If you are spending your entire work week in the garden, you want tools that make your job faster and easier on the body.

Earlier this month, Justin Nichols, a horticulturist with the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens in Boothbay, offered some tips in a class on tool selection and maintenance. Some of those tips make sense for any serious backyard gardener.

“The best thing you can do,” he said early in the program, “is buy high-quality equipment and treat it well.”

Later on, he expanded on that. “Buy one good, expensive tool each year, and in 10 years, you will have everything you need.”

Hand pruners are an important, basic tool of gardening. There are hundreds of options, and many of them are good. Nichols keeps two hand pruners on his belt whenever he is in the garden. It made me think of those twin six-gun cowboys from the old westerns.

“I came to pruning left-handed, because my right started having problems,” he said, rubbing the area above his wrist.

For his left hand, he uses Felco left-handed rotating handle pruners, Felco 10. He finds the rotating handle is easier on his hands.

On his right side, he has a Felco 13, a large hand pruner with longer handles that can be used two-handed or one-handed.

But pruners are personal. You should get the one that fits your hand and works for you in your garden. Nichols’ friend Wes Autio, a professor of pomology at the University of Massachusetts who was my source for a column last year on disease-resistant apples, prefers Pica pruners with a hook on the end of the non-cutting blade that keeps the branch in place when you are cutting it.

In addition to Felco and Pica, Nichols mentioned ARS, Corona and Bahco as makers of high-quality pruners, and Fiskars as a maker of good but more reasonably priced pruners.

Nichols had a lot to say about spades and shovels. A spade is a flat-ended tool that is usually used for digging. A shovel has a scoop, and is used for carrying. Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens uses spades to edge lawns rather than a typical garden edger.

For working in perennial beds, Nichols recommends a small cylindrical shovel called — just to be confusing — a rabbiting spade or planting spade. The two in his toolshed are by Bulldog, made in England, but that brand is called Clarington Forge on this side of the Atlantic.

“We use this for planting and dividing perennials. It is small and maneuverable,” he said.

Nichols also uses a spading fork for much of his digging because it goes into the soil more easily than a spade.

But whether he uses a spade or a spading fork, he prefers to have one with a foot pad — so your foot stays stable and has a cushion when you push the tool into the ground. He said other people at the gardens made fun of him when he got the tools with foot pads, but every time he looked for one of them, someone else had them out in the gardens.

The ones the garden uses are manufactured by W.W. Manufacturing Co. in New Jersey and go by the brands King of Spades and Lesche. I also found a spade with a foot pad at A.M. Leonard. And this is a bit different from what Nichols uses, but Lee Valley sells an add-on for tools that they call a tool step.

I am a big fan of my gardening knife, sometimes called a hori-hori knife, that I got years ago from Lee Valley. Nichols recommended a gardening knife on steroids by Lesche. It has the same serrated edge on one side and is good for cutting or digging, but its handle is offset to provide more leverage.

As for a trowel, Nichols likes a variety that has a different shape than I have seen before. The one he handed around was the Wilcox All Pro No. 202, which is made out of a piece of steel with a plastic handle on one end, and is 14 inches long and 3 inches wide. The digging end is a triangle rather than a curve.

For moving mulch, Nichols recommended a poly scoop from A.M. Leonard that holds a lot of mulch, can spread the mulch smoothly enough so you don’t need a rake, and is so strong that you can drive your truck over it.

Also, if you are going to use a stepladder mostly for gardening, get a three-legged one. You can put the single leg in the middle of a hedge or shrub — which won’t work with four-legged stepstools — and get closer for trimming.

The original plan for the two-hour program with Nichols was to talk a bit about tools and then go into training for tool maintenance. But attendees kept asking him questions, and the entire two hours was spent discussing tools.

Nichols stayed an extra half-hour and discussed maintenance while cleaning and sharpening a set of pruning sheers. He recommends buying a bench grinder for $50 for sharpening all your larger cutting tools, from pruning sheers to spades and more.

If you can take the tool apart, do so before cleaning.

Felco has demonstrations for dismantling and cleaning its pruners on its website, www.felco.com.

Once apart, sharpen with a grinding wheel, metal file or honing stone. Then lubricate the moving parts, but not the screws. Nichols said it doesn’t matter what you use — anything from vegetable oil from the kitchen to WD-40 — although he is partial to white lithium grease.

He also said you can get good gardening tools at hardware stores and nurseries, and from catalogs. He advised that if buying from a catalog you are not familiar with — whether for tools, plants or seeds — go to www.davesgarden.com, which is host of a customer-rating system for online and catalog companies. Dave’s Garden is also a favorite site of Nancy’s and mine.

Nichols will be giving a pruning class at the gardens on March 12, and will be teaching three parts of a six-part vegetable-growing course starting March 19 and running to fall. Go to www.mainegardens.org for more information.


Steve Palmer of Plainview Farm Nursery in North Yarmouth sent me an e-mail last week after I wrote about my catalog orders.

I said I had not found Amsonia hubrechtii, the Perennial Plant Association plant of the year, or the Pink Lemonade blueberry at any local nurseries. Plainview will have both.

Palmer said he has carried the Amsonia for several years. He also said the blueberry bushes will be small, but he will have them.

Staff Writer Tom Atwell can be contacted at 791-6362 or at:

[email protected]


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