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gifts for gardeners: my tried-and-true gear

EVERY YEAR I do a guide of “gifts for gardeners,” and every year it’s the same stuff, basically (how unoriginal and embarrassing). But how can you improve on the gear you have relied on year after year, as I have on each of my tried-and-trues? At this point in my garden career, it’s unlikely that some gimmicky new thing will catch my eye, so at the risk of boring you…

MY GO-TO PRUNING BRAND: My most-used pruning tool of all are ARS needle-nose snips, or fruit pruners (above). Did you ever use a regular pair of pliers when a needle-nose was really called for, or otherwise over-effort a task? I have confessed before that I rarely use my pricey, famous-name pruning shears these days, instead doing many jobs with what are variously called grape scissors or needle-nosed fruit pruners, specifically ones by ARS. A traditional pair of bypass pruning shears might weight 8 or 9 ounces—like 224 or 252 grams—and the fruit pruners weigh like 4, or about 110 grams. Why place unneeded strain on your hand? In carbon steel, or stainless steel.

As in the case with my choice of snips versus pruning shears, I got tired of over-efforting when pruning slightly larger branches with the wrong tool for the wrong job. My big old lopper, about 10 inches longer and a pound heavier, hardly get used any longer since I bought the ARS 19-inch Vineyard Lopper (model LPB-20S) at just 1.8 pounds (and just 19ish inches long). It has become hard to find the shorter-length one lately, but I tracked down one source, and Felco also makes a lightweight vineyard lopper, the 201-40. My third most-used pruning tool is from ARS, too: the indispensable 4-foot lightweight long-reach pruner that means skipping the ladder on many cuts I could not otherwise get to.

FOR THE BIRDS: I do think the Brome brand, as I have said repeatedly, has built a better birdfeeder with its Squirrel Buster line of various-size models. If an animal of squirrel weight grabs on, the seed ports are automatically covered to prevent access. Plus: These feeders seem to keep seed in fresher, drier condition than conventional tube types, with a patented ventilation system as part of the design. Important note: I still place feeders about 10 feet from anything that a squirrel could leap from, and use metal baffles on the poles my feeders are hanging from to limit their attempts, like the ones Audubon recommends in either wraparound style or “torpedo” (canister) style. You will never stop squirrels from try, try, trying again (and again, and again).

TROWEL WITH AN EDGE: One fall, while planting garlic with help from a friend, I noticed that I was having an easier time of it as we worked our way toward the middle of a long, multi-row bed from either end. Compared to the usual garden-variety trowel, the Sneeboer flower bed version (pictured above)—with a not-too-big, nicely scooped blade of stainless steel–just cuts into the soil better and gets the job done. The handle is nicely turned for a comfortable fit (there is a bulb-handle version too, which is longer); browse all the Sneeboer trowels at Garden Tool Company.

Want a slightly narrower blade for tight spots? Try the Sneeboer Great Dixter model...and there are even narrower choices, for digging dandelions and such.

PART TROWEL, part weeder, divider, and just general all-round workhorse: my stainless hori-hori Japanese weeding knife, by Nisaku. My original hori-hori wasn’t stainless so though it lasted and lasted (actually, I still have it!) it is a slightly rusty mess. The stainless (shown above) is the extra-good version of this extra-good tool, particularly suited to cracks and crevices where no trowel will go. There are models with plastic handles, too, but I prefer the wooden grip.

EVERYONE WHO VISITS the garden wants one: a super-lightweight, drinking-water-safe, beautiful hose. No more dragging around heavy, kinked-up traditional hoses for me the last decade or so, since I found the made-in-America ones from Water Right Inc., an Oregon-based family business. There are various colors (I love the olive, above) and three diameters, each in 25- to 100-foot lengths: The 400 Series (7/16-inch diameter), 500 Series (½-inch diameter, delivering about 25 percent more water than the 400) and 600 Series (5/8-inch, delivering another 25 percent more water). There is also a coiled version, if you have a small space, like a terrace.

SHORT RUBBER BOOTS: I have a thing for ankle-height boots to garden in, usually in basic black. I keep promising myself to reserve a pair that I don’t go out into the mud with, for wearing when I need to look a bit more presentable. But then the urge hits and there I go, into the muck, and every pair I have starts to look like the rest of my footwear (and trouser knees, and gloves, and … sigh.) Sadly—like with my favorite tip bag and edger— the model I love eventually goes out of production, so now I’m back to where I started with my first garden boots ever, long ago: the Hunter brand. The ankle-height Chelsea comes in most every imaginable color (the red, above, is currently calling my name).

LIKE LINUS WITH HIS BLANKET, I drag it behind me wherever I go. It’s my trusty tip bag, a debris-collecting tool I never thought I’d take a fancy to, having been a bushel-basket or wheelbarrow type for years. But bushel baskets got harder to score, and there are some spots in my lopsided garden where the wheelbarrow won’t do. So drag a bag I do, when I’m doing things like this:

  • When edging, for instance, trimming off bits of turf where lawn meets bed.
  • When weeding, of course.
  • When deadheading.
  • (When pruning or raking leaves, a tarp is probably a better choice, and I’ve got them in many sizes to suit the scale of the job. It’s easy to drag branches, or piles of fallen leaves, away on a tarp.)

I’ve worn out a number of tip bags in my time, but generally speaking they’re pretty resilient creatures. My trusted brand had long been Bosmere, but in recent years most of their models sadly seem to be in short supply in the U.S. The more upright ones (like a giant beer can) are still to be had, and also the square (that’s my friend Ken Druse’s favorite Bosmere model, pictured above), but not so much on the basic size-XL round ones with lower sides (pictured below with my favorite rake).

RAKE REQUIRED: I have moaned in the past about the death of the bamboo rake, and about how much I hate rakes with plastic tines, but the Yard Butler LT-20 rake helped me get over it. The Yard Butler has 20 steel tines arranged in a fan that is 18 inches wide at the broadest part, and enough strength to do tougher jobs, but what’s best is how springy those teeth are. Their flexibility means I can work among shrubs and perennials, removing unwanted debris without doing harm.

I KNOW, there are fancier, more stylish garden gloves. But for years I have worn nitrile-coated ones by Atlas, in basic black. I have many pairs, and even put them in the washer (not the dryer). They’d last years except for my habit of eventually poking through the middle finger on my right hand. Oops; I guess I’m not supposed to dig with my hands, but old habits die hard.

WEATHER WATCHING, ANYONE? One of my favorite stocking stuffers for gardeners is Johnny’s Selected Seeds’ acrylic rain gauge (photo below from Johnny’s website). It’s $8, and it’s my longtime, low-tech analog weather friend. At the other end price-wise and technically, I also have a digital weather station, as I have forever. The Davis Vantage Vue is up on a pole on the hillside above the backyard, and transmits wirelessly to a console in the house, recording temperature and humidity plus wind speed and precipitation in realtime. I gifted one to my brother-in-law Christmas before last, and he and their next-door neighbor erected it on the shared property line and got an extra console for the neighbor’s house, too…and both instantly became as addicted to it as I have been all these years.

(Disclosure: Purchases from Amazon affiliate links yield a commission.)

  1. Harriet says:

    What is your suggestion for garden gloves in the winter. I have the Atlas gloves and use them nonstop, but in Nov/Dec they are not warm enough or waterproof.

    1. Laura Sodders says:

      They are not waterproof, but I just use a fleece pair of Isotoners that I can wash. They give me the dexterity I need and keep my hands fairly warm for brief tasks.

      1. Ann says:

        I like to wear rubber or latex gloves under my favorite gardening gloves in the fall. They help keep my hands warm and dry. I do this when walking in the winter too.

    2. Chris Maciel says:

      Atlas makes an insulated glove that’s very good. You can’t dip your hands in water; it’s rubber on front surface only, but good for everything else.

  2. Gary says:

    Please continue with your lists. Upon your recommendation, I bought a Water Right garden hose. I liked it so much that I have one at each of my three outdoor water faucets and have given several as gifts as well. Thank you!

  3. Vicki Aderman says:

    I use 4 tools for most things. Needle-nose Snips from Corona, which look just like yours from ARS, Felco #6 pruners, My AM Leonard hori hori knife and most importantly a Root Slayer for digging holes and transplanting. I also have a short-handled lopper for roots or branches just a little too thick or tough for a hand pruner. I just ordered a new Felco one on Black Friday sale. Everyone needs a RootSlayer unless you are always digging in a raised bed or pristine dirt.

  4. Woozie says:

    Margaret, the wreath at the top of your column today is the ugliest gaudiest plastic thing imaginable! I’m guessing it is a joke, but it is a lousy lead-in to your list of favorite gardening must-haves. If I put that wreath on my door, I think Santa would just fly by…

      1. Woozie says:

        Margaret, my apologies to Pam. I have oodles of vintage and actual antique ornaments that I no longer use. Perhaps I should send them to her?!

    1. SUSAN says:

      Oh Woozie, that wreath is pure vintage and extremely desirable. My 35 year old daughter and many of her friends would love, love, love to have that wreath. As would my 65 year old, very stylish city dwelling, sister-in-law. I’m a traditionalist but can certainly appreciate fun alternatives to the usual greenery wreath.

      1. Woozie says:

        Well, my apologies. Clearly time to rummage in my basement to see what “treasures” I have to share with others (who have different tastes than me)!

  5. Judi Gustafson says:

    You are anything, but boring, my Dear! You are HONEST, and God knows, RELIABLE, in a world of the opposite. Thanks!

    And I ( great grandmother and fan) hereby give you permission to steal more time for yourself. Life is short!

  6. Denise E. says:

    Do you or your readers have a good gardening “tool belt” to recommend? Wish list for pockets for: pruners; pencil; plant tags; trowel.

    1. Lorey says:

      Erin ar Floret Flowers has a leather tool belt in her garden shop. It’s hand made by a leather artist for her shop. Looks wonderful but it is over 200.00. You can see it on her website floretflowers.com

  7. Carol says:

    I followed the link to the gloves and they were for men. I was hoping for gloves in women’s sizes, also. All women do not have the same size hands, and most of them are smaller than men’s.

  8. Alexa Freeman says:

    Wow, I love the wreath! Each to their own. I have many antique ornaments that I’m reluctant to hang but a wreath would be secure. Any information on how it was made?

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