Monthly Archives: March 2013

Have a Great Good Friday

Unorthodox Gardening Tools – 5

Forceps and hemostats

In most gardening applications, I can think of two circumstances where having long manipulative tools narrower than one’s fingers come in very handy. (Well, I can think of a third, but most gardeners I know skip out on pliers for pulling out bullets and go straight for the cauterizing oil. It makes a better scar.) The first is working with terraria, either with plants a little too delicate for mere fingers or with glass containers that don’t respond well to shaking and beating. The other is any application with cacti, chollas, or other succulents with barbed spines. You might say “the flesh is weak”, and I’ll agree with you, especially after encountering the joys of Joshua Tree chollas.

(For those unfamiliar with these uniquely North American nightmares, chollas reproduce both by seeds and by chunks of their branches rooting where they land. They often land far from their original locales because the plant is covered with sharp and barbed spines that sink into exposed flesh and lodge themselves. If you try to pluck off a chunk, you discover that they make a finger trap worthy of Clive Barker, as the force necessary to grasp the chunk is also enough to sink the hooks on the chunk into the offending hand. Gloves are also equally attractive, and the only effective way to remove a cholla chunk is to use metal barbecue tongs to grip and pull before tossing the chunk well out of range.)

In addition to standard gripping, there’s another consideration involving trimming overgrown or dead material from plants in a bottle terrarium. It’s not enough to snag something, but to cut it as well. I’ve seen terrarium guides from the 1970s that suggest all sorts of handmade tools utilizing wine corks and razor blades on clothes hanger wire, but when it comes to delicacy and strength, nothing beats implements designed to invade the human body and remove pieces from inside.

This is why I tell all of my gardener friends to learn of the wonders of American Science & Surplus and refer to AS&S often for unorthodox tools. For friends outside of the States, since AS&S can’t ship outside of the US, I tell them to make more friends out here and work out a trade program, because you can’t tell what AS&S has available on any given day. In this case, go directly to the Medical/Dental Tools section of the AS&S catalog, because about two-thirds of the items therein can come in handy. Most of the time, you’ll come across something that you didn’t realize existed and that you didn’t know you needed until you spotted it.

Since AS&S gets a lot of surplus medical tools, it has an excess of riches most days, including scalpels, syringes, hemostats, bandage scissors, and all sorts of things with uses that transfer well to horticulture. This is in addition to the lab glassware. The middle tong in the photo above is an alligator forceps: open and close the handles, and a tiny little jaw opens at the other end to grab and drop items. Of more import is the tool on the bottom, designed for arthroscopic surgery. This has a lower jaw with a beveled slot in it and an upper jaw that fits inside that slot, so when you close it, whatever gets caught is both grabbed and cut. In situations where you need to remove dead leaves on a miniature sundew without disturbing the plant or getting mucilage all over your hands, that tool is an absolute lifesaver.

Micro-tools are great, but as anyone who has ever tried to paint a cabinet with a 3/0 brush will tell you, sometimes a larger tool gets better results. That’s why when I came across an Alligetter on discount, I snagged it. The Container Store originally sold it as a handy device for pulling items out of garbage disposals, which explains the little LED, battery pack, and switch on the top of the device, but I snagged it on deep discount because the LED wasn’t functional. Not that it matters in most gardening circumstances. The trigger grip allows good control, the plastic jaws are just flexible enough to grip without crushing, and the jaws are wide enough to grab larger items in enclosed spaces than what the alligator forceps can snag. If you need something for larger items than what an Alligetter can manage, might I recommend barbecue tongs? I understand they work well with cholla removal.

Still more to come…

Unorthodox Gardening Tools – 4

Pliers and snips

Spend a few years gardening, and you’ll note how necessary metal wire is for most applications. If you want something to last more than a year or so, you’ll need wire. The garden twine used to tie back roses or tie up tomatoes might last a year under most weather conditions. I’ve known people, including my mother, to use flexible plastic oxygen tubing for tying up climbing roses to a trellis, but the Texas sun leaves that yellowed and brittle within a year. Even with UV inhibitors incorporated into the mix, most plastics only survive for a few years, so even big pots eventually go brittle as their plasticizers outgas and sunlight breaks down the resin’s chemical bonds. If most house and car paint starts to powder and fade within five years, what chance does a Zip-tie have?

(When I was still in high school, my little brother had a 1973 Chevy Vega as his first car. My father purchased it from a friend for $25, after the car responded to a whole new engine rebuild by dropping the transmission, and that friend’s son had painted the beast blue with white racing stripes. He did a great job with the masking, but he didn’t seal the paint, and two or three Dallas summers left it a bit, erm, permeable. In fact, every rainstorm left a line of blue milky water running down the street from where the Vega sat, and trying to wash that beast was an exercise in Sissyphean futility. Even so, that beat the experience we both grew up with further north, where the sun was less intense but road salt during the winters ate out the body panels and left monstrous gaping holes in the floorboards. That Vega finally died not from the paint job, but from scratches in the paint after my brother moved to Wisconsin, and it rusted to pieces within a year of its getting there.)

Of course, wire isn’t a perfect replacement for plastic. Metal fatigue. Excellent transmission of heat and/or electricity. A tensile strength much higher than that of flesh. And, of course, when dealing with puncture wounds caused by a piece of rose tying wire or the wire often used to tie off bales of long-fiber sphagnum moss, there’s always the fun to be had from tasty, tasty tetanus. I mean, why let a little rictus sardonicus get in the way of horticultural glory? Just walk it off.

Seriously, considering all of the sharp and flexible items found in gardening areas, I’m amazed that half of my blood isn’t tetanus booster by now. Consider old rusty nails sticking out of old fencing. More nails dropped to the ground during house construction and forgotten. Insulation staples and brads dropped under the same circumstances. I won’t even start with the amount of ferrous and oxidized treasure tossed into fill dirt used for raised beds or yard grading, all loaded with bacteria left over from the days when oxygen was a deadly waste product. In a lot of those cases, removing the nightmare entirely may be impossible, so you spend your time cutting, filing, and hammering until the obstacle is no longer a threat to children or pets.

This is why every gardening toolkit needs a set of pliers and trimmers. A Leatherman at your side at all times is great, and I implore everyone looking at a cheap knockoff to consider that you get your money’s worth, but sometimes it’s not enough. Hence, alongside mine and my trusty Swiss Army Explorer knife, I recommend getting a set of specialized pliers for those special jobs. They’re usually not expensive (I bought the set of grey-handled long-reach pliers for $20 US), and the first time you need to twist wire, open up split rings, or cut something flush with a wall in a space a hacksaw can’t reach, you’ll thank yourself for snagging the set.

More to come…

Unorthodox Gardening Tools – 3

Brushes and scrubbers

I don’t care what anybody says. Any decent gardening toolkit needs brushes and scrubbers. Scotchbrite pads are great, too, but basic brushes, whiskbrooms, and bottle brushes are essential. Whether you’re trying to check for new growth on a corm without disrupting the roots, cleaning off a mold-encrusted pot, or trying to get that scrap of moss off the inside of a bottle terrarium, a decent selection of brushes will save your sanity in the long run.

And so, starting from the left, we have a standard soft-bristle whisk broom given to me by my father-in-law, used mostly for sweeping up messes. Whether it’s the cat knocking a pot over or your beloved shoving a table and inadvertently smashing a vase, having a good basic broom for gathering debris will save your hands. Oh, it might be dust, but do you really want to sweep up glass fragments with your fingers, too?

To the right of that is a standard bonsai brush, designed for brushing and evening the soil in bonsai trays. It works beautifully for that, but it’s also very effective for dust on glasswork, rust on metalwork, and shooing the cats.

The next two are scrubbers, which get used in gardening more than you think. In particular, the potato scrubber is your friend when washing out pots or other containers, and the combination of accumulated filth and minerals from the local tap water make a crust impermeable to everything other than atomic weaponry. Oh, and if you’re growing potatoes, that scrubber means you can wash your bounty under the garden hose and throw it on the grill right then, too.

Finally, we have the specialist tools. On the far right is a toothbrush, if you have a thing for worrying about the tartar on a Thylacosmilus. Besides its normal use in cleaning Army latrines in Basic Training, the other side can be sharpened and beveled as a scraper and used for chipping off extremely hard mineral deposits from glass without scratching it. The last one, the bottle brush, is the most used of the lot: have you ever tried to clean out test tubes, bud vases, clear plastic tubing, or a sink drain with a rag on a stick? If you have, then you understand why anyone who takes your bottle brush must DIE.

More to follow…

Unorthodox gardening tools -2

Gardening knives and shears

Anyone doing so much as basic gardening needs a cutting edge sooner or later. Sure, you can pluck roses by hand, but at the risk of either tearing up your hand or tearing up the plant. Everyone has a story about a beloved plant that was either ripped up or ripped out of the ground because the plant’s bond to a dead leaf was stronger than its bond to the earth. When working with many carnivorous plants, a sharp edge is essential, as both Nepenthes tendrils and Sarracenia leaves are tougher than comparable hemp rope. If you think I’m kidding, go ahead and take off those dead leaves by hand. I’ll be over here, laughing.

The problem with unorthodox projects is that sometimes unorthodox tools are needed, and that particularly applies to cutting implements. A good pair of scissors or secateurs gets the job done 99 times out of a hundred. It’s the odd circumstance, though, that requires a bit of variety, which is why I have several additions in the basic toolbag.

The pair of hand clippers in the center is self-evident, although these see regular use because they’re small enough to fit into a pocket. Continue to use big scissors or clippers, to be sure, but don’t be afraid to get a small pair like these, with spring action so they open when you release pressure on them, for the really small jobs.

Now, the blades on the left are watch knives, designed to be used by jewelers for opening watch backs. The Czarina uses these constantly for watch battery replacement, as they have one side that’s beveled and the other is perfectly flat, with a good stainless steel blade that’s easily resharpened. While they’re best for circumstances where you need to pry while cutting, thus immediately making them much safer than your pair of garden scissors, that flat side means that they’re also very handy for prying up glue, epoxy, silicone sealer, or just about anything on an impermeable surface that needs to be removed with a minimum of damage to that surface. Just don’t use them for opening paint cans, and they’ll last forever.

Over on the right are the real specialist tools. Both of these are budding knives, used for T-bud grafting buds and twigs to parent trees. The bottom of the blade cuts through bark in order to start the graft, while the flange on the top allows you to pull up the bark and the cambium, very gently, to slip in the graft material before tying or taping it down. The jackknife version is one manufactured by Victorinox, the Swiss Army knife manufacturers, as a budding and garden knife, and is still available at a reasonable price. The one on the far right was a surprise discovery at an estate sale, with a rosewood handle, that suggests the owner was using it for elaborate grafting experiments. Either way, they’ve been getting a bit of a workout on my grapefruit tree, and should last for decades even with that.

As mentioned before, more to come…

Unorthodox gardening tools – 1

Over the last weekend, I spent a very productive evening trimming back and wiring yearling Capsicum peppers for bonsai. In the process, I went digging through the big toolbag I use for holding my gardening tools and realized “You know, if someone didn’t know me, they’d have all sorts of suspicions about what I planned to do with the stuff in here. Hell, they’d have those suspicions if they did know me.” Ten years of serious horticulture, combined with a packrat mindset for tools that comes from my father’s side of the family, and most of the tools in my collection would make for props in one hell of a PBS series.

It’s worse when I bring these out at plant shows, ostensibly to pluck a dead leaf from a terrarium arrangement or prune back a recalcitrant weed that escaped notice until right then. Between the tools themselves and the heavy bag I use to haul them around, I have to explain that no, I’m not doing Harry Tuttle cosplay. When your father is an engineer, it comes with the territory.

With that in mind, it occurred to me after talking with friends that some of these tools, handmade and otherwise, might be handy to other horticulturalists as well. If it works, feel free to track down your own, or make your own, for that matter. Half of the fun is the sharing.

Monitor display stand

The first unorthodox tool is a bit too large to fit into the bag, but it’s a lifesaver for trimming plants in pots, arranging miniature gardens, or otherwise handling containers that need to spin a bit. Professional bonsai growers use turntables made specifically for the purpose, and there’s nothing wrong with these in the slightest. However, when working with smaller arrangements, I needed something with that flexibility, but lightweight enough to be carried around easily, and with a storage space underneath. Some have these, but the price is a bit iffy.

Monitor display stand

Thankfully, the detritus from the dotcom era left very affordable and usable alternatives. Every morning when I look at the flatscreen monitor on my work computer, I note that while it’s over six years old, it’s still better than the CRT monstrosity I used to have. Back when cathode ray tubes were the only options for computer monitors, the more showy had their beige monitors and their beige desktops accented with equally beige monitor stands, and those stands were designed to handle a lot more weight than is needed today. Hence, they show up in charity shops on a regular basis, and they’re perfect for miniature garden work. Adjust the wingnut to the proper tension, cover the assemblage with a waterproof cover, set your pot in the center, and spin away. Even better, if it wears out, replacement parts are easy to obtain, and you can even touch it up with a touch of paint to get rid of that Nineties-era beige and make it easier to wipe off after a repotting session.

And that’s the start of it. Keep checking back for more.

Introducing Sarracenia flava

The joke all throughout Texas goes “Don’t like the weather? Hang around for five minutes.” Our reality isn’t much better. While not getting the rain we were promised (as of this week, we’re now facing the driest spring registered in North Texas since 1971, and we’re heading straight toward Year Three of the worst drought seen in the state since the “drought of record” in 1952-56), Saturday was average for the area and the time of the year. Then Sunday hit, and it’s time to pull out the winter coats and gloves again. By Monday and Tuesday, we faced low temperatures below freezing, which isn’t a big deal further north, but here? I’ve lived here for two-thirds of my life, and I apparently missed our last big late freeze in 1997 by being trapped in Portland, Oregon at the time.

Anyway, the cold coming through so late in the year couldn’t have hit at a worse time. The plans to set up the new greenhouse went into standby, as the winds on Sunday were ferocious enough that attempting to install greenhouse film would have whisked me to Oz or at least to Nehwon. The citrus trees and the new blueberry, recently purchased to replace the “Pink Lemonade” blueberry bush that died during last year’s fall immolation, went under cover, as did all of the hot pepper bonsai just trimmed and wired. I couldn’t do much for the Sarracenia in their wading pools except trust in their ability to handle light frosts, but I pulled in two yellow pitchers, Sarracenia flava>, inside to protect their new blooms.

Sarracenia flava

Early spring isn’t a good time for control freak carnivorous plant enthusiasts, particularly those engrossed in Sarracenia. As mentioned elsewhere, all of the North American pitcher plants go into dormancy by mid-November, and we got enough cold, including our freak snowfall on Christmas Day, to kill off most of the autumn pitchers by mid-January. That’s not a problem, because come March, they grow more. What to do about the scraggly mess hiding the blooms, though?

Sarracenia flava

At this point, the best thing to do is cut off anything that’s gone brown and evaluate any new growth, as well as remove weeds that sprouted up at the same time. In this photo, you may note that this S. flava still has a kindasorta live trap from last year, even if the top is burned off, and two new tall pitchers starting to sprout. If you’re trimming yours back, leave anything that’s still green attached to the plant, especially this time of the year. The plant needs every last photon it can capture to get a good start on the year, so as tempting as it is to snip those half-traps, leave them on until they actually die off.

Sarracenia flava

While giving these guys their new spring tonsorials, taking the time to go through it carefully has its reward. Hidden among the wreckage wasn’t just a tiny little pitcher that emerged at about the time the plant bloomed, but a handful of violets sprouting in the sphagnum moss. The pitcher was interesting in its own right: because most of the pollinators for Sarracenia are also potential prey, most plants bloom and only start opening up traps after the blooms fade. This little pitcher, though, was probably working hard at catching mosquitoes, fungus gnats, and anything else it could snag, passing on what nitrogen it could from digestion to the main plant while the main pitchers started to emerge. It stays, but unfortunately the violets are going to go…probably into a bog garden arrangement. The flowers don’t last long, but the leaves have their own merits if they don’t burn off in the summer heat.

Sarracenia flava bloom

Speaking of blooms, the only thing more impressive than Sarracenia traps are their blooms, and this one helps explain why the common name is “yellow pitcher”. The traps tend toward chartreuse, but the blooms just blaze. In the years I’ve kept Sarracenia, I’ve noticed these blooms ranging from canary to a very light green. The scent tends to be a bit like cat spray, which can be a bit overpowering in enclosed areas, and I’ve heard of problems with cats assuming that the analogue is the real thing and attacking bog gardens for that reason. These, though, were all completely odor-free, but I’m not sure if that was because of the bloom or the insane lack of humidity in the area at the time. However, look at them under ultraviolet light, or even under a good full moon, and get a good idea of what a pollinating insect sees.

Sarracenia flava bloom

When most people see Sarracenia blooms, the understandable concern is that the plant traps bees, wasps, and other big potential pollinators. As mentioned earlier, the plant produces its first traps after the blooms open, to remove the risk of snagging a freshly pollen-covered wasp and thereby preventing its genes from passing on to new generations. The bloom is a trap all on its own, though, but not a fatal one. The bottom cap or shield seen in this photo protects the flower’s stamens from rain and wind, and the only way in is through slots in the cap. Those caps are covered by the petals, which are about as strong and stiff as cling wrap or chunks of burst balloon, so an insect seeking nectar or pollen can push the petals aside and get in under the cap. Problem is, the petals also conceal the slots once the bug is inside, so it tends to wander around for a while, getting dusted with pollen both from the stamens above it and with loose pollen within the cap. I’ve seen honeybees escape a cap that were absolutely antiqued with fresh pollen, and there’s enough in an individual cap to expedite the pollination of a whole stand of pitcher plants.

Eventually, the fun ends. When the flower finally gets pollinated, the petals drop off, other insects wipe up the excess pollen, and the seed pod in the interior swells, matures, and then dries out. By the end of summer, I gather the mature pods, stratify them in the refrigerator over the winter, and then pot them in fresh sphagnum moss in spring. And the cycle continues.