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The indispensable trowel


The right-angle trowel is great for transplanting a lot of seedlings. (Barbara Damrosch)
Contributor

All garden tools are extensions of our bodies, fulfilling our need to be stronger, faster and unharmed in our battles with soil and stones. With small hand tools this is true in an intimate way. Holding a claw weeder, our fingers gain the power of an eagle’s talons. Just picking up a trowel sends a charge of confidence down the muscles of the forearm. Such tools are very personal. We select them according to the way our hand wants to feel and what it needs to do.

In spring a trowel is never far away. I own three or four identical ones, narrow and sharply pointed at the tip, with a handle made of roughened green material, easy to grasp. I say “three or four” because several are missing at any given time, the green handles blending in with the greenery. This trowel is very cheap to buy at my local hardware store, so it pays to stock up. It is frequently “borrowed.”

Barbara Damrosch’s latest book is “The Four Season Farm Gardener’s Cookbook.” View Archive

There are other kinds of trowels in our tool shed. One is quite broad and rather heavy, its blade even more scooped than a scoop shovel, almost like a tiny wheelbarrow without wheels. I use that one when I mix soil amendments in a pot before putting a plant in. I also use it for transplanting seedlings in spring because its size and weight make it easy to dig a generous-size hole. (For an extra-large hole for, say, a tomato plant, I’d use a shovel or even a posthole digger.) If I’m moving a small plant from one part of the garden to another, the large trowel is good for incising a circle around the plant and bringing it aloft with a generous ball of soil around the roots, then carrying it intact to its new home.

A big trowel’s weight is also good for weeding where weeds are large and stubborn. But if I’m getting weeds while they’re small, as a gardener should, the small narrow tool makes much quicker work of them. Someone might prefer a claw weeder, but I like this tool’s point, which I’ll plunge into the ground with the right hand while pulling the dislodged weed with my left. Stab and pull, stab and pull. For dandelions, this trowel doesn’t go as deep as one of those notched dandelion diggers, but I find it’s more accurate and frees up more of the root.

There’s another tool that we keep over at the farm and use when transplanting very large numbers of seedlings. (The majority of crops we grow there are started ahead in a greenhouse to get a jump on the harvest — even the earliest beans and corn.) It’s called a right-angle trowel, and it’s made for jabbing into the soil and then pulling toward you, to create just the right-size hole. Its angle makes it very easy on the wrist. Unlike my pet trowel, this one isn’t cheap: $59.95 on Amazon, $34.95 at Johnny’s Selected Seeds. Swiss-made, it was originally called the Pflanzhand, translated as “plant hand.” And when you have a large area to be filled with young plants, it is just what you want your hand to be.

Damrosch’s latest book is “The Four Season Farm Gardener’s Cookbook.”

Tip of the week

Stake peonies now to prevent flopping caused by wind and rain. Plastic-coated wire grids work well to prevent storm flattening. The type of peony materially affects a grid’s performance: Single or semi-double flowered varieties fare better than top-heavy double varieties with a high petal count.

— Adrian Higgins

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