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Garden 'Wish Books': Gadgets, and More

July 02, 1989|ROBERT SMAUS | Times Garden Editor

A young professional comes home from the office, puts on his 7 3/4-ounce cotton canvas garden pants with the reinforced knees ($39), slides the "state-of-the-art" Swiss-made Felco pruning shears ($33) into the pocket designed to hold them, slips into his brightly colored plastic garden clogs ($26; coordinated socks are available for $5.50), and heads outside--to see what the gardeners have done today.

This is how the mildly amused media portrays the customers of the new garden accessories catalogues--yuppies who like the accouterments, but not necessarily the activity, of gardening.

The catalogues, from companies such as Smith & Hawken, Clapper's and Gardener's Eden, are their source books for expensive gadgets and trendy items.

But for dyed-in-the-wool gardeners, they might be better thought of as a modern-day "wish book," what the Sears catalogue was once called. In its time, it too was full of wonderful things not available at the corner store, and few of the things in these new gardening catalogues are available there either, or at any store for that matter.

Dedicated gardeners will find that many of the accessories in these catalogues are not merely trendy, but useful too.

Those who have worn out the knees in several pairs of jeans understand that there really is some value in a pair of loose-fitting pants that have neoprene inserts in the knee area to cushion those old bones and a pocket for pruning shears, the one tool that should always be close at hand.

These pants come from Smith & Hawken, the first of the mail-order catalogue companies to bring a little class to the business by hiring the best photographers, designers and copy writers to do a catalogue that is as pretty as can be.

Here they have the old Sears catalogues beat--these new garden catalogues not only have things to wish for, but show gardens to dream of, although most of the gardens pictured are English, so don't think they are going to be all that easy to emulate in Southern California.

Many of the tools and other items in these catalogues are also English, or Swiss or German or Japanese, countries where gardening is taken a lot more seriously than it is here.

The clogs, from Smith & Hawken and available in red, blue, yellow or green, are "imported," though the catalogue does not say from where (the matching socks, however, are made in the U.S.A.).

From England you can get an "authentic Sussex trug," an item that has yet to replace a plastic bucket in my garden for carrying cut flowers or tossing weeds into.

I did try some of the English tools, which were the first thing Smith & Hawken sold, and which could be said to have started the whole thing.

They carry the Bulldog brand, which I had admired on a visit to England (I even brought a spading fork home on the plane). Bulldog tools have one-piece forged ends and handsome wooden handles that I hoped would last forever, but I found that the handles were too short for us tall Americans, and the handle on my favorite English trowel--a Wilkinson stainless steel affair carried in Clapper's catalogue--fell off.

In the latest Smith & Hawken catalogue I did notice that the handles are now longer. I hope they are more firmly attached.

That, of course, is the trouble with mail-order catalogues--you can not closely inspect, handle or try out any of the items. You must rely on descriptions and photographs, which is why making these descriptions intelligent and even witty, and the photos pretty, was such a good idea on the part of Smith & Hawken, and why their approach has been widely copied.

While it would be impossible to evaluate all of the items in each catalogue, it is possible to evaluate the catalogues themselves, and to make some broad generalizations about the usefulness or uniqueness of their contents.

I would rate the Smith & Hawken catalogue as the best of the bunch, with the most unique and useful items. Very little of what they offer will be found at the corner store, and much of it will immediately be put to use upon arrival.

At the inexpensive end there are things such as durable, metal plant labels (25 for $8.50), soft tomato ties (66 feet for $4), a handsome narrow weeding trowel ($12.50) with "edges sharp enough to dislodge weeds and a head long and narrow enough to attend to a multiplicity of tasks in confined circumstances."

I own the incredibly sharp Dutch hand weeder ($10.50) and use it around the base of low shrubbery, and I am meaning to try out the English vine supports (20 for $4.95).

At the high end are the very expensive garden furnishings.

These include all kinds of teak furniture, including the gorgeous, sinuous Lutyens bench for a paltry $1,700 (Sir Edwin Lutyens was a prominent English architect and the design, done in collaboration with famed gardener Gertrude Jekyll is said to date back to 1902). They also have a home-grown bench ($450) by Californian Robert Ferguson that must be the best-looking piece of redwood furniture ever made.

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