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Few Basic Tools Let You Get Digs In

June 12, 1993|PATRICK MOTT

Tool-wise, gardeners generally aren't given to hyperbolic excess. They just don't seem to be able to work up the same sort of frenzy over a spade that an auto mechanic can produce over, say, a set of metric socket wrenches.

Cloistered nuns, for instance, are often fine gardeners but it's a pretty safe bet that they're not going to bend your ear about all the swell extra forest denuding power in the new Destructo "Brutus" Mark VI chain saw.

There's no way to break out the figures, but I'll bet avid gardeners make up a fairly low percentage of rabid "Home Improvement" fans. They just don't seem to get that same visceral thrill when Tim ("The Tool Man") Taylor beefs up the garbage disposal with a Chrysler Hemi engine or something and the thing starts shredding two-by-fours. Aaaaarrr! Aaaaaaaaaarrrrr!

But let's not sell our back-yard agricultural pals short. They may not dream of one day owning a nuclear-powered back hoe, but they know--or should know--that in the rutabaga patch, just as in the pits at Indy, there are specific tools for specific jobs, and an eye for quality is paramount.

The basic gardener needs fewer tools than the basic golfer, but there are fine points to consider.

"You can do almost everything with a shovel and a rake and a hoe," said Bob Denman, who runs Denman and Co., a mail-order gardening tool business in Placentia. "Basically, you dig, you weed and you cultivate. You should buy the best tools you can afford, and the simpler and more durable they are, the better."

The makeup of the basic tools are just as fundamental. Most of them, said Denman, are made up of a metal head and a wood or Fiberglas handle. In the best of them, the head is a single forged piece of metal with a socket that connects the handle to it by way of a pin driven through both the handle and socket for a permanent bond. The best handles, said Denman, are solid Fiberglas. Wood handles--usually ash--should have a straight and thick grain with a smooth finish.

The essential lineup of tools includes:

A hoe. There are dozens of different head patterns, said Denman. The most popular type in Southern California is known as an oscillating hoe and features a stirrup-shaped blade for weeding.

A shovel or spade. Shovels have curved blades and are used for digging and lifting soil; spades have a flat blade and are used for turning soil in place (the most common sort of digging in the garden, according to Denman).

A rake. This is used for spreading soil around, and it should have a heavy head and long handle to eliminate the need for the gardener to bear down.

A four-tine cultivator. An essential tool for professional landscapers, said Denman, this is used for aerating the top four inches of soil after it has been dug up.

A hand pruner. Used for clipping dead, diseased or damaged plant parts or for simply controlling growth. The most common type, said Denman, is the bypass pruner, which operates like a pair of scissors.

A hand trowel. A hand-sized shovel and "the single most used tool" in the garden, said Denman.

A hand weeder. Removes weeds with a lever action. The best, said Denman, are "ball" model weeders that feature a ball halfway down the handle that acts as a fulcrum.

Care for all these items is fairly universal. Make sure any tool that has a blade is sharpened. Paint the metal heads once a year to keep off rust. Sand wood handles smooth if they become rough. And clean everything after each use.

Apart from hardware, the well-equipped gardener also needs a bit of personal protection, said Arlan Hurwitz, owner of Hurwitz and Sons, a mail-order garden tool distributorship in Tustin. For the hands, gloves (the newest models, said Hurwitz, are made from a lightweight rubberized material that is thorn-proof). For the knees, pads; there are gardening trousers available with pockets in the knees specifically cut for pads a la the NFL. And for the head, a broad-brimmed hat to keep off the sun.

If all this seems antique, it is.

According to Denman, many common gardening tools first appeared in the mid-1800s and their design was fairly codified soon after. That's one reason, he added, to consider buying longer-handled tools, because modern gardeners tend to be a good bit larger than their pre-Civil War counterparts.

They also may not want to work as hard, said Hurwitz, and that's why some tools, such as shears and hand pruners, are becoming more ergonomic. Some pruners, for instance, feature a ratchet mechanism that makes the act of cutting much easier physically--a particular help to some seniors and gardeners with arthritis.

Just think how much better it would be with nuclear power. . . .

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