21 April 2014

Tools of the Trade

I belong to several plant-geek groups on social media and enjoy the exchange of ideas and questions in all of them. Today someone posted a question about an advertised tool used in pricking out seedlings. The question was whether anyone had used it and was it worth the $5.50 asking price (plus shipping and handling). Pricking out was my favorite nursery job at Great Dixter so when I saw that post, I immediately thought of my favorite gardening tools:
My favorite garden tools: a notebook, a pen, dibblers

When most people talk about favorite gardening tools, the first things that usually come to mind are pruners, or favorite gloves, or apparel. Not me. My favorite garden tools are a notebook, a pen, and two dibblers (that's the technical term for the thing you use to prick out plants. Try saying it ten times fast with a straight face, go on!).

One of my dibblers is a length of branch, about 1/4" in diameter. It's got a slight yet somewhat menacing curve and the narrow end has been shaped to a point by a pen knife. The cut end has also been shaped but is more rounded. Days and hours of handling, stabbing, and grinding into potting soil has polished the dibber to a smoothness that almost feels soft so it doesn't scratch my hand, a definite plus since I rarely wear gloves while gardening, and especially not while handling small and delicate seedlings. It may be just a piece of twig, but I counted it among my most essential tools while working in the nursery. Cost: free, with a little elbow grease.

Another dibbler that I've used in the garden only on special occasions is this hand turned beauty. It's about the length of a pencil, made from the wood of a white cherry tree felled at Castle Fraser in Scotland. I can tell you this with absolute certainty because the craftsman who made it told me so, chips flying off the whirling branch as it spun in his lathe. Some years ago I spent a week participating in a working holiday with the Scottish National Trust at Pitmedden Garden, picking apples and preparing for their annual festival which included traditional farm life demonstrations by various craftsmen. I got to chatting with a talented woodworker and when I told him I was a gardener, he said, "Och! You'll be needing a dibbler, then!" and set about making this for me. It's a beautiful honey blonde color, polished to silky smoothness by fine sandpaper and a bit of bee's wax. The thistle on the end was only fitting, given the tool's parentage.  During the festival I was stationed in the historic farm house making traditional oat cakes over a wood-burning stove so he also made me a sycamore rolling pin to roll the cakes with.

Hand turned dibbler, white cherry wood, with Scottish thistle embellishment

While at Great Dixter I befriended another woodworker who taught me a thing or two and let me turn my own chestnut mallet. Sure, manufactured synthetic tools are handy and might last a long time, but there's something about using nature's bounty to craft your own tools. Unlike injection molded plastic or metal, these handmade tools are part of a natural cycle of growth, use, and decay that won't harm the environment. When they've outlived their usefulness, throw them on the compost heap and make a new one. Cost: free. Value: intrinsic and highly sentimental.

By far my most indispensable garden tool is a notebook. I've always been a habitual note-taker anyway but while I was at Dixter, Fergus so ingrained the importance of recording observations in the garden that I never went to work without a notebook and pen in my back pocket. Christopher Lloyd always carried one, and the Alwych book was his brand of choice. This one was a birthday present from the staff at Dixter. It's got an 'all weather cover' so it will withstand some rain or occasional dropping in puddles but there are notebooks with waterproof paper specifically made for outdoor use if you're working in the wet.

Personally, I make no secret of being a Moleskine addict and for use in the garden prefer the pocket size soft cover notebooks which come in a rainbow of cheerful colors. They're available with blank, lined, or quad ruled pages. I like blank pages, because doodles and sketches are an important method of observing and recording the garden. They're not weather proof, though, so I usually have a collection of both weather proof and non-weather proof to choose from, depending on the daily forecast. I regularly go back and look through my notebooks to remind myself of thoughts and ideas for the garden, or to recall the name of a particular plant I saw used in a new and creative way. Lately I've been watching The Tudors and when a lawyer came to The Tower to remove a condemned Sir Thomas More's books, papers, and quills, I honestly felt his pain at their loss. Cost: varies. Value: priceless.

My doodle of a border combination seen in the garden at Wave Hill
The last tool I rarely enter the garden without is the one I used to take these photos. A camera is indispensable for recording changes in the garden and capturing images in gardens you visit but while a camera will capture an instant in time, it won't record the scents and sounds around you, how a place a makes you feel, or record notes for future improvements or ideas. Also, batteries die, and then what do you do? You pull out your trusty notebook, of course!

Whatever your trade, there are tools that define it. What's your favorite?

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