Plant science

The Ultimate Tool for the Curious Gardener: The (Small) Microscope

Like every biologist in the world, I have a $50,000 microscope at home.

What? You don’t? OK, OK, I must confess: I don’t either. But sometimes, I wish I did!

There are several types of microscopes and some are worth several million dollars. Photo:

Fortunately, technology and science are constantly evolving, and the tools you can have at home are now very powerful, and for a smaller budget!

If you are a curious gardener, picky or quick on the draw when you see something moving in your houseplants, the USB handheld microscope is for you!

Why a Microscope?

You don’t think you need it, until one day you have one. Then you start using it in all sorts of ways!

A mysterious insect in a houseplant? Microscope.

A splinter or a tiny cactus prickle in your skin? Microscope.

An unknown seed found in your herb boxes? Microscope.

A firefly captured and so intriguing with its light? Microscope.

A speck of pollen? Microscope.

Dissecting a leaf? Microscope.

Impressing a visitor? Microscope.

Photo: Audrey Martel.

You can see how we start out slowly, using this prodigious tool for some utilitarian purposes… to eventually look at anything and have fun exploring the world. I never went out without a vial or two with me, in case I wanted to bring back a sample of moss or a snail for a closer look. Have you ever seen a snail’s heart beat through its translucent shell? I have!

OK, but Microscopes Are Expensive!

Yes, and no! I have three microscopes at home… And they didn’t cost anything, haha!

I’m not talking about a high-powered, electronic, NASA microscope with magic photons that see atoms and the future. In fact, to observe nature, a magnification of 50x to 100x is often enough, a very basic microscope.

The first of my three microscopes was a child’s model, but the lenses are the same as in an “adult” format and do the job just fine.

This microscope, a small format, was given to me by my grandparents for my birthday. I must have been 7 or 8 years old and I used it until I was an adult to satisfy my curiosity!

Photo: Audrey Martel.

The second one, which is not really a microscope, was an old school binocular. Deemed obsolete with the new technologies, the university got rid of it! However, the lenses, once again, are the only important thing for us (we are not trying to cure cancer, you know), and these were in perfect condition.

The difference with binoculars is that you use two eyes instead of one, which allows some three-dimensional vision. Also, they allow for a generally lower magnification than microscopes.

A used binocular from the 1970s like this one (left) has an approximate value of 750$ today. Photo: Audrey Martel.

Personally, I have never liked binoculars. I don’t find the 3D effect all that relevant (in fact, if I don’t think about it, I don’t even really notice it), and, curious as I am, the magnification limits often bother me.

Just between you and me, I have another gripe with the “bino”; my eyes are never properly aligned with the holes. It never seems to fit right or I’m not at the right distance from the lens… But that’s my opinion. My spouse did his PhD with his eyes glued to the bino seen above and he finds my inability to appreciate it very comical!

My Latest Microscope: The Most Practical of Tools

Welcome to 2023!

No more big, heavy tools. No more unnecessary adjustments. No more exorbitant prices. And no more vials of samples to bring home.

The microscopic world is at your fingertips! (I feel like I’m in a ShamWow commercial!)

My partner received a portable microscope, which shows a live image on his phone. No bigger than a pickle, it charges through a USB port, and voila: it’s ready to use anywhere, as long as you have a phone. The images are surprisingly clear and, once you get the hang of it, it’s very easy to use. You can take pictures and videos, simply by pressing a button that is located directly on this futuristic tool. WOW!

Photo: Audrey Martel.

It’s So Small!

I told you that we didn’t pay for any of our microscopes, this one was a gift from my mother-in-law (thanks Carole!), but it is worth about 50$ online. An affordable price for enthusiasts (compared to a “real” new microscope that can be worth hundreds or thousands of dollars).

I would like to see the face of the scientists of old in front of such an easy-to-use gadget and offering such high quality images!

From left to right: baby root of a cutting, leaf and stem of a begonia, kalanchoe leaf. Photo: Audrey Martel.

Audrey Martel is a biologist who graduated from the University of Montreal. After more than ten years in the field of scientific animation, notably for Parks Canada and the Granby Zoo, she joined Nature Conservancy of Canada to take up new challenges in scientific writing. She then moved into marketing and joined Leo Studio. Full of life and always up for a giggle, or the discovery of a new edible plant, she never abandoned her love for nature and writes articles for both Nature sauvage and the Laidback Gardener.

6 comments on “The Ultimate Tool for the Curious Gardener: The (Small) Microscope

  1. I use a plain old hand lens, which are a very inexpensive option and are sturdy enough to carry in your pocket and whip out without stopping work to admire the world of nature. The second (far more expensive) “in the garden tough” item I use is the Olympus TG5 camera (now available as the TH6) which rivals my pro macro lens in its ability to take video and microscope grade photos of things I can’t see but later spend all winter looking at and learning about as I upload the photos to I-naturalist. It is a safari out there, and everything you see has a story that is often integral to our ecology. Mind blowing, really, and there is no more interesting “reality” form of entertainment. Bravo on encouraging this kind of activity, thank you!

  2. How many times is the magnification?

  3. Lisa Colburn

    Can you please share the brand name? How would I find one on Amazon?

  4. Christine Lemieux

    I must get one. I often use a magnifying glass to identify things!

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