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…