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Tooling AROUND

Published Oct. 6, 2005

It's a pretty little thing, leaning there against the wall in my garage.

It's even prettier out in the garden, where I use it like a trusty lance in the war on weeds.

Okay, it could be argued that my stirrup hoe hardly deserves to be called pretty. Its handle broke in half several months ago and the metal part has long since lost its sheen. But a gardener would understand.

This homely tool has been with me for years, and regardless of how it looks, I'm quite fond of it.

"You get attached to older tools as they continue to do the job well. They become friends," said Jack Allen, tool buyer for Smith & Hawken in Mill Valley, Calif.

Allen has the enviable job of testing and selecting the tools sold by his company, one of the more venerable purveyors of garden supplies. Many of Smith & Hawken's tools (they sell several hundred) hark back to time-tested and yet archaic agricultural implements. They offer a hefty broadfork that's a sort of human-powered rototiller ($98). Their Haws watering cans have classic lines in heavy-gauge steel, with perforated brass nozzles. The company's signature is a line of hand-forged forks, spades and trowels ($49-$68) made by Bulldog, an English company with its origins in an 800-year-old forge founded by Cistercian monks.

The Smith & Hawken right-handed weeder ($12), a handsome hand tool with a triangular blade, is one of their consistent best-sellers and usually a top-scorer in independent surveys of garden tools. "That's the best general weeder for a person who works on their hands and knees," Allen said.

His favorite is the scythe, a beautifully simple implement for cutting tall grass and weeds. It comes in a "system" that includes a hammer and anvil for blade maintenance and whetstone for sharpening ($185). With little prompting, Allen waxes lyrical about the hand-hammered Austrian blade and the "meditative" rhythm of using the scythe.

Quest for "heft'

Quality in a garden tool isn't always measured by looks, Allen said. "We sell some rather crude tools that are not finished in any other way than how they're turned out by the forge. The craftsmanship marks may still show, but that doesn't detract from the value; it adds to the value."

And then there's the oft-discussed "heft," or how a tool feels in the gardener's hand. Allen admitted that's a rather mysterious business, hard to quantify and harder still to find.

"When you pick it up, you should have a sense that "Yes, this tool can do the job.' You're looking for the most highly evolved shape that has been formed for this function."

I know what he means.

What I like about my stirrup hoe is that it gets the job done with much less effort than a conventional hoe. This ingenious implement cuts weeds on both the push and pull stroke. I don't have to stoop over while I use it. There's no chopping or hacking. No lower backache.

I just push the stirrup back and forth across the soil with a light hand. It's perfect for getting at those little weeds that spring up between vegetable rows, without disturbing the soil so much that I have to reform the bed.

Every time I use it, I marvel at how simple it is, and how efficient.

When Smith & Hawken's new "Tools of the Trade" catalog arrived in the mail last month, I found out my prize tool has another name. Smith & Hawken calls it an oscillating hoe. They sell it in two widths, 5 inches ($32) and 7 inches ($34).

I also found it in a catalog from The Natural Gardening Co. They call it a "hula" hoe (makes sense once you see it in action!), and they laud its ability to cut weeds at the crown without "bulldozing" the soil. Those are the kinds of interesting factoids you learn leafing through a tool catalog.

You also, of course, get the itch to buy. A tool catalog is the gardener's ultimate wish book. Many of the shiny gadgets on those pages are unusual ones you won't see at a local nursery or in the garden department of a building supply store.

While Smith & Hawken relies on the enduring design of old-time farm implements, other companies prefer to be on the cutting edge of tool technology.

Gardener's Supply, a gardening equipment company in Vermont, sells everything from a handheld loop weeder to seed starting systems, composters and retractable loppers. Their top-selling tool is the swan-necked hoe, which has a gracefully curved neck and a hardened carbon steel blade in two widths. "We have customers write us saying it's the greatest thing they've ever used," said Meg Smith of Gardener's Supply.

Last fall, V & B Manufacturing introduced a line of hand tools with reversible heads so they can be flipped to do a different job. They also come with two choices of handles _ "golf club" length for gardeners who can't stoop, and short for those who prefer to kneel. Each tool comes in a lightweight version for young or not-so-strong gardeners, too.

Ames Lawn & Garden Tools have developed a patented cushion grip for all their rakes, shovels, post-hole diggers, pruners and shears. It molds to fit your hand so that as you continue to use the tool, it feels more and more like a custom fit.

But I don't need that. I have my faithful old stirrup hoe.

Here's where to call to get the catalogs mentioned in this story:

Gardener's Supply Company (802) 863-1700

The Natural Gardening Company (707) 766-9303

Smith & Hawken (800) 776-3336

V & B Manufacturing offers a free "Groundbreakers" wall chart that features 30 yard and garden chores and the best tool to use for each one. Write to them at P.O. Box 268, Airport Industrial Park, Walnut Ridge, AR 72476, or call (800) 443-1987.