe”.

The hackey-hoe, named by my dear friend and once business partner, Nat Thomas, is a hand-held pick-ax-like tool but with a trowel-like implement on one side and a point (like a pick) on the other side.  There are many varieties out there, but they all look pretty much like photo #1.hacky-hoe - photo 1

They are also called many things in the trade:  mini-pick, mini-tiller, mini-planter, all purpose trowel, cultivator and hand mattock. But never hackey-hoe. The one in the photo is called the “Terra Planter”, made by Yard Butler. This tool used to be THE TOOL.  It would last a couple of years and was tough enough to pry out stones buried in our nice hard clay.  I used it for everything:  weeding, planting, digging out, dividing and breaking up root balls. Then about 5 years ago they changed and the metal was just not strong enough. I bought so many from so many different stores hoping to find some of the old stock, but to no avail.  Other varieties of these tools are just too heavy or too weak (like toys) or too short or have some annoying flaw. I now use another brand that I buy out at Dubben’s every time I go there.  It is called a Mintcraft 14″ Cultivator. (See Photo #2)dubbens-hackey-hoe Photo #2

I am one of very few who prefer anvil pruners, and like them small and strong so that I can keep them in my back pocket and get a lot of mileage out of them. I like the Gilmour ½” pruners; the ¾” version is just a little too big for my hands and can’t be deftly managed without having to get my other hand involved. A good pair of garden scissors are essential for cutting back perennials, small grasses and deadheading.  I know folk that use their fancy Felco pruners for these tasks, but to me it is very inefficient. I love the Fiskars garden scissors, but any sturdy scissors will do just fine.

There are a lot of products on the market for collecting debris, but I prefer plain-old spackle buckets. The 5-gallon size is about as big as you want, to carry soil, water or gravel. Anything bigger will be way too heavy for normal folk.  I don’t use much spackle so I end up having to buy them, and then I curse the fact that the plastic handles seem to break before the bucket gives out. Stay tuned for the miracle of the Pocket Hose.

Mel Bellar is the owner of Zone4 Landscapes and a passionate Andes gardener.