When it comes to gardening, it’s easy to resort to lists: do this, do that, without having to connect the dots between tasks, or as a garden writer, the paragraphs. Still, I can’t resist a list this month given I’ve just returned from a rousing coffee date with gardener and garden designer Susanne Osmond.
After hearing about her coming trip to see some of England’s contemporary gardens, the conversation took a wonderfully nerdy turn when she began talking ladders. So I pulled out my notebook and we commiserated on our top five “tools of the trade.”
Number one: secateurs. Secateurs are hand pruners, hinged snips capable of cutting stems up to about half an inch. Even the good ones – the Felcos and ARSs – need sharpening to give a clean cut and protect plants from being crushed. Susanne uses a file weekly and a “rust eraser” from Lee Valley to sharpen and clean her pruning tools.
Susanne’s second pick was the “hori-hori” – “dig dig” in Japanese. It’s a weeding knife, a cross between a knife and a thin flat trowel, a tool for poking, digging, sawing and slicing. Multi-purpose and indispensable, one side of the steel blade has a serrated edge, the other a cutting edge.
Third on the list is a garden fork and spade. Susanne stressed that “people don’t often use a fork correctly,” and I admit I count myself among the infidels. Susanne uses a fork to loosen soil before weeding and claims a fork far better for moving plants than a shovel. (The British tend to call a spade a spade, whereas we often interchange the word shovel with spade. Technically, a spade is for slicing through sod, edging and dividing plants; a shovel for lifting earth, etc.). If she had to choose a favourite spade it would be a D-handled rectangular bladed one and I agree. Mine is small, lightweight, and tends to make me stoop over, but its size means I’m more apt to use it than a long-handled, more back-friendly one.
Next up: loppers – long-handled cutting tools that can tackle larger branches. Given January is the season for pruning fruits like apples and pears (and many other deciduous trees and shrubs before the sap rises), now is the time to invest. Loppers range between 17 and 30 inches long, and cut branches up to a few inches thick. Choose light-handled ones to ease fatigue. Like secateurs, it’s important to keep loppers sharp to prevent tearing and I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that it’s wise to disinfect tools with alcohol or a diluted bleach solution to keep them from spreading disease.
Speaking of winter pruning (you can also tackle roses, hydrangeas and hedges now), let’s talk ladders. I have two, neither of which is very good, but I have seen my future and it shall be on solid footing, with one of Susanne’s Japanese tripod ladders.
Susanne first used one when working at Great Dixter, once home to the great gardener and writer Christopher Lloyd, and she has been on the hunt for one in Canada since, a long process that led her to try importing some herself. Tripod ladders have traditionally been used in orchards where the third leg can poke into the ground, but these Hasegawa ladders are far more nuanced, allowing the third leg to be adjusted and secured to the main frame by a safety chain. The feet have little booties for concrete, the steps are deep and the ladders made from hollow aluminum, so they are lightweight. Susanne will have them at VIctoria’s Seedy Saturday, Feb. 20.
Finally, I’ll add a sixth item to the list, because what’s a person to do with all these tools? Lose the little ones in the shrubbery, more often than not. So I’d add a carrier, be it a wheelbarrow, tote, or in my case a leather tool belt. Strapping mine on, I feel like a sheriff – holstered-up and ready for action.
Christin Geall is an Oak Bay gardener and creative non-fiction professor at the University of Victoria.