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Less Is More

Photo by Steve Bracci

”IT'S A VET-O-MATIC!” I exclaimed to my friend. We had the television on in the background as we were talking when the slicing and dicing caught my attention. How wonderful that America still needs that iconic TV must-have gadget from my youth. It has a different name now, but it is available again. Along with the hamburger-stuffing machine, the bacon bowl maker and the perfect-egg-every-time microwave omelet maker, you can supply your kitchens with an array of devices promising to make your family squeal with delight at mealtime. You can also make room for such new devices by removing that now dusty rice steamer, food dehydrater and sprout sprouter that you also thought you had to have. In reality, there are only a few basic tools and appliances you actually need to conquer almost any culinary undertaking, but it’s easy to get caught up in the hype.

Gardeners aren’t immune to the same sort of impulse buying, often falling prey to the temptation of purchasing the latest shiny tool, device or decorative item displayed on the shelf of the garden center or in the myriad of intriguing seeds and plants that beckon from the pages of your most recent garden catalogue. But it is best to remember that, just like in the kitchen, there are only a few basics that earn their keep in the garden over the long term.  In consideration of that what follows is my short list of indispensable garden necessities for your review and consideration.                                                                                                                          

Several years ago, much to my delight,  I was introduced anew to the antique lawn and garden sprinklers that I remember seeing in grandfatherly garages and sheds. These whirling wonders are beautifully made to last: Their cast metal bodies crafted in elegant forms, from art deco and to streamlined, speak of an era when “Made in America” was synonymous with style and quality. Copper and brass spinners promise swirling and rhythmic patterns of glimmering droplets that shower and drip from your garden plants. I use these beauties faithfully on most days when it is not raining. Having no automatic irrigation system and planting in a sandy area, this is my choice for keeping things happy. I can target only the areas that are in need of water and give them a good soaking.

While this is my horticultural purpose for using vintage sprinklers, their are more reasons to love these little machines. They provide some of the best minutes I spend outdoors.   At the end of the day, after spending time amid the vulgarity and frustrations of the civilized world, it is good for the soul to have repose of mind in the company of noble things. It is at those times that I can simply turn on the faucet and be taken out of myself, mesmerized by the swirling glint of the backlit drops. And in just moments my noble friends discover the shower as well—chirping and flying in with enthusiasm. Ruffling their feathers while perched among the branches, their appreciation is wonderfully evident. It evokes benevolent feeling, and gladly so, for such admirable creatures. The Bible uses the birds to exemplify faith and trust, and their company puts me in mind of these things. 

Tines that are square in cross-section are stong and rigid, not bending as you pry the soil.

While on the subject of birds, it is fitting to mention another necessary piece of garden art. The birdbath has probably been around since the earliest gardens, but has at times been a little neglected. It surprises me to see how many gardens and yards don’t have one of these somewhere. Equally surprising is the clumsy, lethally heavy design of many birdbaths available for purchase. As a result it is often with reluctance that I proffer the idea of adding a birdbath to homeowners, discouraged by the possible appearance of one of those multi-ton specimens that is likely to appear. Well, there are more friendly options these days. 
Another objection to birdbaths I’ve often heard expressed is a concern about maintenance and the spectre of stagnant water and its potential as a breeding place for mosquitoes. In actuality I’ve only encountered these issues with the aforementioned ubiquitous concrete varieties. For it is true that with their deep bowled design they easily become algae infested and unattractive to birds or any other wildlife. Too deep for any bird but a heron, they likely never have a non-amoebic visitor.

The birdbaths I’ve made for my garden are no more than an inch deep or so, and certainly not more than two inches. They are frequented by birds of all kinds and I refill them at least every day. Birds splash, they aren’t delicate when they play, this isn’t “adult swim!” I find that my baths stay relatively fresh and clean and I would recommend several for most gardens. While I make the birdbaths that populate my garden, there are those to be found fitting this description that will be a joy to have in your garden.

There is one tool that I guard jealously, not often handing it over to my helpers. As soon as I have lent it to someone there will be a wild onion in the bed to extract or a Florida Betony to chase out. Or a hard spot to soften, a bulb to lift or a new plant to put in. This all-around tool is useful for most all of the daily gardening tasks. A shovel is good for making new gardens, but the fork is for working in established areas.  Why is this tool not more readily available? I see racks of rakes and shelves of shovels, hordes of hoes and....okay, that’s enough of that. But it is not easy to find a good garden fork.

And what are the desired features of this beloved implement? Most importantly, square tines. Tines that are square in cross- section are strong and rigid, not bending as you pry the soil. These tines also do a better job of cracking hard soil, as opposed to just moving through it like round tines tend to do. They are also advantageous for making fissures in hard soils, especially clay, which allows air and organic matter to get deep into unfriendly areas, a key to healthy roots. There are flat-tined forks available aplenty, but for the toughest soils they are usually a little limp. Good forks come in large sizes equivalent to a full-size shovel and also in a “border” size with a smaller head and maybe three foot length. This smaller size is the one I find most useful every day. 
Apart from hand pruners, these are the three things this gardener and his garden could not be without. Entertain yourself scrutinizing the pages of catalogs filled with garden ornaments and tools and puzzling over TV commercials singing praises of the latest and greatest garden innovations (Get a second one free and pay only shipping and handling!). But before you whip out your credit card, consider these simple, quality-of-life necessities.

I thank Singing Hills Antiques for introducing me to the wonder of the All American sprinkler and I think my garden and the birds agree!  Enjoy your garden.

Jeff Tilden is an Augusta-based garden designer and sometime writer.     

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