Truly Useless Gardening Gifts

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Not all garden gifts are appreciated. Source: debtfarewell.org

With Christmas approaching fast, you may be on the lookout for a good gift for the gardener in your life. Lots of web sites offer gift suggestions for gardeners and I’ll leave that to them. Instead this year, I thought I’d instead publish a “warning” blog about useless garden gifts.

Here are a few less-than-choice products:

  1. Lawn Aerating Sandals
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Lawn aerating sandals. Source: http://www.mileskimball.com

True soil aerators remove plugs of soil, thus letting air in without compacting the soil. These sandals punch holes in the ground, actually compacting the soil rather than aerating it. Plus, they’re awkward to use: they don’t stay on, they get stuck and using them is difficult and exhausting. I doubt if anyone has ever done a full lawn’s worth of punching with them on! And even if someone did get that far, the lawn would be no better aerated than it was before they started!

  1. Solar-Powered Landscape Lights
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Solar-Powered Landscape Lights. Source: http://www.amazon.com

They seem like a great idea (hey, no need to connect them to a power source!) and they are certainly widely available, but give off sooo little light! You need to space them about 1 foot (30 cm) apart to make the slightest bit of difference. Plus, they don’t work after a cloudy day (not enough sunlight) or in spots that are shaded (which are, after all, usually those you most need to illuminate), and they cut off early. We actually have a few of these in my garden and my wife likes them … but then she never goes out at night. When I get back from a lecture at 1 am (a common occurrence), they’re never on, so I need to use my smartphone and put it on flashlight mode so I won’t trip over the stupid things!

  1. Chia Pet
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Chia pet. Source: Jeremy Noble, http://www.flicker.com

These little clay sculptures, usually of animals, that grow green hair when you water them have been around for ages: I can recall seeing them on TV when I was a kid (remember the ch-ch-ch-chia?). The seedlings do come up and sprout, but never look quite as nice as on TV. And take a photo without delay, as the whole show is over in just a week or two, leaving you with a weird clay sculpture covered in dead seedlings to store in the attic or sell at a garage sale.

4.  Flower Seed Mat

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Flower seed mats come in many shapes and forms and many brand names, but all function in the same way. Source: thecouponproject.com

You’re supposed to lay these in the garden (or on top of a pot), water and presto! A beautiful garden will spring up. Fat chance! The recipient will instead get a mess of overcrowded seedlings that so outcompete each other they rarely bloom. Give your friend or family member a pack of seeds and explain how to sow them at a decent spacing! The results will be better … the gift will cost you less.

  1. Bulb Planter
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Bulb planter. Source: wolfgarten.us

I’m referring here to the hand-held bulb planters made of pressed metal. You’re supposed to sink them into the garden and pull out a core of soil, then drop a bulb in. So far, so good. But then you have to get it to release the core of soil. Good luck with that! Plus, it’s awkward to use (you’re on your knees), only digs fairly shallow holes and you need to dig dozens of individual holes when you’re planting bulbs: a lot of work! It’s much faster to use a garden shovel to dig one wide hole at just the right depth, piling the soil to one side, then place the bulbs at the appropriate distance before filling in. And your gift receiver probably already has a shovel.

  1. Watering can sprayer
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Watering can sprayer. Source: http://www.thegreenhead.com

There are literally dozens of models of these tools, supposedly useful when you’re watering houseplants, but when would anyone actually need them? Watering is useful and even essential, sure enough, and a top quality watering would make a great gift, but it’s well known that misting houseplants is a waste of time. And just try to spray with one of these: you need one hand to hold the watering can, a second one to spray, there’s a spout in the way, etc. Altogether, it’s very awkward! On the rare occasions when there is a need to spray the leaves of a plant, perhaps to clean them, a simple spray bottle (and your gift recipient probably already owns one) is far easier to use and only requires one hand to operate, not two.

  1. Twist Cultivator
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Twist cultivator. Source: http://www.amazon.co.uk

There are all sorts of versions of this tool, also called a stand-up garden tiller, a garden claw or about half a dozen other names. The idea is that you sink its blades into the soil and give the handle a twist, thus breaking up hard soil and aerating it. Try it more than a few minutes and you’d discover that twisting a tool in that manner is just about the most unnatural movement the human body can make! Carpal tunnel syndrome and back pain are pretty much a given. There are a gazillion types of hoes and cultivators that will do the same job with less effort and a more natural movement and the recipient probably already has at least one on hand. And in the age of mulching and “no-till gardening,” what exactly is the point of loosening the soil anyway?

  1. Knee Pads That Don’t Stay on Your Knees
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Knee pads: try before you buy. Source: http://www.dhgate.com

Knee pads are great gardening gifts, I’m not denying that … but only if they stay on the receiver’s knees. Many don’t. Look for ones with two sets of straps, to attach above and below the knee. Ideally, you’d actually try the pads on in the store, getting up and down off your knees a few times (older folks can borrow the services of a store clerk for this test). If they don’t stay on your or his/her knees in a store, imagine in the garden!

  1. Gardener’s Journal
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Gardener’s journal. Source: http://www.amazon.com

Editors keep publishing these, so expect new models every year. I get them all the time as a gift … and then promptly regift them. (If fact, I’m now beginning to wonder if it’s not the same journal that keeps coming back to me, re-regifted?) For a journal to be of any use to a gardener, you’d need to be able to take it into the garden to make notes as you garden. But these journals fall apart if they get moist and are unreadable if they get dirty. I haven’t seen any waterproof, dirtproof journals yet … with pens that don’t get lost in a garden setting (yet another problem). Any garden notes I take go on the computer in the evening, after I’ve finished for the day and cleaned up.

  1. Hose Guides
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Hose guides. Source: http://www.overstock.com

The idea with hose guides is to install them around flower and vegetable beds so the hose doesn’t damage the plants when you pull it further along. The problem is, in all the models I’ve tried, the hose always seems to somehow jump over the guide at some point, damaging the plants. Even in the case of models purporting to physically hold the hose in place through an indent of some sort, the hose still manages to come loose and damage is done. So, hose guides are basically a waste of money.

In General

When you’re a gardener looking for a gardening gift, go with your gut instinct. You’ll probably do fine. If you’re not a gardener … ask for help from a store employee. That’s what they’re there for! And do be careful of the words “As seen on TV.” In my experience, they tend to accompany pretty much the least interesting gardening products!

My New Favorite Bulb-Planting Tool

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ProPlugger tool: just punch a hole and plant! Source: http://www.proplugger.com

I’m an inveterate bulb planter. I just can’t help myself! Each fall, I end up ordering hundreds of spring-flowering bulbs (no, that is not an exaggeration) and I have to find places to plant them.

Twenty years ago, when I was in the habit of adding a new flower bed or increasing the size of an older one every year, that was easy. I had plenty of space! So, I planted bulbs with a simple shovel: dig big hole, drop in plenty of bulbs, cover. It was a snap! But I’ve since run out of expandable garden space: pretty much my entire yard, from the street to the back fence, is one vast flower and shrub bed/edible landscape. There are no longer any large open spaces where I can dig big holes and drop in tons of bulbs. I need to “tuck them” into spaces between other plants.

That means a shovel is now essentially useless. I need a tool where I can get at narrow spaces without too much effort.

I Hate Bulb Planters

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Bulb planters are usually made of cheap sheet metal, are awkward to use and short-lived. They seem designed to fail! Source: www.lowes.com

I’ve tried bulb planters and they’re too much work. You need to be down on your knees to plant (and my aging body no longer appreciates that) and twisting the planter back and forth, always with the same wrist (unless you’re ambidextrous) is very tiring. Plus, they always seem to be made of thin sheet metal, with the result that the tines quickly become bent and twisted, rendering the whole tool useless.

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Sure you can plant bulbs with a garden trowel, but you have to get down on your hands and knees to do so. Source: cheshamconnect.org

Honestly, I find planting bulbs with a garden trowel easier than using a bulb planter. But I still kept finding myself either down on my aching knees or sitting precariously on a movable bench that inevitably ends up flattening plants I don’t want to flatten. There had to be a better way!

Last Year’s Discovery

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The ProPlugger: a solid metal tube with a handlebar and foot rests. Source: www.proplugger.com

So, I went looking for a better bulb planting tool … and I’ve found it. Called the ProPlugger 5-in-one Planting Tool (from here on in, I’ll just call it “the ProPlugger”), it’s essentially a thick metal tube with a T-handle on the top and a double foot rest below. You use it standing up: no bending, no kneeling!

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Press, twist, lift. Up to twelve plugs of soil will lodge inside the tool, so you can drill hole after hole. Source: www.proplugger.com.

You simply press it into the ground, pushing down with your foot on the foot rest for extra weight if needed, twist a bit and lift: out comes a plug of earth about 2 1/8 inches (5.4 cm) in diameter. Then dig another hole, and another: the soil gets stored inside the tool as you work, enabling you to dig over a dozen planting holes, one right after another.

You’ll discover the ProPlugger slices through small and even medium roots, always abundant in my garden. I was able to get right up close to shrubs and perennials while doing little damage. However, it won’t cut through big roots, nor through rocks, so, as with any tight planting, sometimes you still have to move the planting hole a bit.

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Empty the tube from time to time. Source: www.proplugger.com.

When the tube is full or you’ve dug enough holes for your needs, invert the tool near where you need the soil and it will fall out. You can then break up the soil if it’s compacted, add amendments if you judge that necessary, etc.

One hint: any planting tool will work best in soil that is slightly moist, so if conditions are very dry, consider watering the area a day or two before you plant.
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You can add fertilizer without even having to bend down. Source: www.proplugger.com.

If you need to add fertilizer or mycorrhizal fungi before planting, just position the tool over the hole and drop it in. Couldn’t be easier!

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Just drop a bulb in and let it fall. All that’s left is to cover it with soil. Source: www.proplugger.com.

Rather then bend down to plant the bulbs, use the tool as a planting guide. Insert the far end into the hole and drop a bulb in, pointy side up. Most of the time it will drop straight down into the hole, staying in the right position. However, even if it ends up on its side or even upside down, don’t sweat it: the bulb will still grow and bloom.

To finish, fill the hole with soil. I found that, if I’d emptied the soil near the holes, I could simply push it into place with my shoe or the ProPlugger, but sometimes I did need to use a shovel to get it where I wanted it.

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With the 4-inch depth ring on, as above, the hole dug will be 4 inches (10 cm) deep. Source: www.proplugger.com.

I tried the ProPlugger last year (I had a bushel of 300 daffodil bulbs to plant, among others) and it worked like a charm. There are even depth rings set at 2 and 4 inches (5 and 10 cm) that you can add to the tool so it won’t dig as deeply. They’re useful for smaller bulbs. Without an added ring, it will dig a 6-inch (15 cm) hole, ideal for most larger bulbs.

I must point out I especially liked the sturdy construction of the ProPlugger. It’s not simply cut out of flimsy sheet metal like so many tools these days. It looks like it will last pretty much forever!

Bulbs and Beyond

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You can use the ProPlugger to move plugs of lawn grass or groundcovers, among other uses. Source: www.proplugger.com.

Although I got the ProPlugger for planting bulbs, it was originally designed for removing weeds like dandelions, plus you can use it for transplanting plugs of lawn or groundcover or for planting annuals. It’s great for taking soil samples too. I recently used it to move 30 plugs of dwarf Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum humile), a ground cover I would otherwise have had to dig up leaving large holes and it worked like a charm!

If the ProPlugger isn’t available in a local store, you can order it directly from the designer-manufacturer at ProPlugger or at other on-line sources, like Amazon or eBay. (Check the prices before buying: they vary widely!) It’s not inexpensive, but if you have hundreds of bulbs to plant every year, you’ll almost certainly find it worth the expense.

The Bulb Planter: A Garden Tool You’ll Never Use

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20150918AFall is the season for planting spring-flowering bulbs, but don’t feel tempted to buy a bulb planter to help you plant them. This is the kind of tool you try once, then put aside, never to use again.

The idea with this tool is to push down on the soil, twisting right and left, thus boring a hole into the ground of the required depth, then you pull out a plug of earth. Next drop the bulb in the hole and put the plug back in. Presto, you’re done! It certainly sounds easy enough.

In actual fact, though, it rarely releases the plug on its own. You need to push it free or bang the tool on the ground, with the result that the plug falls apart and you usually end up using your hands to fill in the hole. Even spring-loaded models, supposedly designed specifically to release the plug easily, rarely do so without some extra effort.

And that’s not the only problem. The resulting hole is only wide enough for one medium size bulb, say a tulip, a hyacinth or a daffodil. It’s too wide for crocuses, squills, snowdrops, etc. and too narrow for crown imperials (Fritillaria imperialis). I’ve yet to see a bulb planter with an adjustable diameter.

Plus bulbous plants are generally too small to make much of an effect if planted alone: they need to be planted in groups. Try planting 20 tulip bulbs with a bulb planter and you’ll see: it requires a lot of effort.

Also, the current recommendation for tulip bulbs is to plant them extra deep, 12 inches (30 cm) down. This not only puts them out of the reach of squirrels, it helps perennialize them. Yet the average bulb planter is only about 6 inches (15 cm) high. So you’d have to drill a second hole on the bottom of the first one it get it right.

In my experience, it is far easier to use a simple garden shovel, which you already own, I’m sure, to dig a larger hole in which to place several to many bulbs at once. With a shovel, you can easily adjust the depth as required. For any precision planting, like when you’re planting bulbs in between established plants, a garden trowel does an equally good job and requires less effort than a bulb planter. And you probably already own one as well.

So, at least in my experience, this is one tool the average gardener really can live without!