Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Hand Tools

I haven't quite gotten the hang of blogging. For one thing links in posts make a big difference in comparison to other sorts of writing. Back in 2002 and then for a while I posted some writing online as The Incompetent Gardener. I always liked that writing, which I did in word processing software and then copied into the blank the site provided. I didn't know how to insert links, and am not certain the site even allowed me to. One of the thoughts for this blog was to repost those pieces and perhaps embedding links when appropriate. Blogging of course can be many things, but for me there is a certain timeliness associated with it. That's made my plan to post older writing harder than I thought.

Then there's the way I write. I always seem to lead with some off-topic story. I'm not sure why, except that I like stories. Recently over at my Bazungu Bucks blog I've gotten into a rut with a stream of posts, because I'm trying to work out some thoughts. Whether anyone finds them interesting is unlikely, yet in my own mind I'm sort of plodding along in that groove and probably will continue until I find a way out. But meantime I've been busy in the garden, leaving me tired and too lazy to write. Since there was a lull in my writing along my rut, I thought I'd post something about my gardening there. A friend suggested I repost it here. That's a good suggestion, but sort of brings up the problem I'm having reposting my older work here.

That post is called Dirt. I didn't think too much when writing, just wrote about what I've been doing lately. Instead of reposting it here I thought to write about that some more. Actually, since I've been using hand tools a lot lately, I thought about an old Incompetent Gardener essay on hand tools and insert links. Drat, that's not so easy, so I'll just write.

The screen capture is from the beginning of a really good video I watched recently from the BBC 2 program This Natural World. It's a film by wildlife filmmaker Rebecca Hosking called A Farm for the Future. Hosking has gone back to her family farm and wants to make a go of it. But she's also keenly aware that modern agriculture is "dripping in oil" which is a somewhat inconvenient truth so to speak. So the film explores the question of what's the alternative. It's a beautifully made film and fifty minutes worth spending to watch.

Hosking is a very attractive person and she interviews some really interesting folks in her film. Among them her "dear old" neighbor Pearl. I was delighted with this part of the film because along with recent video of Pearl where old photographs. Photographs of farming with horses, carts and hand tools. Pearl is so lovely and how pretty as a young woman. In the days on her farm they had two horses to pull a cart. Hosking then points out that some modern tractors have as much as 400 horsepower.

Wielding a tool in the old shed, Pearl asks Rebecca if she knows what it is. She then explains and Hoskings remarks how heavy the tool is. To which Pearl responds: "We'll we weren't mice you know."

I do use some power tools, but most of my gardening is done using hand tools. Much can be done with them. As with any tool, quality matters. In my old essay on hand tools I picked four tools as my most used: the Union Razorback nursery trowel, the Ames solid shank 27” garden spade, Bahco 9 inch by-pass pruners, and Wells Lamont steer hide driver gloves.

For some reason the A. M. Leonard site seemed a bit funky tonight. But I can attest that it's a great place to buy tools. I was using their Amazon Storefront for the links above and some of the items didn't show up in that data base, Leonards has them all. It's hard to find the top quality tools in local retail stores, but they really are worth the extra money and effort to by them. They work so much better and last so much longer.

Even still, I manage to break tools. The Ames spade really is my favorite, but I break the wooden handles. I used to be able to get replacement handles locally, I probably can still at the local non-chain hardware store; but currently I'm without that spade. I broke so many handles that I bought an all steel nursery spade from Leonards. The darn thing is heavy, but is the tool for trying to lift shrubs and dig in stony ground, and other uses I put a spade too. Still for most purposes the Ames spade is stronger than what you'll find in your local store and a joy to use. I also have an English forged spade--the handle also broken--and I prefer the Ames spade to it.

Recently the Emerald Ash Borer was discovered not far from my home. It's a native of Asia, but seems to have made a home here in the USA since 2002, killing Ash trees in many states. That's sad for many reasons. The tallest tree on our property is an Ash, Fraxinus pennsylvanica. So far I haven't noticed an infestation, but a rue the day when I do. But another problem is that wooden tool handles are generally made of Ash and there are restrictions on the transport of the timber now. I better hurry up and buy replacement handles for my spades while I can still get them. Leonards wants $22 for them now, last I bought them they were under $6.

It snowed today, actually it snowed a little yesterday too. Yesterday I continued my transplanting chores, but my hands got too cold. For transplanting I was using my space and my union trowel, and a Hori Hori knife--a really strong knife that has a serrated edge along one side which is great for sawing through tough ornamental grass roots among other things. Not wanting to get so cold today I set about clearing the bramble along our long driveway.

Not surprisingly the land in Pennsylvania wants to be sylvan, or forest. Bramble is a sort of nurse crop that allows trees to reclaim abandoned land. Oh yes and the stuff is thorny! Mostly the bramble is blackberry and raspberry canes. When I tell people I cut them they wonder why, aren't the berries delicious? I've noticed very few raspberries and even fewer blackberries on these canes. They grow up into an impenetrable mass especially after a few years. Impressive really, the old canes fall but remain stout enough to provide a sort of canopy for lower plants to grow under. As the old canes breakdown they make a nice duff and makes the soil alive. But I want to keep the driveway clear. I didn't cut the bramble last year, and maybe not the year before, so it was encroaching on the drive.

The blackberry and raspberry bramble is complicated by a wild rose from Asia called Rosa multiflora. My thinking about non-native plants is a post for another day, my views are more moderate than some on the subject. Nonetheless the state of Pennsylvania lists Rosa multiflora as a "noxious weed" and there's some truth to that. Clearing along the drive with power tools would require a tractor with a brush cutter with hydraulics so the cutter could be angled to cut the bank. I don't have a tractor set up like that, but it would make quick work of it. So I have to use hand tools, and the primary tool I use are the Bahco by-pass pruners. The Bahco pruners are strong and that's why I swear by them.

Just using my trusty steer hide gloves and my pruners in only a single afternoon was able to clear over halfway along the drive. Using a weed wacker with a brush blade is dangerous work, especially along a bank, but the main problem is the thorny canes coming back at you as you cut. The more deliberate action of cutting with hand tools is almost as fast and very much safer.

There is a tendency to imagine that power tools are necessary and desirable. The more I garden the less I turn to power tools as a first resort. I still use power tools, and find a chain saw very useful for cutting large woody limbs for example. But for small limbs I use a hand saw. Again a good quality hand saw makes a big difference. One reason that people don't reach for hand tools more often surely has to do with the poor quality of tools most available. There is so much that can be done with hand tools. Hand tools provide an easy pace for the work and their quite operation allows a person to take in the bird songs and other ambient noise around.

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