Garden 'Wish Books': Gadgets, and More

Times Garden Editor

A young professional comes home from the office, puts on his 7 3/4-ounce cotton canvas garden pants with the reinforced knees ($39), slides the "state-of-the-art" Swiss-made Felco pruning shears ($33) into the pocket designed to hold them, slips into his brightly colored plastic garden clogs ($26; coordinated socks are available for $5.50), and heads outside--to see what the gardeners have done today.

This is how the mildly amused media portrays the customers of the new garden accessories catalogues--yuppies who like the accouterments, but not necessarily the activity, of gardening.

The catalogues, from companies such as Smith & Hawken, Clapper's and Gardener's Eden, are their source books for expensive gadgets and trendy items.

But for dyed-in-the-wool gardeners, they might be better thought of as a modern-day "wish book," what the Sears catalogue was once called. In its time, it too was full of wonderful things not available at the corner store, and few of the things in these new gardening catalogues are available there either, or at any store for that matter.

Dedicated gardeners will find that many of the accessories in these catalogues are not merely trendy, but useful too.

Those who have worn out the knees in several pairs of jeans understand that there really is some value in a pair of loose-fitting pants that have neoprene inserts in the knee area to cushion those old bones and a pocket for pruning shears, the one tool that should always be close at hand.

These pants come from Smith & Hawken, the first of the mail-order catalogue companies to bring a little class to the business by hiring the best photographers, designers and copy writers to do a catalogue that is as pretty as can be.

Here they have the old Sears catalogues beat--these new garden catalogues not only have things to wish for, but show gardens to dream of, although most of the gardens pictured are English, so don't think they are going to be all that easy to emulate in Southern California.

Many of the tools and other items in these catalogues are also English, or Swiss or German or Japanese, countries where gardening is taken a lot more seriously than it is here.

The clogs, from Smith & Hawken and available in red, blue, yellow or green, are "imported," though the catalogue does not say from where (the matching socks, however, are made in the U.S.A.).

From England you can get an "authentic Sussex trug," an item that has yet to replace a plastic bucket in my garden for carrying cut flowers or tossing weeds into.

I did try some of the English tools, which were the first thing Smith & Hawken sold, and which could be said to have started the whole thing.

They carry the Bulldog brand, which I had admired on a visit to England (I even brought a spading fork home on the plane). Bulldog tools have one-piece forged ends and handsome wooden handles that I hoped would last forever, but I found that the handles were too short for us tall Americans, and the handle on my favorite English trowel--a Wilkinson stainless steel affair carried in Clapper's catalogue--fell off.

In the latest Smith & Hawken catalogue I did notice that the handles are now longer. I hope they are more firmly attached.

That, of course, is the trouble with mail-order catalogues--you can not closely inspect, handle or try out any of the items. You must rely on descriptions and photographs, which is why making these descriptions intelligent and even witty, and the photos pretty, was such a good idea on the part of Smith & Hawken, and why their approach has been widely copied.

While it would be impossible to evaluate all of the items in each catalogue, it is possible to evaluate the catalogues themselves, and to make some broad generalizations about the usefulness or uniqueness of their contents.

I would rate the Smith & Hawken catalogue as the best of the bunch, with the most unique and useful items. Very little of what they offer will be found at the corner store, and much of it will immediately be put to use upon arrival.

At the inexpensive end there are things such as durable, metal plant labels (25 for $8.50), soft tomato ties (66 feet for $4), a handsome narrow weeding trowel ($12.50) with "edges sharp enough to dislodge weeds and a head long and narrow enough to attend to a multiplicity of tasks in confined circumstances."

I own the incredibly sharp Dutch hand weeder ($10.50) and use it around the base of low shrubbery, and I am meaning to try out the English vine supports (20 for $4.95).

At the high end are the very expensive garden furnishings.

These include all kinds of teak furniture, including the gorgeous, sinuous Lutyens bench for a paltry $1,700 (Sir Edwin Lutyens was a prominent English architect and the design, done in collaboration with famed gardener Gertrude Jekyll is said to date back to 1902). They also have a home-grown bench ($450) by Californian Robert Ferguson that must be the best-looking piece of redwood furniture ever made.

Other furnishings include flower pots that seem a little on the expensive side (one 14-inch basket weave, terra-cotta pot costs $59), flowerpot trivets ($29) that look intriguing and an incredible, enameled steel stage for potted plants that they call an "Etagere a Fleurs" (for what seems like a reasonable $70) that holds three step-up rows of flowerpots.

There are very few gadgets in this catalogue, although one might question the usefulness of "Solar House Numbers."

Gardener's Eden, a gardening catalogue from kitchen accessories specialists Williams-Sonoma, has more gadgets but still comes in second in my rating. Here you will find the hose pots that I can no longer live without. Though very expensive ($86), they really do keep garden hoses organized, out-of-the-way and are actually attractive.

Most of what Gardener's Eden carries is unique. An example is their tuteurs , steel frames on which you can train plants such as sweet peas or miniature climbing roses into a parasol or columnar shape.

Their accessories for the garden are particularly cute, in the Williams-Sonoma tradition, such as a copper-roofed, hand-painted bird house from Tennessee ($38) or a bamboo-sheathed hummingbird feeder ($21).

A watering can from Portugal ($27), painted as brightly as a Portuguese fishing boat, is on my wish list and it looks very practical for watering pots. The Australian watering cans ($21 for the 3-liter size), with their upturned spouts, are meant for watering seedlings with gentle spray, not pots.

Gardener's Supply seems to try to steer away from the elegant toward the strictly useful. In its first few pages, their catalogue features, not teak furniture, but a unique seed starting system that I am determined to try sometime.

Then there are pages of trays, stands and lights for gardening indoors, including a new fluorescent tube (six tubes for $79.95) that "duplicates sunlight" and two whole pages devoted to tomato-growing devices.

In this catalogue you will find all of the latest miracle garden materials, such as Reemay, the bug-proof mesh covering for vegetables.

They also have a complete line of tools, and many are not carried by the other catalogues, including a line of Dutch digging tools (the tough-looking spades costs $28.50) and a long-handled Swan-Neck Hoe ($24.95), "the finest hoe in the world." Garden sieves ($9.95) are most practical when you are trying to strain clods out of the soil or for a potting mix.

A children's tool set ($24.95) and wheelbarrow ($19.95) looks like they should last about as long as the children stay children, but are reasonably priced. They even have furniture, but not teak--they offer the classic American metal or wood lawn chairs.

Gardener's Supply also carries a number of organic pest control products and fertilizers, but that is the specialty of two other catalogues.

The Natural Gardening Co. offers things such as copper snail barriers (20 feet for $12.50) and gopher guards (six gallon-sized guards for $12.50), fish and seaweed fertilizer ($24.75 for a gallon), natural predators like lacewings (5,000 eggs for $20) and encarsia wasps (500 for $32), plus tools and other garden accessories.

The Ringer catalogue sells tools and gadgets, plus their own line of natural lawn and garden products, which includes things such as Mosquito Attack (6 ounces for $10.98), "a natural and effective way to kill mosquito larva," and Fruit Tree Booster, "the best-tasting tree fertilizer we sell." They're talking about the taste of the fruit, not the fertilizer.

The tiny catalogue of Walter F. Nicke, who has been in business longer than any of the other companies, makes up for with uniqueness and usefulness what it lacks in aesthetics. Besides, there's a picture of my cat, clipped from an old article, in it.

Their Cape Cod Weeder ($8.95) is one of the most useful weeding tools in my tote. They carry a fine line of English propagating trays, Humidmats to add a little humidity for indoor plants, a humidity meter so you can see if you need a Humidmat, garden straight lines for farm-like rows, plain plastic plant labels (hard to find for some reason), and other useful tools and gadgets.

The Burpee Essentials of Good Gardening catalogue is a recent offshoot of its seed catalogue business and contains many of the items found in the other catalogues, but there are some unique things here too.

For instance, they offer an old-fashioned push mower ($99) and a nice deep harvest basket ($20); a wooden child's wheelbarrow ($50) and set of four child-sized garden tools that will last more than one generation ($74.95). For the adults there is a Vermont-made wooden wheelbarrow that is far too pretty (and pricey at $325) to use in the garden, but it is elegant.

Clapper's Garden Catalogue specializes in teak furniture but also carries a lot of tools, although many of the tools can be found in local nurseries, including the fine line of Corona pruners and saws, made right here in Southern California.

In the furniture department, they have a rarity--a teak sun lounge ($425). They say, "At last a comfortable chaise lounger that you won't be replacing every few years," and they are probably right. They also have a beautiful wood wheelbarrow ($225) painted barn red with removable sides that is sure to be on most gardener's wish lists once they see it, or see a picture of it, that is.

Note: There are additional shipping charges depending on the dollar amount of the item ordered and the company ordered from. Please check with companies for these and their current prices. GARDEN ACCESSORIES CATALOGUES

Burpee Essentials of Good Gardening, W. Atlee Burpee & Co., Warminster, Pa. 18974. (800) 678-4447.

Clapper's Garden Catalogue, 1125 Washington St., West Newton, Mass. 02165. (617) 244-7909.

Gardener's Eden, P.O. Box 7307, San Francisco, Calif. 94120-7307. (415) 421-4555.

Gardener's Supply. 128 Intervale Road, Burlington, Vt. 05401. (802) 863-1700.

The Natural Gardening Co., 217 San Anselmo Ave., San Anselmo, Calif. 94960. (415) 456-5060.

Ringer, 9959 Valley View Road, Eden Prairie, Minn. 55344-3585. (800) 654-1047.

Smith & Hawken, 25 Corte Madera, Mill Valley, Calif. 94941. (415) 383-2000.

Walter F. Nicke, McLeod Lane, Box 433, Topsfield, Mass. 01983. (617) 887-3388.

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