Make Sure Not to Pass Up Quality for Your Trip to the Toolshed

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Picture the inside of a toolshed: Rakes, shovels and hoes adorn the walls; flowerpots are in one corner; smaller hand tools--pruners, trowels and forks--dangle from pegs; a wheelbarrow or garden cart lounges off to the side; plastic sprayers and watering cans are heaped in another corner; a squat power mower and a bulky chipper-shredder block most of the floor.

According to the National Gardening Assn., roughly eight of every 10 Americans are involved in some gardening activity, ranging from mowing the lawn once a week to growing enough vegetables to stock a family larder. The lawn and garden industry has responded to this mania for yardwork by flooding the market with masses of innovative, high-tech, supersonic, ergonomic gizmos and widgets. Many are useful; many are not. So what do you need?

Welcome to Toolshed 101, a quick course on the tools you'll need for a tiny city garden, a suburban lot or an estate.

To begin, here are three basic rules:

* Rule No. 1. The array of equipment available to the modern gardener is staggering, but in many ways horticultural engineers have yet to improve on the pointed stick. Ergo, the simpler the better.

* Rule No. 2. folk wisdom says that he who buys cheap buys often. Don't skimp on quality.

* Rule No. 3. Before buying any tools, consider the comfort, the "fit" and the feel to your hand and back. Ill-designed implements kill the joy of gardening.

The size of the garden plot will determine how the ground is broken. If the area is small--say 600 square feet or less--a garden fork usually is enough. For a larger area, you might consider a rototiller, a machine that churns the earth and prepares the seedbed.

Remember Rule No. 2 when choosing a garden fork. Your foot will provide the driving power, your arms and back the lifting power, but your energy and effort will be diminished by a flimsy tool.

The best ones, from England and the Netherlands, tend to weigh a bit more because of their sturdy handles and heavy-duty forged steel tines. They also tend to cost a bit more, but they're worth it because of their durability.

Another indispensable tool is the trowel. If you buy a cheapie, you'll pay. A cheap one has a stamped metal blade and a handle that usually doesn't fit in the hand. Look for a trowel with a heavy blade, a sturdy shank and a handle that is comfortable.

Once the soil is turned, you'll need to level the bed. The gardener needs a heavy-duty steel "level head" rake, which has a flat, comb-like head that attaches directly to the handle.

In choosing this and other digging tools, stick to wooden handles and single-piece forged-steel tool heads for comfort and durability. A tip: With most tools, if the head inserts into the handle, you're buying a peck of trouble: It's apt to break apart with vigorous use. Look for a head that fits over the end of the shaft.

There is a point at which a garden becomes too large for the spading fork. Your back and your energy level will tell you clearly enough when you have crossed that threshold.

The easy way to work a huge amount of dirt is to have your garden turned by someone who does custom rototilling. Check the want ads and the bulletin boards at garden shops for names.

An alternative is to rent a rototiller for a day or two and do the work yourself. Rentals range in price from $30 to $60 a day.

Or you can get your own rototiller, which makes a lot of sense. You can use it through the gardening season and even afterward, keeping rows cultivated and soil aerated to promote better plant growth.

Once the garden is nice and smooth, it's time to plant.

The easy way to do this is to mark a straight line on the surface with a trowel and cut to the depth recommended for what you're planting. Then sprinkle the seeds into the furrow at the appropriate intervals. Close the furrow lightly with a rake. Tamp the soil firmly with the back of the rake or walk on the row to encourage germination and capillary moisture action.

But let's face it: Some gardens are too large to seed by hand, so there are all manner of devices to speed the task. One is a plastic trowel-like device that feeds seeds through a small baffle and is supposed to allow you to space them precisely in the row. Nice idea, but seeds tend to fly all over the place as you turn the ratchet wheel that shakes them off the end of the trowel.

Forget about the baffle seeder and consider a push-type seeder, a wheeled device that allows you to dispense seed as you walk along the row. Interchangeable discs handle seeds of different sizes and control the spacing. These seeders are available in various models; prices range between $15 and $30.

The larger garden--we're talking a quarter-acre here--may require a larger-capacity and sturdier seeder. Catalogues and stores offer a selection, usually for less than $100.

Transplanting seedlings--tomatoes, peppers, eggplants and the like--is another challenge. The most common approach is to draw a line, dig holes at appropriate intervals with a trowel or hoe and set the plants in the ground. Instead, we recommend a bulb planter, the type driven into the ground with the force of a foot, for punching transplant holes along the line you've drawn on the bed. The tubular core of dirt removed by the tool can be dropped to the side of the hole, then used to firm the transplant into the soil.

If you go this route, return to Rule No. 2. Buy a heavy-duty bulb planter--not one of those widely available flimsy $12 models--and you'll be in business for a lifetime. It's also ideal for planting bulbs in the fall.

Even in a mechanized garden, there is some menial work you cannot avoid. Weeding and hoeing, especially if it has piled up, can be the worst kind of drudgery. But hoeing the garden, thanks to the perspicacious Dutch, no longer has to be the bane of the back-yard tiller. An invention known as the swan hoe, because of the looping curvature of its neck, shows the way to salvation.

This hand-forged carbon steel blade, easily honed to razor sharpness and available in different widths, makes hoeing a pleasurable task. It costs less than $30--still somewhat more than conventional models--and is sold mostly through mail-order specialty firms.

The traditional American wide-blade hoe, often subject to breakdowns and quick to lose a sharp edge, forces the gardener to bend and chop at the weeds. The swan hoe, by contrast, is held erect and drawn smoothly through the surface of the seedbed to slice off tiny germinating weeds and gently break up the crust to help retain moisture.

With a bit of practice, you can adroitly hoe around the plants as easily as you manipulate a ballpoint pen. The job goes quickly and neatly, and sore backs and muscle strains are things of the forgettable past (Rule No. 3).

There are other permutations, but none is quite the equal of the swan hoe. Our advice: Forget all others, invoke all three rules and get a swan hoe. Also available, if you insist on getting down there on hand and knee, is a short-handled swan hoe for close-up work.

For a large garden, especially one with tediously long rows, consider a wheel hoe. This is a single-wheel device, pushed by handlebars, with interchangeable tilling blades, claws and furrow diggers.

Wheel hoes date to the mid-1800s and are as useful now as they were then. In fact, a modern copy of the century-old Planet Jr. model is again available, with attachments, for less than $200.

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