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Best garden tools are closer than you think


Every experienced gardener has a little secret.

A terra cotta flower pot cracked in half from rim to bottom makes a great scoop for dirt.

A steak knife slices into sidewalk cracks and rips through weeds.

A carpenter’s tool apron will hold a digger, pruner, knife and seed packets.

An old pillow with a plastic, waterproof cover cushions the knees.

These are the little secrets that beginners can learn from as they enter the world of gardening. Basically, good tools don’t have to be expensive and they don’t even have to come from a garden center.

Sandy Freeman was red-faced and in need of a break from weeding recently along the sidewalk at Gifford Park Community Garden. When she stopped to wipe her brow, she brandished her well-used weeding tool a steak knife. It could get after the weeds coming up in the narrow border thick with the rice-like seedlings of moss roses.

Moss roses, or portulaca, are annuals that self-sow. Previous years’ moss roses put down seeds that germinate in early spring and produce new plants.

In difficult, sunny spots like the border Freeman was weeding, moss roses are drought-tolerant sun lovers. It helps the seedlings if you remove the weeds as soon as possible. And the steak knife jabs into the dirt and severs the weed’s tap root.

Besides her steak knife, Freeman’s basic tools include a hand spade for shallow digging in a small space and a garden spade that looks like a shovel except the scoop is more shallow and the end is blunt, not pointed. Add a pair of gloves and you have a basic tool kit.

“This is a fabulous place for gardening,” she said. Now in her sixth year at the Gifford Park Community Garden, she plants alongside young and old, first-time gardeners and old pros. If someone new to gardening has a question, there’s usually someone with experience to give advice or lend a hand.

Other than garden preparation in the spring and fall cleanup, the maintenance of a garden like her 5-by-18-foot plot depends more on watering and rain than on a lot of fancy tools.

“Water three to five days a week,” she said, and hope for rain. “Rain is the best water.”

A good starting point for tools can be a garage sale, said Kathleen Cue, an associate in horticulture with the University of Nebraska Extension for Douglas and Sarpy Counties.

New or used, her short list of starter tools includes a bypass pruner, hoe, spade and hand trowel.

Although all are digging tools, beginning gardeners should know each one has a specific purpose.

Bypass pruners have a blade that gives a clean slice without pinching or crushing the stem.

The hoe is a weeder with a long handle. The type of hoe with a triangular blade is like an arrowhead as it slices through the soil, uprooting weeds without disturbing the roots of flowers and vegetables.

Cue prefers a narrow post-hole spade over a shovel because it goes into soil more easily than a shovel or a traditional spade. Where soil is compacted and hard, that can be a back-saver.

A hand trowel is a nice tool for digging and lifting dirt, especially in raised-bed gardens.

Besides their uses, beginning gardeners should take the time to make sure the tools are comfortable to use.

Omahan Mary Drew uses a hand digger “that fits my hand perfectly.” The grip, heft and height or length of the tool should be comfortable.

Drew’s hand digger is made of stainless steel. It has a spongy handle, a serrated edge that cuts through roots and a narrow “bowl” or scoop. It also has measures marked on the scoop, which is helpful when planting bulbs to a specific depth.

In addition to tools, a wheelbarrow or cart can be handy, especially for the container gardener who saves potting soil from year to year and mixes old and new batches. You also can use the cart to work compost or other amendments into topsoil or potting soil.

Mary Sullivan, 78, of Bellevue is a container gardener.

“I just do easy-to-grow plants,” she said. “I do about 70 pots. It’s the only way I can get color.”

Her yard has a lot of deep shade, where perennials such as hostas, ferns and lily-of-the-valley come back every year. They provide a backdrop of various shades of green for the annual impatiens and coleus that add a pop of color and texture.

Because deer are a problem in her area, Sullivan has had to figure out ways, such as sprays and netting, to protect her plants. And even with years of experience, sometimes her strategies work and sometimes not.

Like most gardeners, though, she’s philosophical: “You learn by your mistakes.”

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