Go Back Go Ahead

I f only our gardens were as green as the money we spend planting them.
Sometimes it's love at first sight. The colorful petals of the nursery flowers beckon you from across the parking lot. The elegant, gleaming shovel reverently whispers your name from the aisle in the hardware store. You must buy these things--and beautiful things are certain to bloom in your yard.
       While the spirit is willing (at least at first), the plants may turn dry and the shears become dull. Love is fickle and the thrill is gone. You're left alone with the knowledge that gardening takes commitment from both you and your purchases. Those home-grown pansies and zucchinis can end up costing plenty--if you buy the wrong tools and plants.
       According to a spokesperson for the National Gardening Association in Burlington, Vt., nearly three out of four U.S. households conduct some form of gardening and lawn activity. About 50 million households grow flower or vegetable gardens. "In 1995, each household spent about $303 on these do-it-yourself activities, for a total of $22.2 billion," says Bruce Butterfield, National Gardening Association's research director. This amount doesn't include what people spend when they hire the work out.
       "The universal rule of thumb," Butterfield says, "is that for every one dollar people spend on green goods such as seeds, plants, and trees, they spend an additional three dollars on tools and equipment, including mulch, fertilizer, and watering."
       Although the number of gardeners has held steady for the past five years, the amount they spend is sprouting. According to a 1994-95 National Gardening Association Gallup study, lawn and garden sales have increased at a 10% annual growth rate during the past five years.
       Do you get what you pay for? After some careful checking, the answer is a qualified "yes"--as long as you know what you're buying. No amount of money is going to make a shade plant grow in the sun, or make a tool do a job it's not designed to handle.
       Just ask Jim Rosenau, executive editor of Books That Work, publishers of home and garden software in Palo Alto, Calif. Rosenau's been buying used and new tools since he was a teenager. His advice is simple: Don't buy cheap tools. "I bought them in the beginning and I don't own them anymore."

Tool rules
"Cheap tools make you work harder," Rosenau says, "and they don't last." Besides price, he encourages consumers to understand the function and limits of the tool they're buying. "If it's taking you a great deal of effort, you're also straining the tool. For example, shears can only cut through one and one-half inches; anything bigger requires you to switch to a saw."
       Rosenau recommends these basic tools for beginners: a round point shovel for digging; a digging fork (not a pitch fork) with four thick tines to till and fluff the soil; a garden rake (not lawn) with rigid steel tines to smooth beds and remove rocks; and a small trowel for digging small holes and planting small plants.
       Another must-have: a good quality hose. "Price absolutely matters," says Rosenau. Cheap hoses kink and break and are too hard to work with in bad weather. Compare the ply numbers for the tubing and the weight of the hose-end couplers. The higher the ply number, the stronger the hose.
       Look for hallmarks of quality when you shop. "When you buy tools, compare the thickness of steel in shovels and forks," says Rosenau. "Cheap ones have a lighter gauge. And check the material the handle is made of--fiberglass handles generally are more durable than wood."
After you buy good tools, take good care of them. "Keep a wire or stiff brush handy to clean the tool before putting it away. Buy a coarse file to sharpen shovels, and a small file or whetstone to sharpen pruners," Rosenau says. "When saws no longer make small pieces of sawdust, it's time to have them professionally sharpened. Oil moving parts on loppers and hand pruners. And don't leave tools out in the rain or dew."
       Consider buying some good-quality used tools at yard sales, flea markets, or second-hand stores, Rosenau advises. First, check the prices of new tools you're looking to buy so you have a point of comparison. "You can get used tools for one-quarter to one-half of what they cost new," Rosenau says. Caveats: Don't buy anything with broken parts or loose handles. Don't buy used gas-powered machines unless you're prepared to repair them yourself. Newer models come with noise level and emission labels--old ones can be very loud and dirty.
       Rent expensive power equipment if 1) you only use it once or twice a year and 2) the rental cost is less than one-tenth of its retail value.

Gardening basics
Here are some tips on buying plants from the Professional Plant Growers Association in Lansing, Mich.:

  • Choose plants according to your climate and garden area. Vegetables and many flowers require full sunlight--at least four to six hours of sunlight each day.
  • Don't be misled by plant size and number of flowers. A well-grown plant is compact with healthy green leaves and lots of branches emerging near the soil surface. Low-priced plants are not a bargain if they aren't healthy or aren't backed by authoritative planting advice and customer service.
  • Measure the square footage of your garden. Then check the plant label for the "plants per square foot factor" and multiply by the number of square feet in your garden.
  • If you can't plant right away, keep plants watered and shaded. Evening and cloudy days are the best planting times. Dig holes and set plants at the same level they grew in their containers. Water thoroughly and frequently until plants become established and show new growth.
  • Deep, infrequent watering is better than frequent, light watering. You may fertilize once or twice during the growing season.
  • Most plants' flowers fall cleanly, requiring no maintenance. Others need "deadheading," removal of faded flowers to encourage more blooming.
(Excerpts reprinted with permission from the Professional Plant Growers Association Gardening Basics fact sheet.)

       "Many commercial growers, particularly mail-order companies, give you guarantees on large plants, like trees," Rosenau says. But even with the guarantee, he says, if your tree dies during its first year, you didn't lose just the tree, you lost the year.
       "If you're a beginning gardener, tackle one bed and do it well before you move on," Rosenau says. People beome overwhelmed with the responsibilities of watering, weeding, and controlling pests. Know what you're doing before you do too much.
       As the old saying goes, the gardener's shadow is the best fertilizer. Paying attention and working in your garden is better than buying any gimmick or gizmo, Rosenau says. Stick to the basics, learn about plants, take care of your tools, and enjoy the fruits of your labor.
Columnist Franny Van Nevel is a consumer advocate and writer. She formerly was director of consumer information for the Wisconsin attorney general's office for 12 years, and is a frequent contributor to Woman's Day.
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