Posted onApril 5, 2013|Comments Off on Unorthodox Gardening Tools – 10
“And now, the end is near, and so I face the final curtain…” The gardening toolbag is now cleared out, with everything explained but these two items. And that’s where it gets weird. Er.
The first one is self-explanatory. Back in the late Nineties, the pet supply company Zoo Med offered a series of terrarium cleaning and sanitizing solutions, and the only one still produced is Wipe Out 1. That works beautifully, because that’s the only one I still need to use. This stays on hand not just for cleaning terrarium glass, but also for sanitizing terrarium tools, minimizing the risk of spreading potentially harmful bacteria or molds to new plants. One good spray usually does it, especially for wood or stone where you don’t really know where it came from, and you don’t want it spreading something potentially nasty.
And then there’s the cork. Yes, it’s a standard champagne cork. Old-time terrarium designers swear by the merits of a cork on a long stick or skewer for tamping down soil in a narrow-mouth container, and it also works very well for evening out soil in very small spaces. However, my real reason is that, by having her ask “A cork? A cork in your toolbag?”, I got the Czarina to paraphrase a public service ad from 1975 that still sticks in my head after all these years:
Posted onApril 5, 2013|Comments Off on Unorthodox Gardening Tools – 9
It’s the final stretch on this overview of odd gardening tools, and the toolkit is getting empty. As with the last few, these are tools that don’t get used on a constant basis, but whoo boy are they handy when you need them. To start, from the top:
In the case of this hook, I came across it on the side of the road while I was out on a bike ride. (I’ve come across all sorts of items and all sorts of scenes while biking to and from the Day Job. Remind me to tell you one of these days about the foreclosed McMansion, the garbage bin out front chock full of Japanese hentai porn, and the two Cat Piss Men literally shoving each other into a busy street while trying to clear out that garbage bin. As I stated before, I live an interesting life.) Apparently this is used predominately for electronics work, but you can’t tell how often you’ll need a little steel hook like this. Slipping small rubber belts for tools back into place, pulling wire loops through holes or pipes, getting a really good grip on a tree parasite…just get one, okay?
The second tool is more for those installing caulk and silicone sealer, but if you’re building terraria, this caulk wiper makes all the difference between a sloppy “you used your finger to smooth it” finish and a professional one. This particular tool works best for the wider bead of sealer used for both bathtubs and aquaria, but they come with different tips for a wider or narrower bead than this. Put down silicone sealer where you want it, bring the wiper up to even the sealer and make sure that you don’t have any gaps, and wipe off the excess. Boom.
The last one here was a bit of an enigma at first when the Czarina gave it to me. She found it in a kit of glassworking gear at an estate sale, and apparently it’s an all-in-one tool for heavy glassworking. She snorted at the dependability of an all-in-one, but for light work, it’s perfect. The hammer works in those circumstances where you don’t necessarily need a real hammer, and the various grips work for nipping, grabbing, twisting, and torquing. It’s not intended to be a replacement for appropriate tools in heavy-use circumstances, but every gardener resorting to hammering down a wayward nail with a rock can appreciate having something like this on hand.
Posted onApril 4, 2013|Comments Off on Unorthodox Gardening Tools – 8
And now it’s time to pull up the general bits and drabs in the bottom of the toolbag. Back when I backpacked and camped a lot when I was a kid, I learned one very valuable lesson from a book on the subject: “only take what you use several times per trip, because every ounce you have in your pack will feel like a pound when you’re on the trail.” That works for the gardening toolbox, too, especially the first time you try to pick up the blasted thing and nearly pull your shoulder out of its socket.
After a while, though, you find lots of tools that you won’t use constantly, but that make you kick yourself in the butt for not carrying with you. At this point, we’re hitting those occasional tools, which makes a trip back to the house or the shed unnecessary. These include:
Clamps and clothespins. There’s always that gluing job, or the pruning of a climbing rose, or some other activity where you need more than two hands. Either that, or you need a hand that can stay behind while you do other things. That’s why at least two clamps will keep you from trying to weave one from your own armpit hair. In this case, I have one good plastic clamp for regular reuse, and a standard wooden clothespin for activities where you don’t mind having to sacrifice a clamp to do a job. The wood clothespins also have the advantage of taking a good coat of paint, whether it’s to give a bit of waterproofing or to leave them in neon colors so they’re more visible when dropped in the yard.
Hand drill with bits. There’s nothing wrong with cordless drills or Dremel tools, at least so long as the batteries last. There’s nothing wrong with a standard crank hand drill or brace and bit, so long as you have clearance to get it to the item you need to pierce. In those narrow situations, having a basic hand drill handle with multiple replaceable bits saves a lot of aggravation with right-angle adaptors and other accessories. The one I own was originally a promo from a long-dead tech company, which doesn’t affect the usability of the drill but gets lots of comments from people who actually worked there at one time.
Pencil sharpener. Sure, you already have a gardening knife or pocket knife with you, but what about those circumstances where you need a uniform point on a pointy stick? Snag a cheap pencil sharpener, with a case for retaining shavings, for those times when you need to put a sharp point on bamboo skewers, dowel rods, or plastic shafts.
Plastic ruler. Rulers are available everywhere, but ever notice how many of them are made of wood? The one in my kit comes from Dallas-area fixture (and fixture supplier) Elliott’s Hardware, and it’s constructed of a good stout polycarbonate. This means it won’t shatter like cheap clear school rulers when bent, it won’t absorb water if used to measure the fluid in a sump pump or fountain, and it can be wiped clean if used to mix up paint or plaster. Besides, you never know when you need to measure something, especially if you’re planning to cut only once.
Posted onApril 4, 2013|Comments Off on Unorthodox Gardening Tools – 7
In the process of accumulating the gear in my toolbox, the Czarina has been there behind me, questioning my sanity the whole way. She already questions my sanity when it comes to finding interesting containers that work well as planting enclosures, and when it comes to the plants and arrangements I bring to shows? I admit there’s a certain satisfaction in having her worry about an arrangement she thought would be a bad idea and having it sell within the first hour of a show. In fact, I let her know this, and then go back to biting the heads off chickens.
She does this constantly when I find an Unorthodox Tool. Sure, most of the time, her questions are along the lines of “You aren’t planning to shove that up your nose again, are you?” This is a reasonable query. It’s when I find something with a very legitimate and practical use, and she immediately checks it for snot, that I get bothered.
By way of example, looking through the discounts and remainders section at my local grocery store comes across all sorts of odd things, including items that you didn’t know you needed until you came across them. At the top of that list is a set of makeup brushes, originally assembled at the beginning of the Great Recession during that push for environmentally friendly products. It shouldn’t be a surprise that while people value these sorts of products in principle, they rarely pay double or triple the price of a similar conventionally-manufactured item when they’re having to choose between groceries and rent that month. Hence, I found this collection, complete with a hemp wrapping, alongside tie-in toys for The Bee Movie and dented cans of gazpacho beans, and figured “Hey, for $4, why not?”
Now, as to why a gardener might need makeup brushes, consider the joys of hand-pollination. Yes, a paintbrush set will work perfectly well for hand-pollinating roses, orchids, or Sarracenia pitcher plants, but having something this handy, with as soft a surface on the brushes, makes pollination a little easier. Oh, and the mascara brush comes in handy for when my eyebrows get completely out of control and I have to brush them back over my head.
The other two items to the right stay wrapped up with the makeup brushes, and they also come from the Health & Beauty aisle. The black brush was one that came with a batch of hair bleach, and it gets quite a bit of use for bonsai and miniature garden arrangements. The brush is fine enough for detail work, strong enough that the bristles don’t fry out immediately, and cheap enough that I can get an easy replacement if it wears out. The other, pointy end makes a good dibble, as well as a lever to tease out roots or pebbles, so both ends get a lot of use when I’m trying to shape nebari on a tree or pepper.
And the white paddle on the right? This also came from the hair bleach, and the flat end doesn’t get much use other than for stirring or shaping small batches of soil or glue. The thin end, though, has a hook at the tip, and that thing is perfect for pulling thin cord or twine through holes in wood or stone. It’s also handy for snagging junk out of pipes and drains, so it gets even more use in pulling hair out of shower plumbing. Yeah, go ahead and laugh, but you have no idea how much cat hair can line the inside of a shower drain when you’re in a hurry to drain the tub.
Posted onApril 4, 2013|Comments Off on Unorthodox Gardening Tools – 6
Now here’s one that should be obvious, but that amazingly most gardeners don’t have in their toolkits. Anyone doing serious work in the garden needs some form of light magnification apparatus. Magnifying glasses are great, even with the risk of setting afire the item being examined, but they may not give enough detail. If the apparatus needs a table or desk to use it, especially if it needs to be plugged in, that makes using it in the garden a bit problematic. The obvious solution, then, is to go with a magnifier small enough to go into a pocket or bag, but with high enough magnification that you stand a chance of identifying that bug or that mold.
Thankfully, our friends at American Science & Surplus can help with this, too, with their choice of pocket microscopes. This one is a 30x pocket assembly, with the option of dropping in AAA batteries to use the lighted objective for further details. This one is a bit tetchy, because it practically has to touch the item being viewed to get good focus, but it comes in very handy in those odd circumstances.
I also have to mention that the ongoing improvements in laptop computers and tablets mean that we’re starting to see more processing power in the garden, and that means being able to do more than simply view items via a microscope. We also have the options of screen captures, cataloging, and identification via databases. Should I mention, then, the Digital Eyeball is tough enough to handle most garden environments?
Posted onMarch 28, 2013|Comments Off on Unorthodox Gardening Tools – 4
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.
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.
Anyone doing so much as basic gardening needs a cutting edge sooner or later. Sure, you can pluck roses by hand, but at the risk of either tearing up your hand or tearing up the plant. Everyone has a story about a beloved plant that was either ripped up or ripped out of the ground because the plant’s bond to a dead leaf was stronger than its bond to the earth. When working with many carnivorous plants, a sharp edge is essential, as both Nepenthes tendrils and Sarracenia leaves are tougher than comparable hemp rope. If you think I’m kidding, go ahead and take off those dead leaves by hand. I’ll be over here, laughing.
The problem with unorthodox projects is that sometimes unorthodox tools are needed, and that particularly applies to cutting implements. A good pair of scissors or secateurs gets the job done 99 times out of a hundred. It’s the odd circumstance, though, that requires a bit of variety, which is why I have several additions in the basic toolbag.
The pair of hand clippers in the center is self-evident, although these see regular use because they’re small enough to fit into a pocket. Continue to use big scissors or clippers, to be sure, but don’t be afraid to get a small pair like these, with spring action so they open when you release pressure on them, for the really small jobs.
Now, the blades on the left are watch knives, designed to be used by jewelers for opening watch backs. The Czarina uses these constantly for watch battery replacement, as they have one side that’s beveled and the other is perfectly flat, with a good stainless steel blade that’s easily resharpened. While they’re best for circumstances where you need to pry while cutting, thus immediately making them much safer than your pair of garden scissors, that flat side means that they’re also very handy for prying up glue, epoxy, silicone sealer, or just about anything on an impermeable surface that needs to be removed with a minimum of damage to that surface. Just don’t use them for opening paint cans, and they’ll last forever.
Over on the right are the real specialist tools. Both of these are budding knives, used for T-bud grafting buds and twigs to parent trees. The bottom of the blade cuts through bark in order to start the graft, while the flange on the top allows you to pull up the bark and the cambium, very gently, to slip in the graft material before tying or taping it down. The jackknife version is one manufactured by Victorinox, the Swiss Army knife manufacturers, as a budding and garden knife, and is still available at a reasonable price. The one on the far right was a surprise discovery at an estate sale, with a rosewood handle, that suggests the owner was using it for elaborate grafting experiments. Either way, they’ve been getting a bit of a workout on my grapefruit tree, and should last for decades even with that.
Posted onMarch 27, 2013|Comments Off on Unorthodox gardening tools – 1
Over the last weekend, I spent a very productive evening trimming back and wiring yearling Capsicum peppers for bonsai. In the process, I went digging through the big toolbag I use for holding my gardening tools and realized “You know, if someone didn’t know me, they’d have all sorts of suspicions about what I planned to do with the stuff in here. Hell, they’d have those suspicions if they did know me.” Ten years of serious horticulture, combined with a packrat mindset for tools that comes from my father’s side of the family, and most of the tools in my collection would make for props in one hell of a PBS series.
It’s worse when I bring these out at plant shows, ostensibly to pluck a dead leaf from a terrarium arrangement or prune back a recalcitrant weed that escaped notice until right then. Between the tools themselves and the heavy bag I use to haul them around, I have to explain that no, I’m not doing Harry Tuttle cosplay. When your father is an engineer, it comes with the territory.
With that in mind, it occurred to me after talking with friends that some of these tools, handmade and otherwise, might be handy to other horticulturalists as well. If it works, feel free to track down your own, or make your own, for that matter. Half of the fun is the sharing.
The first unorthodox tool is a bit too large to fit into the bag, but it’s a lifesaver for trimming plants in pots, arranging miniature gardens, or otherwise handling containers that need to spin a bit. Professional bonsai growers use turntables made specifically for the purpose, and there’s nothing wrong with these in the slightest. However, when working with smaller arrangements, I needed something with that flexibility, but lightweight enough to be carried around easily, and with a storage space underneath. Some have these, but the price is a bit iffy.
Thankfully, the detritus from the dotcom era left very affordable and usable alternatives. Every morning when I look at the flatscreen monitor on my work computer, I note that while it’s over six years old, it’s still better than the CRT monstrosity I used to have. Back when cathode ray tubes were the only options for computer monitors, the more showy had their beige monitors and their beige desktops accented with equally beige monitor stands, and those stands were designed to handle a lot more weight than is needed today. Hence, they show up in charity shops on a regular basis, and they’re perfect for miniature garden work. Adjust the wingnut to the proper tension, cover the assemblage with a waterproof cover, set your pot in the center, and spin away. Even better, if it wears out, replacement parts are easy to obtain, and you can even touch it up with a touch of paint to get rid of that Nineties-era beige and make it easier to wipe off after a repotting session.
And that’s the start of it. Keep checking back for more.