Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Garden tools

A few months ago, I began writing regular articles about gardening at The Women's Colony, a communal blog for women inspired by and lead by the admirable Mrs. G. Sadly, the blog has disbanded. This article was to be my next submission.

If you'd like to read my earlier efforts, you can go here - As long as the archive remains online, you can read my submissions.

Garden tools on a well-organized rack in a Los Angeles garden

If you want to make a garden, you’re going to need tools. What kind of tools are essential for a beginning gardener?

1) A garden spade. A spade is not a shovel. Shovels scoop up material so that you can move it from place to place. A garden spade cuts into the sod and breaks the earth. Spades come with curved or straight blades. I like a curved-blade spade with a point on it to cut new ground, and a narrow, straight blade spade for digging in an established garden bed. You’ll use it to dig up and divide perennials, or dig holes for shrubs. A good spade with a strong blade and a sturdy rolled edge to brace your foot is a great tool that makes gardening easier.

My border spade

2) A pruner. Felco pruners are the industry standard, and they’re expensive, but you can find cheap imitators that are almost as good. To keep plants healthy, you need to prune them, and to do it right, you need a good, strong, precise cut. Look for a bypass pruner, where the blades pass one another like a pair of scissors, rather than an anvil pruner, where the cutting blade impacts a thickened base. You’ll use your pruners for cutting flowers for the vase, for cutting back plants, and for shaping shrubs.

A collection of hand tools in a Los Angeles garden

3) A hand trowel and hand fork. You’ll need these for delicate work with seedlings, small plants, potting things up, and even selective weeding. You can find them in metal or sturdy plastic. One good reason to buy plastic ones is that your husband won’t steal them to use in his charcoal grill!

4) A wheelbarrow. Gardeners tote all kinds of heavy things around the yard, especially in bags – mulch, manure, compost. It’s much easier in a wheelbarrow. Potted plants can be wheeled from place to place instead of carried. When I used to mulch my garden with aged cow manure, my wheelbarrow made it easy. Use your wheelbarrow to collect pruning and cleaning debris, and wheel it to the compost pile. My wheelbarrow is a construction model made of heavy-duty orange plastic with sturdy wooden handles.

5) A watering can. I have two – one is a green plastic French can, and the other is a classic galvanized metal one straight out of Peter Rabbit. I’ve lost the “rose” – the attachment with tiny holes that goes on the spout to create soft gentle streams of water, but even so, my watering can is a great tool to direct water where it needs to go, with better control than a hose.

All these tools are wonderful, but there’s another tool, in my opinion, that is simply indispensable for a gardener, beyond any other tool. It’s a garden journal.

My garden journal. Click to "embiggen"

A journal can be a notebook, a binder, or even just a collection of notes. I keep a garden journal in a blank book, like a diary. And it is indeed a diary – I record whatever happens in the garden. When plants bloom, how long seeds take to germinate, or whether a plant performs as expected. I also record weather, like the first frost or an unusual storm or wind. I use my journal to note what I should do in the future – maintenance, or a note to move a plant at the right time. I write about garden visits, and hints people share. I record attractive plantings I see while walking down the street. I take notes from articles to remind myself to look for plants in catalogs or nurseries.

Rose ‘Darlow’s Enigma’ in my Topanga garden

In April of 1993 I wrote, “Erythroniums blooming – have been for 2-4 days now. One “Kentucky Derby” dwarf iris has a bud. …Where is my purple martagon lily? This is a mystery. There are lots of shoots of Asiatic [lily] “Sterling Silver” but no sign of the big martagon that looked so huge and vigorous last year…[my neighbor] Crystal tells me slugs love sunflowers, so you need to start them indoors and bait them well when you set them out…”

My Seattle garden with Erythronium ‘Bowles Mauve’, heuchera ‘Palace Purple’ and Iris pallida zebrina

Sometimes there were failures – “The pink [lilies] from B & D have been stomped by cats and dogs…” or “The aphids are here…..”

A vegetable garden patch in a Los Angeles garden

A journal is useful to mark annual occurrences . 4/11/93, I wrote, “we ate the first salad of the year.” I used to walk in my garden every New Year’s Day and write down what was in bloom, or what things looked like. In 1994, I wrote “Cyclamen balearicum is unfurling new little leaves….Cyclamen coum’s magenta buds, which have been visible since October, are now rearing up, erect, in preparation to bloom.”

Cyclamen buds

In 1995, “Pink primrose. [The] gold-laced one has had [its]petals nibbled. Primula denticulata on S. side, leaves have been damaged by too much rain, but in the center of each rosette is the flowerhead, like a cauliflower nestled there…. Anemone ‘de Caen’ leaves up like parsley in the North bed near rose ‘Reine des Violettes.’” Sometimes it’s just useful to record impressions, as this April ’93 entry: “The petals of [dwarf iris] ‘Rangerette’ have such a luster in the sun, almost metallic….Iris pallida zebrina is so fragrant I can smell it across the garden.” And 1/21/94 – “Two perfect days!”

Lavender and daylilies in my Topanga garden

At the time when my gardening was the most productive, and even somewhat of an obsession with me, each day I made a point of walking around the garden to see what was going on – while dinner cooked, perhaps, or at the end of the work day, I would tell my husband and son I was going on a “garden ramble,” and wander through the yard making note of what was up, what was in bloom, what needed staking or dividing. I’d take my pruners with me so I could dead-head the roses or perhaps cut some flowers for the table.

This nursery shed is owned by a Pasadena gardener

In winter when it was too cold and dark to garden, I used my journal to plan future plantings, or just dream about garden ideas.

Diagrams of plantings

The pages are full of drawings and diagrams – some sketches of plants together, and in other cases plan-views of the garden beds with round blobs representing plants.

My Seattle garden with rose ‘Just Joey’ and Macleaya cordata.

After visiting one plantswoman’s garden in June, where I admired her collection of alpine plants grown in containers, I wrote myself a reminder to look for chimney pots at an antique store she had mentioned – she stood the open-bottomed pots upright and filled them with a fast-draining gritty soil, to please her finicky darlings. After another visit, I noted a stunning combination of black mondo grass planted beneath the Ceonathus “Diamond Heights, showing off its dark green leaves variegated with bright chartreuse. In one journal, after attending a lecture at the Center for Urban Horticulture, I wrote in my journal in huge capital letters – “COW MANURE!!!” followed by the name and phone number of the supplier used by a fellow gardener.

My Seattle garden at an early stage

You might prefer to keep your garden journal on your laptop instead of using pen and paper. I haven’t bothered to look if there are any applications for garden record-keeping available – but I imagine there might be. Today with digital cameras, it’s easy to include photographic records, too. But I think I will stick with a diary-type journal. Although I’m quite happy with the computer, there’s something nice about a bound diary to record your impressions by pen or pencil. It’s portable, and you can take it with you as you walk through the garden. You needn’t worry about spray from the hose or crumbs of soil damaging it – those muddy smears and water-dappled pages are just as evocative a record as your written words.

This neatly kept potting bench is far too tidy to be mine!

Your garden journal will guide the way for future years of gardening. When I go back and read my old journals, I am amazed at what I find there – I really seemed to know what I was doing! Your garden journal also preserves your garden for the ages. Gardens are such fleeting, transitory pleasures. Your garden will live in your journal’s pages. When you lay down the secateurs for the last time, you’ll treasure your garden journals, for the memories and the knowledge they contain.


unmitigated me said...

I'm so glad I can still follow you, Aunt Snow! I'd love some more specific advice about pruning. When and where to cut? I have some plants, like Russian Sage, that gets very leggy, and I'd like it to be fuller, and a little shorter.

Glennis said...

Well, you should cut down things like Russian Sage in the fall, of course, at the end of the season, but if it's too leggy and bothering you now, you can cut it back anytime - just be prepared to wait for it to come back. Russian Sage is usually pretty vigorous. If you want to get radical cut it way back to the lowest shoots. If you just want to do some housekeeping, cut it back to a little lower than you want it, right above where you can see where the new branches will come from.

Big Bad Bald Bastard said...

You forgot a cooler in which to ice down your beer!

Do you get purslane in your garden? I've been scarfing any that I can get my greedy paws on.

Jenn @ Juggling Life said...

You are a true gardener.

Ashley said...

I love these photos so much. I could stare at them without even reading anything . . . but I like the reading part, too! ;)

We just moved to a townhouse and my only opportunity for gardening is a tiny section next to our front porch. It's the east side of the house but blocked by a tree and the house across the way so that patch might never get direct sunlight, I haven't checked yet in the early morning. I've got a colorful hanging plant (Impatiens?) up on a hook, but would like to take some of the small colorful flowers from in front of the grocery store and stick them down in the section by our porch. Is there any reason I shouldn't just dig holes where they go, plop them in and fill in the space with the dirt? It's moist dirt.

I won't have tons of ton to maintain anything but I have a feeling they need water and solitude . . . plus our association makes us pull everything up in the winter, so I'd just transfer them to pots and hope I can keep them alive inside through the winter.

It'll be my very first stab at any sort of gardening . . . unless you count the avocado seed propped up over a cup of water in the windowsill in elementary school. :)

Unknown said...

I love your garden. Each flower and green thing : ) makes me smile!

Ashley said...

Also, I love your garden journal. It's like a romantic almanac!