top garden tools, for gifts (or for you), with ken druse
BY THE TIME I finished fall cleanup in November, a few essential pieces of garden equipment were looking worse for wear, like that tarp I’ve been dragging around over a couple of seasons loaded with debris that suddenly looks more like lace than a tarp ought to. Whether for ourselves or as gifts for gardening friends, my friend Ken Druse and I made a list of essential garden gear, what we use and love.
(Spoiler alert: probably not the sexiest stuff, but it’s what we really rely on.)
Garden writer Ken Druse is author most recently of “The Scentual Garden,” a big, beautiful book about fragrant plants. Besides top tools, we also gave a sneak peek about some of the promises we made to ourselves as we put the garden to bed—what we’ll do differently next year, our early resolutions.
Read along as you listen to the December 9, 2019 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
(Disclosure: Some links are affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.)
top garden tools with ken druse
Margaret Roach: Ken’s here via a Skype-to-Skype hookup this week. You sound so different. [Laughter.]
Ken: I’m always Skype, but with Skype-to-Skype this time, it’s like kissing a distance.
Margaret: Yes, 21st century and all that. So Ken, besides your book, or should I say books, since you’ve published 20 of them, besides “The Scentual Garden,” I’m looking for some gift suggestions, and also really, frankly, always to kind of upgrade—as I gave that tarp example. There’s always something that’s no longer working, or we break it or whatever, or we just need to do better. So what are you kind of zeroing in on?
Ken: When you brought up the subject, I thought, “What am I going to talk about?” And already I had like 12 ideas. I bought two copies of your latest book, “A Way to Garden,” already to give for holiday gifts.
If I may say something about tarps, blue tarps are for boats only. [Laughter.]
Margaret: Correct. And it’s so funny because there’s nothing more horrible than surveying a beautiful vista in the landscape, either in one’s garden or driving along the roadside and saying, “Oh, look at that beautiful…” And then there’s this tarp [laughter], this blue tarp. And it’s not even a natural blue, that blue, is it?
Ken: I was going to say fluorescent, but it’s indescribable.
Margaret: Yes. And plus one of the things, and I learned this the hard way, I ran out, I don’t know, a couple of years ago to get a tarp and … I have a particular size for a particular task, and I didn’t check carefully on the labels and the mil thickness, the thousandth-of-inch thicknesses. It’s really important if you want one that’s not going to get destroyed. And after all, we don’t want to put plastic—these are polyethylene—into the landscape. Throw it away. We don’t want one that’s as thin as a garbage bag, we want a real serious thing. So I’m being a lot more careful and also, as you say, color. I want brown or the very, very darkest green.
Ken: I wonder if we can find like a waxed canvas or something. I’m going to look into that.
Margaret: O.K., so you’re in charge of that. But 5 mils is not thick, folks, and that’s what a lot of the junky blue ones are.
Ken: It’s thick for a garbage bag.
Margaret: Yes, but it’s not thick for a tarp, and a lot of them are like that and, yes, they’re bad news. But it is one of my favorite tools, if we can call it a tool, because I can move quite an amount of debris just dragging it myself over to the compost heap. So it’s pretty efficient. I can kind of pull it around with me through the day and then have a big batch of stuff to go into the heap. So I like the tarp. It’s sort of the non-wheelbarrow wheelbarrow. So speaking of which, are you a wheelbarrow or a cart person?
Ken: I’m a hybrid.
Margaret: What does that mean? [Laughter.]
Ken: I kind of like a wheelbarrow with two wheels in the front.
Margaret: Oh yes, yes. Oh, for sturdiness and the safe stability?
Ken: Right, so you don’t have to worry about it tipping left and right. And I know plastic is horrible, but the steel ones weigh a ton. And we’ve got a lot of up and down, hilly things here. So I recently got a wheelbarrow if you can call it that. It’s a wheels-barrow with two wheels in the front, and I kind of like it. But I have a wooden cart that I use all the time for the bigger stuff and the wheelbarrows. And they’re inexpensive, too.
Margaret: Yes, I have both, plus I have a Smart Cart [above]—one of the carts that’s on a tubular aluminum frame and the, what do we call the bed, the bucket? What do we call the part of a cart or wheelbarrow that … the dish part. [Laughter.] You know what I mean? That comes off, this one, it just lifts off. It’s like a giant dish pan and it lifts off. It’s made of … I don’t know what, but kind of like that corrugated roofing material. Would you call that fiberglass maybe or something? Something like that.
And what’s great about it is that you can use that like as a soil-mixing vessel, and you can take it off and like clean it if you want to really easily. It doesn’t rust or anything because it’s not made of metal. It’s very lightweight but very sturdy. What I basically do is I use it as kind of a mobile potting bench, and I move it around in the springtime when I want to have soil ready to go into my pots, and pot things up, and re-pot houseplants. I kind of use it as my potting bench on wheels.
Ken: Are you going to put the links on the website?
Margaret: Yes, Smart Cart; I think they’re made in Vermont, Smart Cart. And they come in different sizes, and they have kind of bicycle tires, so it really gets around even on my hilly site. And it’s very, very light, obviously not when it’s loaded down with stuff. But I use it for moving large amounts of things around also. So anyway, it’s … but I still love my little red wheelbarrow, my old-fashioned, one-wheel that I keep repairing and repairing and repairing because I’m very attached to it.
Ken: And then we have to store them.
Margaret: Yes. My garage is looking a little crazy at the moment.
Ken: I’m sure.
Margaret: So what was next on your list?
Ken: Well, we’re still talking about cleanup a little bit. And I have to say I love the old Bos Bags. Do you have Bos Bags?
Margaret: Is that like B-O-S-M-E-R-E, I think. Like Bosmere?
Ken: Bosmere is the company, right.
Margaret: Yes, yes, I do. I didn’t know you use those, too.
Ken: I like the ones that are square [above, the G300 Ken prefers] when they’re open. And the thing that’s so great about them, they fold sort of like an umbrella, not exactly, but they fold into a wedge you can pack to stack them up. And you take this thing and you toss it onto the ground and it sets itself up in a square. And they have two handles, and I like those mostly because you can store them or carry them wherever you need them and they don’t weigh anything. So I use that for debris when I’m not using the tarp, if I have just leaves or weeds, well, weeds mostly, and then just carry it to the compost. It’s great.
Margaret: Yes. Basically when I go out to garden (she says longingly thinking that it will be months before she gets to do it again) [laughter] ... But when I go out to garden, I don’t have a lot of gadgets and nonsense gimmicky things with me. I’ve got some kind of clippers. If I think I’m going to be doing some digging, I may have a shovel with me. I only have two, I have a plain old long-handled and I have kind of a border spade, a shorter handled D-grip handle, shorter, small head.
And I have kind of carrying device like we’re talking about, whether it’s the tarp, whether it’s the … I’ve always usually got a bag with me of some kind, and I love the Bosmere ones. I use the cylindrical ones, the biggest of all of them [the model G530 below], though. It’s not too tall, but it’s very wide. In the square ones, do they have that kind of … they give you a piece of plastic-
Ken: The band?
Margaret: Yes, and you’re supposed to thread it through the lip of the thing?
Ken: Right, the square ones don’t have that. They have spines like an umbrella, just four, in each corner. The thing about the band, I have one of those, I threaded the band, which is very hard actually. And then how do you store it? What’s your solution to that?
Margaret: Well see, I don’t use the band. That’s what I was just going to say. After trying to get the thing through the … It’s kind of like if the tie in the waistband of your gym pants comes out of the little … what do you call that? It’s a seam, it’s not a seam. But anyway, if you have a pair of stretchy pants and they have like a-
Ken: And for your hoodie.
Margaret: Yes, exactly. And one end comes out and you’re like, “Oh, how do I get this back in?” [Laughter.] It’s a real pain in the neck. Yes, so I kind of got frustrated. Plus the one that I did manage to get the support into the top seam there, I didn’t like how it stood up all the time. And so I just kind of have them floppy, which is fine for me.
The other thing is that whatever shape or size is right for you, those Bosmere bags I think are really good, I think we’re agreeing. I also bought, this is going to sound nutty, but do you know those grow bags that wholesale nurseries grow shrubs and stuff in? They’re made out of recycled plastic, and they look like felt? Do you know what I mean?
Margaret: And they sell them in nurseries nowadays. So if you don’t want to put things in a plastic pot you can use them. But the really big ones, and I forget if it’s 30 gallons or what the size is [update: it’s 25 gallon with handles], but the biggest ones I was able to get at A.M. Leonard, like a 10-pack. And they have handles, they have big ones with handles. They’re just sort of gray. As I said, it’s almost like felt, but it’s recycled, and it’s like for 60 bucks you get 10 of them.
I have them all over the place, like in every shed and here and there. I’ve always got one with me and it’s not quite as big as the bag we’re talking about, the tip bag from Bosmere. But it’s a great little thing to have and I use them for everything. And then in the winter, I store my canna tubers in them, in the cellar. I put my canna tubers and then I can carry them down the stairs into the cellar, holding the handles.
Ken: I’ve never seen ones that big.
Margaret: Oh yes, yes, yes. So A.M. Leonard, they call them Root Pouches, and they’re degradable eventually. But using them the way I’m saying to use them, they wouldn’t degrade because you’re not putting soil in them 365 days a year and setting them on the ground. Yes, I love them, and I’ve had them for about 10 years, honestly. [A.M. Leonard photo above, of handled pouches as they are used in nurseries.]
Ken: We’re talking about tools and everything, but it’s holiday season. Can you imagine giving that to someone? [Laughter.] Well, maybe. I think gardeners do appreciate useful things no matter what they look like. Just slap a bow on it, right?
Margaret: As long as it’s not a blue tarp. [Laughter.]
Ken: As long as it’s not a blue tarp. I find myself halfway through the garden and wishing I had remembered all the things you just said, because I should never go in the garden without pruners. But if you were giving pruners as a gift to a gardener, something … they already have a Felco probably—I like the Number 2 but we don’t have to get into that. So what pruners would you give as an extra pruner?
Margaret: I’ve totally shifted away from my Felcos, which lie on unloved and unused these days after many years of use and replacing the blades and all that kind of good stuff regularly. I use little what are meant for working on grapevines or other fine pruning of fruit. They’re a needle-nose snip stainless steel by the company called ARS.
And in fact all my pruning gear, this is the one thing that I actually spend a little money on is the more sophisticated pruning gear, these snips that I’m talking about, the needle-nosed fruit snips from ARS. They might be 20-ish dollars, or $23, or something like that, they’re not expensive. But it’s small in the hand, it’s light on the hand, it doesn’t exhaust my hand, it’s not a big thing to grip and it’s not heavy at all. And it does most everything I need to do most days, unless I’m doing heavy work. And then I have, from ARS also, all the more sophisticated pruning things like long-reach pruners, telescoping pruner, telescoping saw, the things that are arborist-supply kind of things.
Ken: Well on those pruners, what’s about the thickest thing you can cut? Can you cut something as thick as a pencil?
Margaret: Oh, absolutely. Yes.
Ken: Huh. I’m going to look into that. You’re making me think of one of my favorite things under $25. Do you know the Corona Quick Saw, the 7-inch folding saw?
Margaret: No, I have a lot of folding saws, but it’s funny that you say that because I’ve been wondering. Mine are kind of vintage at this point and a couple of them need, and that’s another thing I have in each bag in different places, a couple of them need … I need some new ones and I didn’t know what brand is good. So what’s it called? Corona…
Ken: The Corona Quick Saw. It comes 7-inch and it comes 13-inch. I love my 7-inch. It’s under $25, and you can buy replacement plates which cost almost the same as the whole saw, oddly enough. The Felco small folding saw is really nice too, which is a little bit bigger. But that Corona Quick Saw, I don’t know how they figured out. That blade is so sharp. And 7-inches, can you picture it? It’s really small but you can get through a 3- or 4-inch branch easily.
Margaret: And I feel like rather than over-efforting with just your one hand, using the saw on the larger things and the little snips on the smaller things, it’s better for me right now, it’s a better combination. So I love the saw for if I have 20 water sprouts on a branch of a fruit tree. The saw, boom, boom, boom, you just get them, it’s easy. It’s not like a big gripping motion 20 times with a larger pruner. So, all right, Corona; I wrote that down, Quick Saw. O.K., so those are some of our pruning things. So what else is on the list?
Ken: I just had to buy my third folding rake. Do you know the rakes that fold up?
Margaret: So the head folds up, it gets small?
Ken: The tines get really narrow.
Margaret: So like an umbrella would collapse into a narrow thing, the head of the rake?
Ken: Right. Which is great because I can get something in a tiny space if I have to work and rake leaves. And the first one I got I think over 40 years ago. You slip this thing up and down to make it wide or narrow. And the first one had just a wing nut, which finally rusted this year after like 40-something years.
Then I got one with a little fiberglass clamp that snapped off this year. It was probably 10 years old, and it looked like it was a UV kind of disintegration. But I just got a new one that has a metal clamp with a plastic covering on the handle, and it’s really sturdy, and they’ve improved it so much. The tines instead of being just pieces of metal that are sharp and round, they flattened them at the end. This is really an improvement. So I love my folding saws … I mean, sorry, folding rakes, and it’s my go-to rake for almost everything.
Margaret: Yes, it’s funny, rakes is a kind of a sore point for me because I was a bamboo rake person all through my gardening career until the last five, six, seven, around that number of years, when the decent bamboo rake kind of went extinct. And I’ve written about this and people are probably sick of hearing me say it.
But McGuire, for instance, made great bamboo rakes, and they had a strong point of attachment where the parts of the fan arrangement were attached to the handle. And then over the years, stuff’s just gotten junkier and junkier. So you know you can rake for about five minutes with a current bamboo rake. [Laughter.]
And I don’t even want to talk about those plastic rakes with the one-piece head, which are just grotesque. I hate them. And they have a handle that’s the wrong thickness to be comfortable in the hand. Terrible, terrible.
So finally I found this thing, I don’t know, five years ago or so, Yard Butler made this rake and already apparently it’s gone. It wasn’t bamboo, it was metal. And already, now I see for some outrageous price a couple of people have them, and you can find it on like Amazon or somewhere from some vendor. But it’s apparently no longer in production. So it just seems like every rake I come across … I’m going to have to try one of the ones that you have. Maybe for the transcript of the show, you’ll look on the handle and see if it has a brand or something and we can recommend to people. [Update: Margaret found stock of the Yard Butler rake on the Ace Hardware website.] [The link for Ken’s folding rake.]
Margaret: Yes, because you just talked about three different methods of attachment, and which ones are good, and the difference in the tines and so forth. So it’d be good to know which one it is.
Ken: So you’re listing some pet peeves here. It makes me think of all the hoses I bought over the years that I don’t use. Like those, oh gosh, those ridiculous ones that are supposed to fold up. People love them and they never worked for me.
Margaret: Oh, they’re horrible.
Ken: I ended up with the best, Melnor, because they don’t kink. But who wants that color? I mean it’s not like you lose it.
Margaret: No, but plus it weighs too much. I have three 100-footers, probably four or five 50-footers, and four or five 25-footers to have all around the place in different positions where there are hose bibs. And carrying a 100-footer of what you’re talking about, a conventional hose, forget about it. So I have two words for you, Water Right [above]. Family business out in the Pacific Northwest, lovely people, drinking-water safe, super lightweight. I think the 50-foot version of a Water Right hose is 3 pounds, the 100-footer is 8 pounds. It looks narrow, they’re beautiful looking.
Ken: And they don’t kink?
Margaret: I’ve had them since forever, since they were invented, and I love them. No, I find them to be great and I can maneuver around with them. I don’t knock shrubs over, you know what I mean? They’re not just so big and intrusive. So anyway, Water Right is my favorite. People have heard me talk about that before. So I know we have a couple other things to throw out, but I want to have at least a couple of minutes at the end for some resolutions. So any other quickies to just add onto the list?
Ken: Oh my gosh. O.K., no Christmas sweater. Check.
Margaret: No. [Laughter.]
Ken: We talked about a lot of things today that are under $25, which I think is great, pruners and saws. I think we’ve covered it. We’re going to think of it after.
Margaret: All right. Because one thing is that I remember you told me a story that you dropped your cellphone in the canal.
Ken: That’s true.
Margaret: And I recently almost lost mine. I have like a little pouch on my tractor and it came flying out, and it was almost the end of it. Do you have any solution for that? Because this is a safety thing, especially for those of us gardening alone?
Ken: So I have shirts that have, I don’t know what they’re called, plackets or something, that you can-
Ken: O.K. So I had those, but it takes too long to button and unbutton. So I glued Velcro on my pockets so they would stay closed, and then I got a new phone, and it’s too big to use the Velcro, which are glued to my shirts. So I got a kind of armband quick-release thing, and I have to say it was great and also inexpensive. So it goes on your arm like an armband, doesn’t squeeze it too much, and it’s not heavy and you don’t think about it, and then your phone just snaps right on it. And if you need your phone, you just grab it and you sort of push this little button and it releases.
Margaret: All right, for the transcript, you’re going to get us the brand of that, too.
Ken: Yes, because I looked into a lot of them. [For his iPhone 11 Ken uses this one. Runner’s World and other 2019 magazine ratings include this model by VUP that works on many phone sizes (photo below).]
Margaret: So we have like two minutes and we haven’t even talked about our resolutions. And I’m going to say mine really quickly, and it’s really simple, and I bet it applies to a lot of people who have been gardening in the same spot:
A lot of plants I planted at the beginning as “groundcovers,” turned out to be horrible thugs and invasives, and now I have miles of them or at least hundreds of square feet. And I made a decision, and I actually started on it this fall and I’m going to continue in the spring, not to get overwhelmed anymore, but to say, “One bed at a time.”
And that’s my resolution: One bed at a time. And I systematically picked one bed and removed it all this fall, this particular one was Lamiastrum; I removed it all. And I’m going to be ready now for spring time to plant some great native groundcovers, native shade plants, in that area. And so one bed at a time is my resolution. How about you for in our last minute or so?
Ken: Well that sounds really good. And I’m glad you added that extra part, because I think you should remove those invasive ones. They’re groundcover, so they cover the ground. But you don’t want to leave bare ground, and I don’t want to have chopped wood on the ground, so plants is still the answer, of course. But it’s, again, the right plant.
Ken: Because I know you have a wonderful planting of big-root geranium and weeds don’t come up through that.
Ken: And it’s so much better to mulch with living things and nonliving things, but with the Lamiastrum and Lamium too. Before you know it, you turn your back and the beautiful silver lamium you bought is now magenta flowers, and not so beautiful, and there’s too much of it.
Margaret: So we can agree that that’s a good resolution for both of us, now that we’re out of time.
Ken: Oh, that’s great. It went so fast. It’s great to speak with you.
Margaret: Good to speak with you and we’ll talk in the beginning of the new year. For our January show, we’ll do a serious point-by-point resolution. I’ll talk to you soon, O.K. Ken?
Ken: Yes, wonderful.
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MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its 10th year in March 2019. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the December 9, 2019 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).