A Primer on Essential Garden Tools: Digging Tools

Hand pruners, saws and loppers are all tools related to the pruning of plants, and I carry 2 of the 3 on me as I work a garden…the pruners in their sheath on my belt or clipped to my pants pocket, the folding saw in a back pocket.  The other tool I always carry is my digging tool.

In these posts on garden tools, I suppose the most common theme is my strong belief in paying a little extra to get good quality tools.  The digging tool is no exception.  Over the years I’ve gone through many lesser quality hand trowels, breaking or bending the cutting blade on all of them but one.  That one unbroken hand-digging tool is my Lesche digging knife.

Lesche

Lesche

I believe the Lesche was developed for geologists and other rock-hounds.  It is made of strong steel blade with one side serrated.  The steel blade bends at 90 degrees at the top to create a shield that protects the hand.  The handle is solidly welded to the shield, so it’s unlikely to ever break.  It feels solid and comfortable, and the angle and position of the tool allows great force to be naturally applied to the tip of the shovel/knife.  This is such a solid piece of equipment, you can feel its power in your hand.  The sheath it sits in has a loop that fits on your belt, so it rides comfortably when not in use, and is completely accessible when needed.  While it’s a great digging tool, I also use it to scrape mulch out of the way when planting or doing irrigation repair and it works well to cut sod.  And mine is extra special…the cap at the end of the handle screws off revealing a secret compartment! J I think I paid $5 extra for that; silly, but fun.  A quick look online and I found the Lesche for $35.10 with the sheath.

The one part of the Lesche digging tool that DID break down, after about 5 years of nearly daily wear and use, is the sheath.  Eventually, after pulling the knife in and out countless times, I cut through the side of it, and it needs to be replaced.  After putting it off for months, I finally hopped on-line and easily found a site where I could order just the sheath…delivered for $12.25.

Lesche & sheath

Lesche & sheath

There are other digging tools that I’ve used.  A large group of such tools are called “hori-hori”, which is Japanese for “dig-dig”.  I used a couple of them for a few years, and liked them.   But they had wood handles which eventually dried and cracked.  I looked on-line and found some for as little as $10 or $15, but am skeptical if they’ll last for more than 3-5 years of use.  Maybe if the wood handle were to be regularly oiled they would, but that’s the sort of thing I tend to not do.

Just avoid the common pot-metal or thin-steel varieties of digging trowels that are so frequently found in nurseries and home-improvement stores.  The pot-metal breaks easily and the thin steel bends in our rocky and hard soils, rendering them both almost useless.

A Primer on Essential Garden Tools: Loppers

Loppers

Loppers

LOPPERS

Loppers are just an over-sized version of hand pruners, built to be used with two hands rather than just one.  Long handles provide torque to a much larger cutting head than those found on hand pruners. 

As I mentioned in my post on pocket saws, I don’t use them to prune my plants and trees.  The amount of torque provided by those long handles creates a lot of pressure on the cutting mechanism, resulting in a greater likelihood of at least some bruising of tissue, regardless of how sharp they are.   If I need to make a cut bigger than my hand pruners can easily handle, out comes a pocket saw, not loppers.

But they’re still an important part of my garden’s arsenal.  They’re very handy for cutting up larger branches already removed to stuff them into garbage cans or to take the weight off of a branch prior to making a final cut with the saw.  A good pair of loppers makes short order out of such work.

When choosing loppers, I want the same type of cutting action as with pruners; a scissors-type cutting action.  Those with an anvil and flat blade don’t cut anywhere near as well and require more force to use.  I also seek out longer handles, as long as possible while still being comfortable to use.  Mine have handles almost 3’ long, but I imagine shorter people might do better with handles about 2 to 2 ½’ (I’m about 6’ tall).  Longer handles give more torque and power to the cut.  Regardless, just be sure to handle the pair you’re thinking about buying so they’re comfortable for you.

I have loppers built by a company called Fred Marvin that I purchased several years ago.  As I recall they were quite pricey, more than $40.  However, as with any of my equipment, I’ve not regretted getting a really good quality product.  The handles are solidly manufactured, so they’ll never give way (which I’ve seen with cheaper pairs).  Solidly and simply engineered, they do an amazingly good job of slicing through fresh wood up to 1½” diameter.  For cutting chunks of wood larger than that, out comes the pocket saw again.

While I highly recommend the Fred Marvin’s, Bahco also makes very good loppers and other pruning equipment.  There are also cheaper products available that are still of decent or good quality.  However, plan on spending at least $25 – $30 for a new pair.  Cheaper than that and they’re probably not going to last and will take a lot more force to operate.  I believe that in some ways the really good quality equipment is actually cheaper and more environmentally friendly; with care and sharpening, I expect mine will last a lifetime.

Care, sharpening and sterilization are the same as mentioned above in the posts on hand pruners and pocket saws.

A Primer on Essential Garden Tools: Pocket Saw

My pocket saw is one of my favorite tools, in part because I really do enjoy pruning, but also because it packs so much power in the garden.  Sometimes also called a folding saw, both names derive from the fact that you fold it up and stick it in your pocket.  They’re small, light-weight and handy.

Pocket Saw's

A good quality pocket saw can easily handle cutting branches up to 3 or 4” in diameter and can even prune through wood as much as 6” around if needed.  I use mine for all cuts greater than ½ – ¾”; if my hand pruners can’t easily handle the cut, the saw comes out.

Many people prefer to make such pruning cuts using loppers, however I always use a saw.  This is because it’s important to realize that every cut made on living tissue is a wound, and just like you’d want a doctor to make clean, precise cuts if he were to operate on you, the same holds true for your patient…the tree or other woody perennial you’re working on.   A saw makes such a cut by removing wood in small, precise quantities with each stroke.  Loppers, on the other hand, use brute force to push the blade through tissue.  This forceful cutting action can leave the tissue left behind bruised and damaged, whereas a saw won’t do that.

Further, a saw is much more maneuverable than loppers, so you can easily make the cut at the exact angle you desire, thereby making the least damaging wound possible.
A good quality pocket saw will run you about $24-30.  I’ve used a Felco 600 folding saw for many years, but other brands exist and are just as good.  Silky saws make a very small version that’s even more compact than the Felco.  Corona produces one that advertises razor teeth that’s also quite good, but not quite up to the standards of Felco.  Plan on spending at least $18-20, or you’re likely to end up with a saw that won’t work anywhere near as well.

When shopping for a saw make certain that it has a mechanism that will lock the blade in place.  Also make sure that you can replace the blade…it’s cheaper and more ecological to do so than to have to purchase a whole new saw when your blade inevitably becomes dull.  Because of the hundreds of cutting teeth, it’s impractical and virtually impossible to sharpen it.

Pocket Saw close up

To keep the blade sharp, keep your saw-blade out of the dirt.  Nothing will dull a saw quicker that running it through soil.  If you need to do root-pruning, keep an old saw or saw-blade on hand that you can use for such operations, or use hand-pruners for smaller cuts.

If you suspect the presence of disease on any plant, always sterilize the blade between cuts, and especially when you move from plant to plant, or else you risk spreading the disease.  A bleach-water solution is often recommended, however it’s very corrosive to the tool you want to keep sharp.  I’ve found that when I use medical sterility solutions they work just as well without damaging my saw.  I use them on my hand-pruners as well. Next post I’ll talk about loppers; when to use them and when not to.

A Primer on Essential Garden Tools: Hand Pruners

February is a busy month in the garden, especially for pruning.  I was browsing a local online gardening forum the other day and somebody was asking about what kind of gardening tools to purchase.  It got me thinking about the tools I carry when I work in the garden.  My hand pruners are the most important of them.

Of all the tools, hand pruners are the most important investment.  Don’t skimp on these, because you’ll likely use them a lot!  A good pair can last a lifetime.  Get by-pass pruners, the type with a scissor type action, where the blades move past each other to make the cut.  Avoid anvil-types, which have a straight blade that comes down on a flat anvil, and stops.  By-pass pruners will give you a much cleaner cut, without “bruising” the wood like the anvil type.

Shop for them, preferably by holding the pair before you buy.  Felco used to be my favorite hand-pruners and I still like them a lot.  They have a wide range of styles, different sizes and lefties to accommodate different size hands. I do a lot of pruning, so I prefer a rotating handle.  I switched to a Bahco hand pruner a couple of years ago, as it fit me well and took less pressure on the handle to make the same cut.

My favorite pair of Bahco Pruners

If you can’t afford Bahco or Felco top-end ($40-50), then Corona makes decent pruners and Felco has a lower-end range ($20-30).

Avoid cheap brands ( less than $15-20).  Your hand will likely hurt, each cut will take more effort and the cuts themselves are less clean and prone to damage the plant you’re trying to help.

In Las Vegas, Rhino’s Turf carries Felco pruners. Western Organics (Gro-Well) 5441 E. Cheyenne (702) 639-0370 has Bahco.

Proper angle to sharpen the cutting blade.

Whichever type you get, keep the blade sharp.   With by-pass pruners, use a fine file to lightly run it across the cutting knife, in line with the face of the blade that is angled-in.  Don’t run it across the back-side of the cutting knife, nor on the other, thicker blade.  Also clean and lube them periodically.

Use hand pruners for cuts up to about ½”.  For larger cuts, use a saw. A pocket saw is light-weight, folds and fits in your pocket, and can easily handle cuts up to 3 or 4”.  I’ll be talking about them in another post soon.

FUTURE POSTS:

Pocket Saw

Loppers

Digging tool

Gloves, glasses and other safety stuff