The straight talk on gardening

Adrian Higgins
Gardening columnist April 9

One of the most bittersweet and charged moments for a parent is the day before a child leaves for a far-off college. On the eve of my daughter’s flight from the nest, I suggested a final trip together, an outing to a Colonial-era farmstead.

This wasn’t as lame as it sounds. We were interested in heirloom breeds of livestock, though my overwhelming sense of the occasion was that she was there not to see old lines of hog or sheep, but to indulge one maudlin turkey.

Adrian Higgins has been writing about the intersection of gardening and life for more than 25 years, and joined the Post in 1994. He is the author of several books, including the "Washington Post Garden Book" and "Chanticleer, a Pleasure Garden." View Archive

The other lingering aspect of the trip was far more tangible: The gift shop sold olde-tyme gardening stuff, and I picked up a gadget that is as useful today as the time when plows were wooden and horsepower came from horses. It is called a string line, and is essentially a flat spool on a spike with a separate stake, connected by a line of string. The distance between the two is determined by how much of the line you unspool. It is sometimes called the garden reel and pin. If you are an ornamental gardener or lawn freak, it is of no use at all, but if you grow vegetables, the device is transformative.

On a freshly prepared seedbed, the taut string forms a straight line. You follow it with your finger to make a little furrow into which you sprinkle your seeds. Move each end of the line the span of your hand for a new furrow, and you have perfect row spacing for veggies such as lettuce, beets and carrots. Some gardeners sow things in blocks, but a line allows you to distinguish seedlings from emerging weeds, allows you to backfill rows with sand to avoid soil crusting, eases thinning and gives an order and beauty to the vegetable garden.

The string line requires no batteries, no apps, no software, no WiFi. I might regret leaving it out in the rain, but I wouldn’t ruin it if I did. It cannot be made obsolete, and no one controls the technology. In sum, it’s a Luddite’s dream come true.

I seem to have found a kindred spirit in the author of a new book on garden tools — Bill Laws — who documents our connection to these implements in “A History of the Garden in Fifty Tools.”

He examines the history and cultural bearing of everything from a cloche to a lawn mower, and he understands that gardeners form deep attachments to the tools they use.

These links, I’d say, need a number of factors to take the deepest hold. The garden tool must exude a craftsmanship and quality, feel good, work well and, least tangibly but most importantly, be associated with garden tasks that bring the most satisfaction.

Laws’s book resonates for its inclusion of several devices close to my heart: the string line, the trusty folding pocket knife and, of all things, the portable radio. This is my companion in the garden, just loud enough to hear but not loud enough to disturb others. (There’s a thought.) The iPod might bring music straight into your brain, but in a way that removes you from your environment.

Not all old tools are better than modern ones: Pushing a heavy wooden wheelbarrow with an iron wheel is about as much fun as wrestling a bear. Laws explains that the wheelbarrow was invented in China around the 3rd century but wasn’t in common use in Europe until 1,000 years later as an essential “wooden ox” in building the great medieval cathedrals. Chinese barrows became so large that their users attached sails to them. If the wind is against you, do you have to tack? I pledge never to find out.

What are my most-used tools? In addition to the string line, the list would include heavy-duty gloves, hip-holstered pruners, a weeding knife, a small modern wheelbarrow, a rake and a sharp hoe. My favorite of all is the garden fork, a friend in forged steel and oiled ash. I use it to turn, improve and prepare the soil, which is the basis of all gardening.

Writes Laws: “A good garden fork can last a lifetime, albeit with a replacement handle from time to time; a cheap garden fork, which will last a season or two, is not worth the trouble.”

Night of the salamander

Shifting gears here, do you recall the weekend before last, when it rained incessantly and then snowed? For most of us, the precipitation was a signal to stay indoors, but for Laura and Liam McGranaghan of Berryville, Va., and a few friends, the first deluge of the spring sent them driving to a road through a part of the George Washington National Forest west of Front Royal for what might be described as an amphibious operation.

The road has its share of traffic but also lies between the wintering habitat of dozens of amphibians and the vernal pools where they mate. The rescuers spent about three hours helping them across the road in the darkness of a Saturday evening, while slowing vehicles.

They ferried to safety as many as 200 toads and frogs and exactly two dozen spotted salamanders, which are magnificent creatures: about eight inches long, lizardlike, with big yellow polka dots.

“We arrived before 6,” Laura McGranaghan said. “About 8 p.m., we saw our first salamander.”

The moral? Point things you care about in the right direction, let them go, and they will flourish. Salamanders. Lettuce seeds. Daughters.

@adrian_higgins on Twitter

Also at washingtonpost.com
Read past columns by Higgins at washingtonpost.com/home.

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