Daily Archives: March 28, 2013

Unorthodox Gardening Tools – 5

Forceps and hemostats

In most gardening applications, I can think of two circumstances where having long manipulative tools narrower than one’s fingers come in very handy. (Well, I can think of a third, but most gardeners I know skip out on pliers for pulling out bullets and go straight for the cauterizing oil. It makes a better scar.) The first is working with terraria, either with plants a little too delicate for mere fingers or with glass containers that don’t respond well to shaking and beating. The other is any application with cacti, chollas, or other succulents with barbed spines. You might say “the flesh is weak”, and I’ll agree with you, especially after encountering the joys of Joshua Tree chollas.

(For those unfamiliar with these uniquely North American nightmares, chollas reproduce both by seeds and by chunks of their branches rooting where they land. They often land far from their original locales because the plant is covered with sharp and barbed spines that sink into exposed flesh and lodge themselves. If you try to pluck off a chunk, you discover that they make a finger trap worthy of Clive Barker, as the force necessary to grasp the chunk is also enough to sink the hooks on the chunk into the offending hand. Gloves are also equally attractive, and the only effective way to remove a cholla chunk is to use metal barbecue tongs to grip and pull before tossing the chunk well out of range.)

In addition to standard gripping, there’s another consideration involving trimming overgrown or dead material from plants in a bottle terrarium. It’s not enough to snag something, but to cut it as well. I’ve seen terrarium guides from the 1970s that suggest all sorts of handmade tools utilizing wine corks and razor blades on clothes hanger wire, but when it comes to delicacy and strength, nothing beats implements designed to invade the human body and remove pieces from inside.

This is why I tell all of my gardener friends to learn of the wonders of American Science & Surplus and refer to AS&S often for unorthodox tools. For friends outside of the States, since AS&S can’t ship outside of the US, I tell them to make more friends out here and work out a trade program, because you can’t tell what AS&S has available on any given day. In this case, go directly to the Medical/Dental Tools section of the AS&S catalog, because about two-thirds of the items therein can come in handy. Most of the time, you’ll come across something that you didn’t realize existed and that you didn’t know you needed until you spotted it.

Since AS&S gets a lot of surplus medical tools, it has an excess of riches most days, including scalpels, syringes, hemostats, bandage scissors, and all sorts of things with uses that transfer well to horticulture. This is in addition to the lab glassware. The middle tong in the photo above is an alligator forceps: open and close the handles, and a tiny little jaw opens at the other end to grab and drop items. Of more import is the tool on the bottom, designed for arthroscopic surgery. This has a lower jaw with a beveled slot in it and an upper jaw that fits inside that slot, so when you close it, whatever gets caught is both grabbed and cut. In situations where you need to remove dead leaves on a miniature sundew without disturbing the plant or getting mucilage all over your hands, that tool is an absolute lifesaver.

Micro-tools are great, but as anyone who has ever tried to paint a cabinet with a 3/0 brush will tell you, sometimes a larger tool gets better results. That’s why when I came across an Alligetter on discount, I snagged it. The Container Store originally sold it as a handy device for pulling items out of garbage disposals, which explains the little LED, battery pack, and switch on the top of the device, but I snagged it on deep discount because the LED wasn’t functional. Not that it matters in most gardening circumstances. The trigger grip allows good control, the plastic jaws are just flexible enough to grip without crushing, and the jaws are wide enough to grab larger items in enclosed spaces than what the alligator forceps can snag. If you need something for larger items than what an Alligetter can manage, might I recommend barbecue tongs? I understand they work well with cholla removal.

Still more to come…

Unorthodox Gardening Tools – 4

Pliers and snips

Spend a few years gardening, and you’ll note how necessary metal wire is for most applications. If you want something to last more than a year or so, you’ll need wire. The garden twine used to tie back roses or tie up tomatoes might last a year under most weather conditions. I’ve known people, including my mother, to use flexible plastic oxygen tubing for tying up climbing roses to a trellis, but the Texas sun leaves that yellowed and brittle within a year. Even with UV inhibitors incorporated into the mix, most plastics only survive for a few years, so even big pots eventually go brittle as their plasticizers outgas and sunlight breaks down the resin’s chemical bonds. If most house and car paint starts to powder and fade within five years, what chance does a Zip-tie have?

(When I was still in high school, my little brother had a 1973 Chevy Vega as his first car. My father purchased it from a friend for $25, after the car responded to a whole new engine rebuild by dropping the transmission, and that friend’s son had painted the beast blue with white racing stripes. He did a great job with the masking, but he didn’t seal the paint, and two or three Dallas summers left it a bit, erm, permeable. In fact, every rainstorm left a line of blue milky water running down the street from where the Vega sat, and trying to wash that beast was an exercise in Sissyphean futility. Even so, that beat the experience we both grew up with further north, where the sun was less intense but road salt during the winters ate out the body panels and left monstrous gaping holes in the floorboards. That Vega finally died not from the paint job, but from scratches in the paint after my brother moved to Wisconsin, and it rusted to pieces within a year of its getting there.)

Of course, wire isn’t a perfect replacement for plastic. Metal fatigue. Excellent transmission of heat and/or electricity. A tensile strength much higher than that of flesh. And, of course, when dealing with puncture wounds caused by a piece of rose tying wire or the wire often used to tie off bales of long-fiber sphagnum moss, there’s always the fun to be had from tasty, tasty tetanus. I mean, why let a little rictus sardonicus get in the way of horticultural glory? Just walk it off.

Seriously, considering all of the sharp and flexible items found in gardening areas, I’m amazed that half of my blood isn’t tetanus booster by now. Consider old rusty nails sticking out of old fencing. More nails dropped to the ground during house construction and forgotten. Insulation staples and brads dropped under the same circumstances. I won’t even start with the amount of ferrous and oxidized treasure tossed into fill dirt used for raised beds or yard grading, all loaded with bacteria left over from the days when oxygen was a deadly waste product. In a lot of those cases, removing the nightmare entirely may be impossible, so you spend your time cutting, filing, and hammering until the obstacle is no longer a threat to children or pets.

This is why every gardening toolkit needs a set of pliers and trimmers. A Leatherman at your side at all times is great, and I implore everyone looking at a cheap knockoff to consider that you get your money’s worth, but sometimes it’s not enough. Hence, alongside mine and my trusty Swiss Army Explorer knife, I recommend getting a set of specialized pliers for those special jobs. They’re usually not expensive (I bought the set of grey-handled long-reach pliers for $20 US), and the first time you need to twist wire, open up split rings, or cut something flush with a wall in a space a hacksaw can’t reach, you’ll thank yourself for snagging the set.

More to come…

Unorthodox Gardening Tools – 3

Brushes and scrubbers

I don’t care what anybody says. Any decent gardening toolkit needs brushes and scrubbers. Scotchbrite pads are great, too, but basic brushes, whiskbrooms, and bottle brushes are essential. Whether you’re trying to check for new growth on a corm without disrupting the roots, cleaning off a mold-encrusted pot, or trying to get that scrap of moss off the inside of a bottle terrarium, a decent selection of brushes will save your sanity in the long run.

And so, starting from the left, we have a standard soft-bristle whisk broom given to me by my father-in-law, used mostly for sweeping up messes. Whether it’s the cat knocking a pot over or your beloved shoving a table and inadvertently smashing a vase, having a good basic broom for gathering debris will save your hands. Oh, it might be dust, but do you really want to sweep up glass fragments with your fingers, too?

To the right of that is a standard bonsai brush, designed for brushing and evening the soil in bonsai trays. It works beautifully for that, but it’s also very effective for dust on glasswork, rust on metalwork, and shooing the cats.

The next two are scrubbers, which get used in gardening more than you think. In particular, the potato scrubber is your friend when washing out pots or other containers, and the combination of accumulated filth and minerals from the local tap water make a crust impermeable to everything other than atomic weaponry. Oh, and if you’re growing potatoes, that scrubber means you can wash your bounty under the garden hose and throw it on the grill right then, too.

Finally, we have the specialist tools. On the far right is a toothbrush, if you have a thing for worrying about the tartar on a Thylacosmilus. Besides its normal use in cleaning Army latrines in Basic Training, the other side can be sharpened and beveled as a scraper and used for chipping off extremely hard mineral deposits from glass without scratching it. The last one, the bottle brush, is the most used of the lot: have you ever tried to clean out test tubes, bud vases, clear plastic tubing, or a sink drain with a rag on a stick? If you have, then you understand why anyone who takes your bottle brush must DIE.

More to follow…