One of the Joys of Maturity
Shopping Guide for Gardeners
While our page, The Old Guy's Shopping Guide for Gifts for Gardeners, has a lot of good garden stuff, I omitted a lot of mundane items that probably wouldn't be a big thrill wrapped up with a bow under ones Christmas tree. After publishing the gift guide, I decided to add another page of tools, chemicals, and other things that we like and use here at the Senior Garden. As you'll see, we have a considerable investment wrapped up in gardening stuff, but do remember that we acquired these things over forty years of gardening.
If you're going to garden, there are a few basic tools you'll want and need. Think shovel, garden hoe, rake, and a trowel to start with. You might be able to get by with just the first three.
Getting quality tools the first time around will save you money in the long run. My long handled shovel is one my father gave me forty years ago! While there are links here to online vendors, it's often better to go to a hardware store where one can touch and get the feel of a tool before buying.
While either a long handled or D-Handle Shovel could serve as a gardener's only shovel, I like to have both for different kinds of jobs. I prefer a wooden handle on my D-shovel with a steel top, but just about all of them that are available today have plastic on top, which will eventually degrade and break.
I won't again tell my story about a good hoe here, but know that a quality garden hoe is another essential garden tool. I'm not much into hoeing weeds, preferring to mulch and pull small weeds early, but our hoe gets lots of use each summer opening furrows, cleaning some weeds, and even using the blunt end of the handle for making shallow furrows for small seeded vegetables like carrots, beets, and radishes.
A good Bow or Garden Rake helps in smoothing soil and removing rocks and other debris from the garden. I also use mine to make or widen furrows and then fill in furrows over corn and bean seed and such.
For early weeding, there's nothing like a good scuffle hoe. I have two of them, both with wooden handles that need to be sanded and varnished again if they're going to last as long as I intend to. Scuffling soil often, sometimes even before seedling weeds are visible, can make your gardening life a whole lot easier.
Note that scuffle hoes are also called action or hula hoes. Since the late Jim Crockett introduced me to the tool on his old PBS Victory Garden show as a scuffle hoe, that's what I call them.
A garden fork with heavy tines and a stout handle is a great tool for turning soil far deeper than most rototillers can go. I use ours a lot when working our compost piles and also for turning sphagnum peat moss and compost into our garden beds. It's also my tool of choice for lifting carrots and garlic and digging potatoes.
Another tool you may want is a spade for edging and such. I use ours more to pull down old barn swallow nests around our front porch, but also get some use out of it in the garden.
If you see any of the tools above offered for less than $10, walk, no, run away from the deal. With the possible exception of the leaf rake, expect to pay $15-30 for a quality version of each of these tools! Good garden tools often sell cheap at garage sales and farm auctions.
Once you get past the big stuff, you need to find a trowel that feels comfortable in your hand and seems strong enough not to bend where the handle meets the trowel. Depending on how much transplanting you do, you may end up like me using your trowel(s) far more than any other garden tool.
I had a complete Fiskars 3 Piece Softouch Garden Tool Set like the one shown at left, but bent and eventually broke the wide trowel just where the handle and shovel part meet. I still get good use out of the narrow trowel and the soil scratcher. A narrow trowel is good for working in hard soil. The soil scratcher can cultivate while also uprooting seedling weeds.
After breaking the wide trowel, I went through a bunch of cheapie wide trowels that left blisters on my hands and eventually bent, broke, or got lost. I finally found another quality, wide, no-name trowel at a large garden center I used to haunt when I lived in Indianapolis.
Believe it or not, I find a good pair of kitchen shears important for gardening. I use ours in the garden to help remove cutworm collars when they've done their work. After breaking several pairs of cheap scissors in the garden and elsewhere, I invested in a set of stainless steel Klein Kitchen Shears. They're tough, hold their edge, and come apart for thorough cleaning.
While I mentioned several of these items in our gift guide, they bear repeating here.
The CobraHead Weeder and Cultivator is a nasty looking tool that is ideal for pulling up established weeds such as clump grass by the roots.
Pruning shears and lopping shears also can be useful garden tools. I harvest peppers with our hand pruning shears and use lopping shears to cut the tough stems of butternut squash, pumpkins, and spent asparagus stalks in the fall.
One other hand tool you might want to consider getting is a corn knife or machete if you grow a lot of sweet corn. When your corn is picked, a sharp corn knife makes fairly quick work of cutting the spent stalks for tilling under or composting. Our corn knife gets lots of use each year, not only chopping corn stalks but other tough garden stalks before they go into the compost pile. (Call it a poor man's chipper-shredder!)
This is one of those tools that shouldn't cost a bunch, something under $10. It's also, like the Cobrahead Weeder, one you probably don't want to leave lying around the kiddies.
There are lots of styles and brand names of garden tools. Some of the images here aren't of the brand we have, because they're no longer available. My hand pruners are over thirty years old. So do shop around a bit when investing in garden tools. And remember that if you're only planting a small area (very advisable for a first garden), you probably only need a shovel, garden hoe, rake, and a trowel.
Farm and garden chemicals have gotten a bad reputation over the years, sometimes justifiably so. Years ago, I took a class before taking the certified applicators' test to be able to buy restricted use herbicides and pesticides for use on my farm. The county agent running the training started his instructions, referring to some strong, then new, federal regulations, by saying, "Well boys, we did this to ourselves." He was talking, of course, about the overuse and misuse of strong chemicals that had contributed to soil and water pollution around farms in our area and across the nation.
With all of that in mind, I'll offer a few effective chemicals here that we use on our garden plots, hopefully, in a responsible manner. The first group of items are all pretty much organic stuff.
Thuricide is one trade name of a biological insect control, Bacillus thuringiensis, also commonly referred to as BT. Thuricide is a liquid concentrate for sprayers, while Dipel is a dust or wettable powder. We've used both for years to control moths and worms on our broccoli, kale, and other brassicas. For us, the use of Thuricide allows us to grow clean crops with only one application of a more toxic product per season.
While BT provides a lot of insect control in our garden, it doesn't get everything. We often alternate sprays of BT with Insecticidal Soap, currently marketed as Safer Brand Insect Killing Soap. It is an old, time-tested, organic insect control. According to Wikipedia, it "works only on direct contact with the pests. The fatty acids [in the soap] disrupt the structure and permeability of the insect cell membranes. The cell contents are able to leak from the damaged cells, and the insect quickly dies."
In the rare instances when BT and insecticidal soap don't provide the level of insect control we require, I turn to using Pyrethrin before considering non-organic pesticides. Pyrethrin used to be our first line of defense against insects when it was marketed in a combination spray, rotenone-pyrethrin. Rotenone has since been linked to Parkinson's Disease and has been pulled from the market. Pyrethrin is an effective contact insecticide that is considered by some to be an organic product. It also appears to have some effect as an insect repellent.
For our apple trees, dormant oil spray, marketed by Bonide as All Seasons Spray Oil, provides early spring protection, as it smothers insects overwintering on the trees. We begin applications of the product in late winter, continuing through spring. It can also be used, at lower dilutions, later in the season. It's another good organic control for insects.
While we're at fruit trees, let me add another product one should have in their chemical cabinet and hope like hell they never have to use. Fire Blight Spray is an antibiotic, Streptomycin, for control of fire blight. We lost our wonderful standard Stayman Winesap apple tree to fire blight years ago, but at the same time, were able to save a younger, less infected, Granny Smith apple tree with Fire Blight Spray. While our link above and at right are to Amazon, they can be a little variable on price and having the item in stock. We got our last, still thankfully unused, container of the product from Stark Bro's Nurseries & Orchards.
Serenade is a biofungicide we ran across several years ago. We initially used it to help control some nasty diseases we faced in our tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers. I later discovered that the same stuff was also marketed as Serenade Soil, a soil drench for a variety of vegetables. We used it as a drench and spray on our potatoes last season (2014) for the first time and experienced a much better harvest than usual.
One last product we use I'll put in this section, although it isn't a pesticide or herbicide. Adding a few drops of Spreader Sticker solution to whatever one is going to spray on plants helps the material spread evenly and stick to leaf surfaces better. A bit of Palmolive dish soap will do about the same thing, but not quite as well.
Sadly, there aren't a lot of organic insecticides and fungicides on the market. Some, such as Copper Fungicide, Neem Oil, and Diatomaceous Earth, I haven't listed above, simply because we haven't made much use of them.
Other Chemicals We Use
We're not organic growers. We grow many of our garden crops without using strong pesticides and fungicides, but resort to them when absolutely necessary. We also use commercial fertilizers along with our compost and turndown crops.
The product we use most when insect levels go beyond what our organic products can control is Sevin (also marketed as Eight). One only needs to remember the 1984 Bophal, India, disaster to realize that the active ingredient, Carbaryl, can be deadly to humans as well as insects.
We also use Bonide Fruit Tree Spray on our apple trees. It's a chemical cocktail of the fungicide Captan and the insecticides Malathion and Carbaryl, with a little sticker spreader thrown in. It's effective, but I also wear long sleeves, a hat, glasses or other eye protection, and a paper mask when spraying our trees!
I keep a bottle of Captan fungicide handy to treat cut seed potatoes at planting time and also to treat our early pea seed. While quite effective at preventing rot, Captan was once classed as a probable human carcinogen, but was reclassified in 2004. Even though captan is a wettable powder, we don't use it on any of our crops.
Since I mentioned it in reference to the fruit tree spray, I'll include Malathion here, as it is an effective insecticide. We don't use straight Malathion at the Senior Garden, possibly from an experience I had long ago. I worked a week at spring break for a tree service company. There was a strong, unpleasant odor in the shed where we filled the tanks on the spray trucks that I couldn't identify immediately. The owner of the company was slowly dying of emphysema, and several other workers there had severe respiratory problems. I later realized the smell was leaking Malathion. Even though I was supposed to return to the company for a good paying summer job, I chose instead to tutor that summer.
I've included some cautionary information, scary stuff, and even a war story or two with each of the products in this section. I don't like using these chemicals, but haven't yet gotten away from them entirely. Even if you are careful using such chemicals, there's no guarantee your neighbor or a nearby farmer will be as responsible.
I've also experienced the other side of this issue. When I was farming, I cringed like almost every other farmer in the nation when a product we used was pulled off the market. We collectively said, "How the hell are we supposed to grow [crop name] without [banned pesticide, fungicide, or herbicide]."
We don't use any herbicides in the Senior Garden. We do use a knock-down and pre-emergent herbicide on our driveway, though.
When I was farming and had a certified applicator's license, I used Lasso granular herbicide in our sweet corn, field corn, and soybeans. Even then, we only put down an eight inch wide band of the stuff in the row to give our crops a chance to germinate without weed competition. Beyond that, we used an old four row cultivator to keep our fields free of weeds. But then, we also ran out of money and lost the farm after just eight years of farming.
There are herbicides for sale for garden use, but I really don't recommend any of them.
The "Senior Tiller" is a twenty-two-year-old MTD rear tine tiller. I've replaced cables, belts, and springs on it to keep it going all these years. Amortizing the cost of parts and the tiller over the twenty-two years we've used it, it's cost us around $25 per year!
The closest current approximation to our tiller today might be either the Sears Craftsman 208cc Counter Rotating Rear Tine Tiller or the Yard Machines Rear Tine Tiller.
For a first time gardener turning more ground than one could do with a shovel or garden fork, renting a tiller might be a good option before buying one.
After encountering some serious hip problems several years ago, I gave in and invested some big bucks in a pull-behind tiller for our lawn tractor. Our John Deere 30" Mechanical Tiller doesn't go quite as deep as our old MTD tiller, but covers a lot of ground without too much effort. The tiller is offset from the lawn tractor, so that one can till up a plot without leaving any wheel marks. Since the tiller is specific to our X500 John Deere mower/lawn tractor, I can't give a lot of guidance on what folks with other equipment should try.
Amortizing the new tiller over years used (but not over acres turned), I'd have to garden until I'm 170 years old to match the value of our old MTD tiller! But it does a good job of turning our 80' x 80' East Garden and our various outlying isolation plots each year.
One of the things that helps make our Senior Garden plots so successful is our extensive use of grass clipping mulch for weed control and moisture retention. We're now on our second lawn sweeper, having totally worn out the first one a few years ago. A good unit like ours sweeps up both simple grass clippings from our yard for use in our raised garden beds and grass clippings and hay from the field around our East Garden for mulch in that garden patch. It doesn't do such a great job with tree leaves unless they've first been chopped up by mowing. Unchopped leaves simply fill up the sweeper too quickly.
Another item that gets nearly daily use in our garden is our Ames Garden Cart. We bought it over twenty years ago to ice down beer and soft drinks at our wedding reception (here at the Senior Garden). Other than having to replace the wheel retainer clips with washers and cotter pins, the cart has held up well and is still fairly water tight. We use it throughout the gardening season, hauling a little bit of everything, from moving garden trash to the compost pile to bringing in big loads of melons. We also use it to rinse and soak carrots and to wash plant trays that won't fit in our kitchen sink.
Our cart is the four cubic foot model, although there's a three cubic foot model available that's a bit cheaper. Walmart has pretty good prices on them, although you might find a good deal at the end of the season at a local farm or hardware store. If they still make them as tough as ours was made, they're a real bargain.
After years of hunting a good supplier for pots, flats, inserts, hanging baskets and such, I finally settled on the Greenhouse Megastore (DGW rating). At my request, they began carrying the sturdy, but rather expensive Perma-Nest trays that make handling heavy flats full of moist planting medium much easier. We now buy all of our seed flats, inserts, pots, and hanging baskets from them. Sadly, the Megastore doesn't yet carry humidomes that fit the Perma-nest trays, but Park Seed does. We only use the humidomes when germinating seed.
The Megastore also carries the Gro-Mat brand of heat mats we use for seed starting. While sold with a wire rack that keeps the mat from touching the bottom of seed flats, I mostly use mine without the rack with a Hydrofarm Digital Thermostat to maintain proper germination temperatures (and to keep the mat from melting trays). I use a second Gro-mat with the provided wire rack when we need two heat mats in the spring. The built-in thermostat in the Gro-Mats does a pretty good job of regulating temperatures in the flat above it, but not as precise as with the external thermostat.
For garden seed suppliers, I'll refer you to our page of Recommended Seed Suppliers. I update that page multiple times each year, based on our most recent and long-term experiences with the suppliers listed.
We use plastic plant labels to keep track of what is growing in each flat, fourpack, or pot. Ours have almost all come from Twilley Seed (see last catalog page inside back cover), although there may be better deals in volume from other sources. We recycle our labels by soaking them for several weeks in a chlorine bleach solution to remove the magic marker writing I use to identify plants on the labels. It still takes a little scrubbing on some labels to get all of the "permanent" ink off of them, but it certainly is cheaper than buying all new labels each year.
I still have several old jars of powdered rooting compound in our basement plant area, although I don't use them much anymore. We've gone to using the considerably more expensive Clonex Rooting Compound Gel for rooting stems and leaf cuttings, as it is a big improvement over the older rooting powders.
Another of our gardening favorites is the terribly named, but extremely useful Gardeneer By Dalen Trellis Netting Heavy-Duty Nylon Tangle-Free Net 5' x 30'. It's perfect for tall peas, pole beans, vining cucumbers, and other climbing crops. When I'm careful taking down our netting at the end of the season, I can get several years of use from it.
For recommended gardening books, please see The Old Guy's Shopping Guide for Gifts for Gardeners. Also, there's a wealth of free Kindle eBooks on gardening available from Amazon for use with their Kindle device and on computers with the Kindle application.
Shopping guides are something rather new for us here on Senior Gardening. I hope to get back to this page from time to time and expand our suggestions. Please note that your experience with the products listed above may vary from ours.
From Steve Wood, the at Senior Gardening
last updated 12/13/2016