with “greenfingers” Malcolm Campbell
Malcolm W. Campbell is a sole trader ABN 48 639 428 626 © 2017
Planning your Garden: The Basics by Malcolm Campbell
Getting Started a) The Best of Plans
There is a temptation to start a garden plan on paper or on a computer screen, but a garden really starts on the ground and when you newly acquire a garden, it pays to live with it for a while to get the feel of the seasons, before you start any major work. That may be really irritating, because spouse and friends expect rapid progress, but so many gardens are ruined by impatient people. Trying to establish a garden when tradesmen are about is also a fairly futile experience. As well meaning as they may be, the compaction alone is enough to make you weep. Rectifying it, if you have limited access caused by having dotted the landscape with trees and shrubs, can be made very difficult indeed. So patience is definitely a virtue all gardeners wish they had a lot more of. If you simply have to get started before a whole year has passed, then at least ask lots of questions of your resident neighbours, to determine how long the shadows are in winter, where water lies after a really heavy deluge.
When did the area last flood? What is the last known frost day in your area?
This is critical unless you have an endless supply of cash to expend on seedlings that get cut to shreds by 'late' frost.
The frost pattern determines the particular cultivars of fruit and vegetables that you must grow. There is no use shopping in the mail order catalogues from all over Australia, if the cultivars you select, will not thrive in your area. There are very few modern cultivars that perform equally well all over Australia! That is a fact. Ask lots of questions of your neighbours. If you don't have seasoned gardeners as neighbours make a trip to the local Botanic Gardens and ask the groundsfolk. Hardly anyone every does and they are full of information and usually very willing to share it. Call your local radio station for their talk-back gardening segment. Even the smallest country regional radio stations have a local gardening segment each week. Only when all the local knowledge has been gleaned, is buying a gardening book recommended. That's usually a bigger temptation than leaving the garden dormant for a year.
(1) Measuring & Mapping
Before you commit any design ideas to a plan, you need a blueprint of the service lines that come into your property. Where are the waterpipes laid? Where is the sewerage system? Is it more than 15 years old? If it isn't that means it will be in a PVC pipe, so it won't be as much of a problem for invasive roots from trees. The older earthenware pipes had rubber seals that joined the sections and in time these deteriorate and roots enter them and ... you know the rest if you have such a system!
Identify all the utilities and the overhead obstructions, such as powerlines and any access caveats on your property. Measure accurately all of the boundaries, buildings, paths and any fixed feature onto a paper copy. You can pretty it up later with a computer-generated plan if you have the skills, but firstly you need an accurate plan. Unless you have such a plan every tradesman who you engage or if you are a do-it-your-selfer, every estimate of materials you make will prove a major inconvenience. Measuring is a two person job and you will need a Dumpy level if there are some slight variations in levels. If they vary by more than half a metre across your block you'll need a surveyor. While it seems a needless cost, it will save you a fortune when it comes to laying drainage systems, paths and helps to handle the neighbours' drainage problems too! In this day and age, use only metric measurements.
(a) How to analyse an existing site to maximise the end results
Now you may want to mount your accurately drawn plan of your property onto a light slab of plywood. Then you overlay that with sheets of clear acetate and using non-permanent felt pens, make all your suggestions as overlays. Farmers and Graziers will be familiar with the farm plan that relies on this method.
Design your first elements of the garden on the soil. Use a garden hose to define the edges to paths and borders. The access arc for most cars and vehicle is much wider than you might imagine. While you may only drive a small car, many of your visitors will not and so you may need wider arcs to negotiate your driveway. Even mowing strips can be made dead easy, by lining out a hose to the desired shape, then test it, by pushing your mower around its curves. Test any lawn areas with a mower for access before you turn a single sod or lay a turf square.
Light is one of our most valuable assets in the Australian home garden. European visitors all comment on how bright the sky is here. In an open aspect you may choose to create more shade and dim that bright light, but in confined small spaces light generally needs to be preserved or your range of plants that you can use will be severely restricted. Flowers mostly need at least 6 hours of sunlight a day to thrive. There are models that architects use to demonstrate the arc of the sun at various latitudes and small plastic hand-held instruments that are calibrated to determine the winter sun angles and the summer sun around buildings. Pots can be used under eaves to capture low winter sun angles in southern gardens or protected from summer downpours in the tropics. Then in summer they can be moved to cooler spots in the garden and the plants in them can be used to prove an early flush of colour, since the soil temperatures in pots is generally higher than in the surrounding air and certainly higher than in the adjacent soil.
Get an old chair that can be left in the garden all year round and try sitting in it at different times of the day. You may be a morning person and read the paper in the garden, so find the best spot of that and when you find it, mark it on your plan. Later you might choose to create a feature there. Take note of where the best and healthiest weeds grow. That can often indicate more fertile soil. That's a good spot for growing annuals, after all weeds are mostly annuals and put on their growth in the same seasons as the flowers you want to grow. Make a note of where your neighbours entertain, or sit in their gardens. You can then design your favourite spots that are not right next to their's. That may determine where you need privacy screening. Every property has some attributes and sometimes it takes your friends to recognise them, so don't be afraid to ask.
(2) Principles of Garden Design
While landscape architects wax lyrical about aesthetics and some sort of universal good-taste, the plants themselves are very accommodating of a landscape providing they are in good health. There are many books that have been written about contrasting foliage and plants that look good together. Frankly there aren't many plants that don't look good together. Matching their rivalling growth habits seems more of a challenge than any aesthetic appeal from their leaves or flowers. Here's a simple test. Next time you see a lovely garden landscape, look more closely and see if you can determine what make it look so good. More often than not it's the plantsmanship. The careful attention to detail that keeps the plants looking at their peak, rather than the unique plants that have been used. Even masses of flowering Marguerite Daisies can look splendid, if regularly trimmed and fed, then left to flower, before being cut back again.
Managing the succession of flower and colour in the garden become crucial to the garden design. Some garden designers will be strong in the solid structural design and others in the way they use plants. If you engage a designer and want the soft effect, using plants, ask to see a photographic portfolio of their work and visit some of their older gardens to see what they look like several years after completion. That's the true test of a really well designed garden. I started designing gardens 25 years ago and many of those still look great, but some of the most lavish gardens, that were quite expensive to establish, look pretty shabby 20 years on. Gardens are dynamic, they change hands, people loose interest and it pains me to say it, but nothing is constant. Don't make the fatal mistake of thinking your garden is there forever. When you lay carpet, it is at least there for 10 years. Paint your house and it stays painted, for a few years, but design a garden and plant it and it evolves every year to be something different. Think of your garden as a painter's pallet. Every painting is different, but all painted using the same brush and oils. Your garden will be created every year, but always with the same soil and the same sun. Max Dupaine the late and great Sydney photographer, used to say that 'photography was just about learning to use light'. Lord Abercrombie, a distinguished English gardener has often said that 'gardening is just about finding out what plants grow best in your garden, then planting lots of them'. Well garden design is a mix of both photography with light and gardening with contented plants.
There are of course some simple rules that apply to all the art forms.
Gardening is a balancing act anyhow. The balance between too little and excess. Whether it's fertiliser or seedlings, lawn or garden beds, green foliage or riots of colour, shade or bright light, textures of wood, stone and concrete or the brassiness of chrome and glass. When designing a garden, think of the elements of your own lifestyle and what you prefer to wear. Is it the balance of textures you enjoy or is it colours? The more esoteric gardener might aspire to the balance of a perfumed garden through out the year. A certain colour theme, all year round or maybe a yellow winter garden with Daffodils, Calendula and Wallflowers that makes way for soft autumn colours in summer or riots of red and orange, from Gazanias, Coreopsis, Sunflowers, Marigolds and Californian Poppies.
There are plants such as Cordyline terminalis, Agave americana and many of the palms that we use in our Australian gardenscapes to grab attention. Call it contrast if you like. They are accents in the garden to provide a relief from the smooth even feel of the plant palette. The grey foliage of a tall jagged Butia capitata in a wide sweep of smooth green lawn provides a big attention-seeking contrast. It's the explanation mark on our palette. Not all gardens need contrast by the way. It is decidedly overdone in some Mediterranean gardens, mainly because there are more large leaf succulent plants of this type that grow in those areas.
Unity, as the former Senator Graham Richardson from Sydney once told me, 'has a very sexy appeal.' Now he was talking about another medium, but I too think that unity has appeal, whether it's 'sexy' is in the eyes of the beholder. There are without doubt combinations of plants that when planted together provide a wonderful harmony, that seem instantly in order. I've pointed this out to horticultural students when I was a TAFE lecturer, but it appears that only those students who had what I'd call a mature plant passion, ever saw it. Now that raises some doubts in my mind about this as being an irrefutable law in the garden. In the pyramid of appreciation, somewhat like old Maslow's needs hierarchy, I think Unity is in the pinnacle somewhere. Something you aspire to gain control over, after you have mastered the use of most other design concepts. It's not one I'd loose much sleep over. However Sylvia Crowe, Edna Walling and Gertrude Jekyll, went to great pains to explain how certain plants fit together in natural combinations. Christopher Lloyd in more recent times has also made a very strong case for this natural order. You be the judge.
(b) The Best Site
The best site to locate a garden if you have a choice, is an area in full sun with natural drainage. Now of course you can establish a bog garden around a swamp and there are some lovely soft fern-like landscapes that you could establish in a heavily shaded area, but in full sun, plants flower best. If it's flowers you hanker for in your Shangri-La, then save yourself a whole lot of anguish and get it right with the least effort. Just like buying real estate or a retail business, the priority is location, location and location.
There is an aspect of gardening that is a late twentieth century phenomenon and it involves people trying to recreate the lovely garden they had somewhere else. With a very mobile lifestyle these days, people can expect to establish many garden in their lifetime, as they move from state to state and job to job or follow the promotion trail. For whatever reason people are likely to have moved from house to house far more frequently in this decade than in any other in our history. So if they are keen gardeners they have the opportunity to establish more plants and more gardens. Now the problem is that when you move from Melbourne to the Sunshine Coast, you also need to move your horticultural preferences. Roses make way for Ixora. Tulips for Day Lilies, Camellias for Hibiscus and so on.
It sometimes takes quite a lot of convincing that a new garden area has any attributes at all. That's when you need to put the development brakes on. Take a few long walks around the older areas of your new town or suburb. Soak up the plants and ask lots of 'dumb' questions to get a feel for what works in your new location. Then you may appreciate just how good your own site really is.
Most gardeners are critical of their garden's location. It's usually too shaded or the soil is too alkaline or it needs more drainage etc. These are excuses, just as punters use to explain failure. Take heart that in nature death is the norm, so any success is in the face of huge odds. Just imagine if every seed on a River Red Gum germinated and grew to maturity, we'd have a plant covered with River Red Gums. They have incidentally half a million seeds per kilogram and set seed by the bucket full each autumn. So don't let a few dead seedlings cause you too much grief. Remember Lord Abercrombie, 'gardening is just about finding out what plants grow best in your garden, then planting lots of them'. Well the 'Best site' advice is much the same.. the best site is the one that you manage to grow the best plants on, so Lord Abercrombie's advice stands.
(1) Orientation & slopes
The Real Estate agents when advertising a property claim the northern facing house and garden has a premium of interest, due to the fact that its living areas one assumes face in the opposite direction and in summer would get little or nor direct sunshine into their entertaining areas. There are plants that definitely prefer a certain orientation, such as Sweet Peas on east-west trellises and the Passionfruit Vine certainly sets more fruit in more region when planted to get the morning sun, because the flowers are receptive to pollination in the morning, but less so in the afternoon. I'm not so sure that the orientation of a house makes the garden any better or any worse though. You can usually find the ideal aspect for a particular crop somewhere on the average 0.2 hectare block, front back or on a side.
I have seen many steep slopes with gardens that overhang patio areas and after rain, the water and muddy soil spills all over the patio areas. That problem can be solved with retaining walls that are not backfill to their top, but left with at least 30cm deep gap on the concealed side. Over time the soil stabilises and they often fill up with dislodged soil, but 30cm is a pretty reasonable safety net to capture the mud and still look impressive when planted to conceal the trap. This trip is used on the broadacre in Britain and is called a Ha Ha and was initially used by landscaper 200 years ago to get the lord of the manor the opportunity to look across his fields without seeing the fences that kept his cows from entering the manor garden. Some were built with very deep ditches and no fences and the public viewing point for visitors to look into the grounds of "Yarralumla" in Canberra has such a Ha Ha. Some were built so deep, I'd imagine quite a few rescue missions mounted to rescue errant cows, or Kangaroos in the case of the Governor General's residence!
(2) Landscaping your block
If you aim to landscape your garden over a period of years, which is a wonderful idea, start with all the fixed features. The paths, driveways and patio areas. Filling in the garden beds, lawns and fruit orchards is the easy part. Don't be too impatient with starting to establish a fruit or nut orchard. Better to get the soil tilled and sweet first then order the cultivars you need to thrive in your area. As stated elsewhere, there are fruit tree cultivars that thrive in particular areas, since they get the right amount of cold each winter to get a good fruit set. This is the case with peaches and nectarines, plums and apples and pears. So if you aim to grow those, get local advice on what grows best locally. Order them well in advance and plant them as open rooted rootstocks in winter.
With landscaping you may choose to use a contractor and the designer may not always be the best person to build it. I've found some pretty good contractors who work with stone and cement, that will willingly turn a smart plan into reality, but plenty of smart designs falter at the hands of a contractor with limited experience in hard construction.
If you don't have any recommendations forthcoming ring your local Landscape Contractors Association listed in the Yellow Pages and tell the secretary contact your limitations. You know... budget, time, experience, desire to get paths only or a plan, etc. Then they will make some recommendations and spend a night ringing around the contacts they've recommended. They will not recommend slippery contractors, since the reputation of their organisation rides on you finding one of their members to do your landscaping job. There are still lots of 'Dodgey Brothers' landscaping outfits who advertise in the classifieds, so beware!
(c) Start Small
If you are convinced you can do all the work yourself, then start off in a small way. Plan a small garden bed, from the sketch on paper, through to soil preparation and try a few features, such as a raised bed, with piers and insert agricultural drainage and a micro-irrigation system. These are small features, that your will smile at, if you are a capable handy-person. But if you area a novice they will test your capacity and resolve, before you have committed a lot of funds to a project.
It was the late E.F. Schumacher in his "Small is Beautiful" book, who first got me thinking about the merit of all sorts of small things. I now drive a small car, live in a small house and have a small but very manageable garden, that suits my busy lifestyle, but still gives me lots of satisfaction as a gardener. , which recommends them as small or dwarf versions of a plant. We have a wonderful selection of miniature fruit trees and vegetables that have been selected for their compact habit and a small garden need not mean a lack of variety.
When starting your garden you'll get some pretty immediate results if you plant annual flowers in the first few years, until the trees and shrubs or perennials start to assert themselves. New gardens need lots of mulch used to cut down water use in a new landscape. In the tropics or in high rainfall areas this is not necessary and in Darwin those huge Mastotermes termites will just eat the mulch anyhow. Even in southern gardens the mulch will generally rot down in a year, so it's a good idea to only replace it in late spring, as the days warm up. Too mulch on cold winter soils only slows plant growth down in spring.
(1) How to establish a border or a vegetable patch
You'll need tools and that comes next. You'll need to be fit to start with and if you are not then at the very least, some limbering up exercises are strongly recommended. Next a bar of abrasive soap next to the tap by the back door. Then rubber boots and some sturdy boots to wear while digging. Yes that's right digging. We're getting physical. All gardening is physical, that's some of the appeal. Even for the simplest garden bed to be prepared I'd recommend you first assemble the tools, fertilizers, and organic material as well as the seedlings. It's all too easy to get the seedlings and totally overlook the effort needed before the first seedling is planted. Many perennial seedlings will need to be cut back after planting and that is difficult for a new gardener to do. Having just bought the seedlings it's difficult to bring yourself to perform the judicious tip pruning act, that requires at least a third of the plant to be removed. This dramatic deed assures the roots have less leaves to feed in their first few weeks and gives the plant a definite advantage in the survival stakes. The rest you will pick up.
Gardening tools are an expensive investment, but like any other investment they need to monitored and serviced. You wouldn't let your share register go for a few years without careful scrutiny and the same goes for your gardening tools. You will soon find that there is a huge discrepancy in the price of tools, which exists because of the type of manufacture as well as the country of origin. At the top end of the value and cost market are English drop-forged spades, that carry price tag of up to $100, but you can also buy a pressed mild steel spade from India or China for less than $20. The difference is that your English Spear & Jackson® spade, if carefully maintained will last a lifetime, during which you will easily have bought 10 of the mild steel spades sourced from any country, even Australia! Now to carefully maintain means not trying to chip your lawn edging against the concrete border with a spade for instance. It means keeping a keep edge on the spade and washing the soil from it after use, then lightly oiling it with a mineral oil to the blade and a light oiling of burnt linseed oil to the wooden handle every couple of months. Then hang it up in your garden shed so it doesn't keep getting knocked over and have all manner of things stacked on it. I remove the brand name sticker from all of my tools, as soon as I get home, since I find the oil doesn't soak into the wooden handle through the paper or foil label. I buy all my tools, that way I buy quality and not what someone wants to give me. The sale-priced tool is seldom a good investment. Every young married or recently married, should put gardening tools on their want list. There's a limit to how much linen one can use!
(1) The Basic Kit
I don't know anyone who started gardening with all the tools they now have or any that started with all of the tools that they needed. Any tradesman will tell you that you start with a set of useful utility tools and build on it as you can afford them and as your needs change. If you have a one off need for a crow bar borrow or hire it. A good one costs over $50 and unless you use it at least twice a year it's an unnecessary purchase. I'd use that twice a year criteria for all my tools and I've had to replace my whole collection several times in my gardening life. While I have a fairly exhaustive list here, I'd suggest no gardener can start without a soil testing kit and a spade. That is unless you are going to garden in containers on a window sill and even then you will need a small hand scarifier and some litmus strips to test the pH of your potting mix. So soil and digging is really at the crux of gardening.
(a) Soil Testing
The soil testing kit, can be as simple as a pH kit that will indicate whether your soil is acidic or alkaline in reaction. Even a range of litmus papers could be used for this, but the draw back with using paper indicator strips is that the soil sample usually stains the paper and it's not easy to colour match the strained strip. There are various pH kits made for gardeners. Some English kits consist of a couple of glass phials and some indicator liquid to which a small soil sample is added to get a colour reading. I find a more effective pH kit is the CSIRO-developed Inoculo™ kit, which uses a small randomised sample that is first saturated with the green liquid provided, then the white powder is puffed onto the sample and left to colour up for a few minutes. The colour of the sample at the edge of the white powder is then matched to a colour card to ascertain the approximate pH of the sample. I also use a digital pH meter, but that requires using a neutral buffer solution to create a slurry and that starts to get a bit expensive if your information needs are modest. Knowing the pH indicates the acidity or alkalinity of a soil and that is critical to the survival and vigour of your plants. It will determine what sort of plants you will be buying or propagating. If you live in an area with very alkaline soil you can forget about growing Camellias, Rhododendrons and lots of other acid soil loving plants, that are collectively called Calcifuge plants or lime hating plants. Conversely although to a lesser extent, if you have a very acidic soil you will have difficulty growing the Mediterranean or Calcicole plants, such as our native "Emu Bushes" the Eremophila species, that mostly thrive in alkaline or limy soils.
There are rather elaborate and expensive testing kit that can be used to determine the presence of other elements or nutrients in your soil too. These comprehensive testing kits are pretty useless in the hands of a novice and are really only used by skilled horticulturists, growing a particular crop or a range of similar plants.
(b) Digging & Planting
The basic gardening tool for a home gardener is a spade, unless your vegetable garden is quite considerable or your garden very large, then I'm sure you will need a mechanical tiller or rotary hoe. My favourite spade has a "D" shaped wooden handle and a step on the top of the blade. Many spades don't have the step, but I wrecked many a good pair of boots before I discovered the wisdom of that step! At the top of the tree in spade manufacture is the drop-forged type and at the bottom is the mild steel variety. The price will indicate which is which. The steel usually bends under extreme pressure and will eventually crack at the handle union of the blade face, where as the dropped forged type is rigid and has its handle mounted at the top of the blade not into a grove on its face, as the mild steel variety generally do. Admittedly you can heat temper the blade, but overdo that and it becomes so brittle, it will chip and flake the metal. You will never regret buying a good spade, because the quality remains long after you've forgotten how much you paid for it!
(c) Lifting and Shovelling
There are more garden related strained backs from using the wrong tool than from any other cause in the garden. Small people of all ages and gender should use small spades and shovels. They come in a range of sizes and with handles of various lengths. A shovel is cupped and made that way to hold sand and gravel, where as a spade is a cutting tool to turn soil and not load it. If you have a bid project to install a drip irrigation system, then you will find the plumbers trenching shovel, very useful, since it's narrow and saves moving a lot of soil in the trenching or poly-pipe laying process. For a one-off, hire it. A crowbar is a frequently overlooked lifting tool, used as a fulcrum it can move great loads, without actually lifting them at all. Things such as large containers that aren't quite in the right spot. Use small sections of metal water pipe as rollers and the crowbar to lever the pot along.
(d) Weeding & Cultivation
Weeding with tools took a big dive with the introduction of glyphosate or Roundup™ spray to control weeds. While the European gardener gets a buzz out of burning their weeds with flame throwers, they aren't used much in Australia for obvious reasons. Extensive hand weeding with or without hand tools, is not so widely practised these days, so in the initial kit, a weed chipping tool might not have a very high priority. While a Chipping hoe is a popular weeding tool, I find the push and pull Scuffle hoe or Draw hoe easier to use providing you wear rubber gloves for handle traction, or else you wear out a lot of skin in the abrupt action. The Chipping hoes are variously known as Swan Necked hoes and Short Necked hoes, favoured by market gardeners. The Dutch hoe has a "D" shaped join to the handle so that it can be pushed and pulled on gravel drives and was popular when weeding gravel drives were more common. I have found a two pronged hoe with a mattock type hoe on the reverse side a very useful scarifying tool to till around the perennials, after fertilising and when I spot the odd weed or rouge plant it gets chipped out using the mattock face. It wouldn't stand up the rigours of severing roots such as you might need to use a mattock for, but it's light, versatile and an Australian innovation.
The most common mistake a gardener makes when buying a rake is that they opt for the narrow type because of the relatively higher cost or one that is at least 50cm wide. The wider the better to level with. So if you are trying to establish a lawn from seed you simply have to have a wide rake. The narrow ones just create mounds and furrows. Don't forget that to level a seed bed means using the teeth of the rake as well as the flat back of the rake. It also requires bending your back and once again use rubber faced gloves to provide traction to the handle as you push and pull to level. For container culture, every one needs a stainless steel hand rake, with a wooden handle. They are invaluable, to provide some drainage and cover controlled release fertiliser pellets from the sun. A leaf rake is usually pretty useful too, especially if you have lawns and trees of any type. Don't forget that evergreen trees drop their leaves too. They drop their leaves all year instead of just in Autumn! There are bamboo and poly product leaf rakes as well as the metal tined Springbok rakes. I find the poly rakes lose a tine pretty easily, but they all work pretty well and even a bunch of brush is a pretty effective leaf rake! I balk at using a mechanised leaf blower, but only because my wife Annie reckons I've got enough 'Boys' toys' in the shed now.
One of my most useful rakes in a sense is a pair of large plastic hands, just like the boards used in shearing shed to collect the lambs' fleece. Anyhow they really are just the shot for picking up the dog droppings from the lawn as well as the piles of vine leaves I rake up in autumn, on their way to the compost heap.
(f) Moving Rocks
If you aim to move a lot of rock or pavers, there are really functional low platforms on roller wheels that mechanics use to get under cars. They are ideal to move big rocks since they can be levered onto the roller platform. Another useful device is a metre of water pipe covered with a section of hose. It's amazing what two workers can balance on that a move around while setting rocks or stone. Of course for really big rocks, what are called 'two man rocks by landscapers', get a Bobcat™ and operator in.
(g) Pruning & Cutting
My favourite pair of secateurs is the most expensive Swiss pair in the market place. That may sound elitist, but I'm not apologising. Their precision and the fact that you can replace every part on them if they get damaged by someone in the household trying to cut wire, makes them worth every cent. The famous Felco™ comes in many models from left-handed versions to swivel handle types if you are a professional pruner or afflicted with RSI or arthritis from the annual pruning task. Secateurs are a pretty personal tool and I'd recommended anyone wanting a pair to handle all of those in the market before you settle on the one of your choice. Get the shop attendant to take them out of the pack for you to handle. Ask about spare parts and how long they have been selling this particular brand. I must have seen 20 brands come and go in one season over the past 10 years! There are anvil types that cut onto a flat brass anvil. There are also flower cutting types that cut and hold the stem with a pair of teeth. Whatever you settle on always wipe the blade after use and rub some oil onto the blade, because most plant sap will stain the cutting blade. I admire those with the patience to dismantle and sharpen a blade, but when mine get so damaged from cutting twist ties or worse, I replace the cutting blade and lightly file the anvil face. That's about once every two or three years. I have two pairs, so that one always has a sharp blade and one that's deteriorating, for rough work.
The watering wand that has the box head and soft rose water spray has got to be a gardeners most useful watering device. I prefer the aluminium one with a shaft no longer than 50cm. You need to be pretty big an fit to use the longer ones because of the weight of the water and the strain it brings to bear on your wrist. You can of course get a similar effect with a hand gun that has a range of water flow options. I've found that all of them are basically flawed in their design and the plastic gets brittle in the sun and they fracture, leak and break. I know you can put them away in the shed out of the sunlight and that won't happen, but most folk leave them on their hoses at times and run over them with the wheelie bin or barrow from them to time. I'd love a brass hand watering gum with a rose attachment and a single water jet, but I've yet to see one. I reckon every nursery attendant or hardware sale person, should be asked to demonstrate a watering device before we decide to but it. Over the years I've bought some real duds. That goes for sprinklers and hand held watering sprouts and guns. Price has got nothing to do with how good they are either, that's what's so annoying. Talking of being ripped off, hoses have got to be the biggest dud line in the garden shed. Some hoses are downright bloody useless they really don't deserve space on the shelves of respectable stores. They are so thin, they tangle and burst at the slightest provocation. But the thick high pressure (expensive) one everytime. A reliable quality hose is worth saving up for and is more economical than the 'special' in the long run. Always buy a hose longer than you think you'll need. Our kids always want to wash the car in the street rather than the driveway and then there's the mobile dog wash boy every month who always wants to park on the other side of the street and hook the hose up to a device that drives my dog into a delirium of joy!
I found an amazing motion activated sprinkler at the Melbourne International Flower & Garden Show recently. It has a pair of electronic eyes and when the beam is broken it sends a quick rush of water through its high power water nozzle that sends a cat, dog or intruder scampering and them doesn't reactive for 7 seconds. So it's not going off all the time. It's called a Scarecrow and it's made in Canada, but locally available for about $160 retail. It's infinitely safer than some of the sprays around and waters the garden at the same time. It just might keep my Jack Russell out of the vegetable garden, since nothing else seems to.
(i) Hauling and moving
Every gardener needs a wheel barrow. I love my bright red one with the big fat tyre and long wooden handles. It has a beautiful balance and what's more it is light. I can wheel it over to the parklands and collect pinecones for fire starters and bounce it up the gutters and yet it is strong enough to carry a load of wet sand and watertight, so I can wash my propagating sand in it too. It's used as a potting bench and as a work platform to move fertiliser and equipment around the garden. I couldn't do without it, yet I searched for months to find the one I was looking for. Don't be tempted to get the special at your hardware store. Most cities have a supplier that specialises in ladders and wheelbarrows and they are worth searching for in the Yellow Pages™.
(2) Power Tools
Forty years ago I don't remember my Dad having any power tools in his shed other than a power drill, but these days they are at least a few in all but the most avid non-gardeners' sheds and garages. If you have those wonderful safety circuit breakers in your electric fuse board, you may opt for electric garden tools, which are generally cheaper than mechanical power tools, that have a small petrol or two-stroke fuel engine to maintain. Lots of electric power tools are double insulated these days and some even have dual hand triggers, so that you can't wave them around in one hand. If your garden is small the electrical power tools are ideal, once you learn the basic safety requirements. Cutting through the power lead is of course the main concern. Another consideration, quite simply put, is that the longer the power cord, the less electricity is getting to your appliance and a coiled cord can set up an induction coil, not to mention the tangles that often result.
The small two-stroke engines are pretty simple to maintain, providing you replace the spark plug pretty regularly and use the recommended oil/petrol mix for the appliance. I have three different fuel mixes for three different power tools, so each has its own fuel tin, with the appliance written on a soft aluminium label tied to the handle. That way they all get their correct mix and I don't cook the little blighters, by using an all together too lean a mixture.
Two-stroke front end tillers are great if you have a well worked over vegetable garden. However if you are creating a vegie patch, it's a rotary hoe you need and given the effort it takes to handle one with ease, I'd recommend you get a contractor in from the Yellow Pages ™ advertisements. I've spent many hours on them as a lad in the market gardens where I grew up and they take at least a few days using one before most folk would become what you could call proficient. The most dangerous aspects are backing up in reverse gear and hitting concealed concrete, that flips the unit up to crack your jaw. In the hands of a regular user, they produce a wonderful tilth in which to establish a vegetable garden. Many hire shops won't even hire them out to novices these days, for which we should all be grateful.
Mulchers do not rate very high in my pantheon of garden gadgets. I ran a trial for ten of them two years ago and I'd doubt if they have made any miraculous improvements to make me change my mind in that time. If you are trying to reduce the bulk of putrescible kitchen scraps, they are fine. Even for grinding up some garden weeds, fine, but I've seen and heard of some horrendous tragedies around mulchers, mainly when gardeners who try doing things with them that are well beyond their capacity to perform. To get enough power to grind up 3cm stems and boughs from prunings requires a 10hp engine and that starts to get pretty expensive. I'd take your woody material to your local tip where there is usually a contracted tub grinder who will do it for a few dollars a tonne. In Sydney that might require a trip out to Baddgery's Creek, so pack a picnic lunch. In Adelaide there are several at Wingfield, Pedlers Creek and Lonsdale. Check the location of your nearest Green Organics processor in the Yellow Pages™ under the listing Waste Management Contractors. With something like 35-40% of all metropolitan garbage in Australia that is put out for kerbside collection consisting of green organic material that could easily be composted, chipped and mulched or used to grow a fine colony of worms, I'd certainly urge you to use your green matter in a useful way, rather than empty it into your wheelie bin.
The original and reliable little two-stroke Victa™ is an Australian legend. I know of several that are still operational and in regular use. While the two-stroke delivers power at a touch, they create a messy trail of blue smoke unless you use the non smoking fuel and even that will smoke in some conditions or if your fuel is left to stand without a good shake up before use. Shaking the mower fuel tank is not always so easy either! Most mowers come in options of two or four stroke and If you are in the market for a 5hp mower or above, then opt for a four stroke. The original Briggs and Stratton (B&S) engines were made in America and were the commercial engine of choice, but they are now made in Australia and they are still a very reliable engine. I used several I was a landscaper and I had one in use for 20 years, before I gave it away. Well actually I moved and left it behind! It was a Rover with a 5hp B&S fourstoke and my teenage daughter (at the time) one told me that if it was painted purple instead of dull grey, even she would have used it! I loved that mower. Anyhow the mowing ritual is a bloke thing. I think the total lack of imagination in packaging them for women is the reason too. You must have noticed the racy colours that small cars come in and how a predominance of women are driving them. No accident. Good marketing on television and on the showfloor. Have a look at how lawn mowers are marketed and sold and you'll see my point. The mower essentially has not changed in 50 years. A rotary blade still spins at high speed and rips the grass off.
Wrong. Enter the Flymo® 30 years ago, that floats on a cushion of air, like a hovercraft. Well some Flymo's float. There are actually some that have four wheels in electric and four stoke (B&S) petrol engines. The advantage of four stoke might be obvious to the mechanically minded, but they run on pure straight-from-the-pump unleaded petrol. No mixing of oil and fuel, as is required with two stroke. If you have several two stroke gadgets, I bet they all have different ratios in their two stoke fuel mix too. So you have to use separate tins as well. That's right tins, not plastic. It is illegal and down right bloody stupid to put petrol in plastic. Apart from being a quite unstable combination, it does not earth when you fill it at the fuel station and you are at risk of an explosion. No a pretty sight.
There are of course dozens of other mowers in the market place and I must point out that these days I have a very reliable Victa Mulcher-Catcher mower, that starts first time every pull. I can't believe how it does that! But the best feature is that I'm a recycler and self mulching makes sense. Why send all your hard one lawn clippings to the dump or consign it to the wheelie? I thought when I first borrowed a mulching mower that it would leave a thatch on top of the cut. But no it totally disappears. I thought that fungal diseases would soon show up, due to the build up of organic material, but as long as my Kikuyu lawn is growing, it's been fine. I say growing, because in winter for two or three months it really slows right down and I'd only mow every two or three weeks anyhow. That's when I've been using the optional catcher, so I don't overload nature's slower winter composting 'machine'. I also feed the lawn mid winter against all the 'best advice' with a water soluble fertiliser and an iron supplement and it goes the brightest blue green in gratitude. Doesn't make much growth, but it takes away that dull yellow green lethargic look in winter.
Everyone has a favourite pattern to mow to, but whatever you favour use protective ear muffs, if nothing else. If your dog leaves bones on the lawn, then protective glasses or a shield might be needed too, because the fragments can fly out and bounce off the fence all over the place. Replace your rotary blades at least every two years along with the securing nuts and bolts. I replace the spark plug every year, because for $3 it isn't worth tinkering with the spacers and a sandblasting gadget, unless you are a mechanic.
(d) Trimming & Edging
Annie nearly had a fit when I borrowed a mechanical edge trimmer and brought it home recently, to take a photo for this book. "Not another 'Boys' toy'!" As if? While these are seen as rather frivolous by most spouses, edging over 100 metres of lawn gets pretty tedious using a spade! Of course the single wheel cutter is ideal if you have cement edging to cut to and I'd have to acknowledge that most gardeners who own a brush cutter use it on the side to edge their lawn. That's fine if you use the nylon flail rather than the metal blade and wear the correct safety gear. Even a full face shield will not protect you from a spinning metal blade fragment and they do frequently fly off. I've put many a hole through a corrugated iron fence using them, so I can only imagine what they would do to a face shield and a face! The mechanical and electrical trimming 'toys' make good sense and they certainly do a very professional job quickly.
(e) Blowers and Garden Vacuums
While I haven't got one, I reckon if I did it would be the Flymo® Gardenvac Leaf Shredder, that doubles as a blower to puff all those fallen leaves into piles all around the garden and at a flick of a knob it vacuums and shreds the leaves all in one operation. Gardener's heaven eh? Still dream on Malcolm. Look at it this way Annie (my wife), it would make the compost break down faster, we wouldn't have to pick up the dog poo from the lawn and ...... (I'd appreciate any more reasons).
I've had wood fires for my whole life, so a log splitter, bushsaw and chainsaw have been tools of gathering fuelwood. Admittedly one can no longer scavenge the roadsides of most places in Australia for firewood, because of local environmental laws and rightly so too. But a chainsaw certainly has a place in the shed if you have lots of tall trees and use fuelwood. When I was younger I relished the physical effort required to turn a pile of boughs into firewood logs, but as I matured, the effort took its toll, so a chainsaw makes a lot more sense in the hands of a mature user. Heaven forbid one in the hands of an irresponsible teenager or any irresponsible individual of that matter! They are singly the most dangerous tool in the garden shed. Although manufacturers have mostly built dual operating triggers into their saws these days, so you can't wave one around in one hand, they often exceed the skill of their users. Just ask any equipment hire firm. They can relate some pretty horrid tales as can almost any ambulance driver. Unless your minor motor skills are first class, use the reliable old bushsaw and leave the chain sawing to a contractor.
(3) Maintenance & Storage
My Dad had the typical car garage of the 50's only he had it so full of tools and items stored that there was never room for a car, so he rode a bike everywhere. We had pigeons nesting in the roof and it was his safe haven. I think many men of his era, lived and certainly dreamed in their sheds. I know he and his mates congregated in there on rainy Sunday mornings in winter, sitting around a heater regaling shed stories. I think the culture of the shed is alien to a generation of under 30 year olds, where the luxury of such a large structure would only be known to the rural resident. To the average urbanite, the space would be taken up by a pergola extension to the house these days, or maybe a carport or worse still a place to actually house the car or bikes and keep them from being stolen! The shed has evolved.
A lockup place to store the Flymo® Gardenvac Leaf Shredder. Australian gardeners love sheds and garages and we sue them as rooms but they just happen to be outdoors. They are places where one listens to your favourite code of football on a Saturday afternoon or entertains when there is an overflow or inclement weather. In Europe the tool shed is usually located up against a fence or building and it's seldom a place to loiter in. With our small gardens on average in urban Australia, we must be facing the reality that the large tool shed-cum-garage is a thing of the past. I'm sure we will see far more of the lean-to sort of tool shed in years to come. I can imaging concertina doors and peg board with everything in its place and nothing but tools and fertilizers in it.
(b) Potting Benches
My potting bench is actually a mobile barbecue most of the time and when I need it as a potting bench it gets a coversheet over the hot plate. A wheelbarrow makes a pretty good potting bench too, with a few boards across one end, to stack pots on. A purpose built bench is a great double for a work bench and it provides spaces for storing potting mixtures underneath. The poly garbage bin, much loved by home brewers, is an ideal and cheap storage container for potting mixtures and seed sowing mixes. The lids keep mice and pets out of the mix and you can maintain a nice moisture that helps the media flow when potting up. A few kilograms of striking mix that is always ready to use, saves a lot of time, when you return home with some valued cutting material that just has to be prepared quickly or it's lost.
I've often had to use a pile of brickie's pallets, with a sheet of plywood on top as a makeshift potting bench for filming. That's easily moved to remote locations and you could store the pallets when you've finished or return them for their deposit. I'm not suggesting that you steal your pallets, they can be purchased you know and they don't have to be in very pristine condition either.
(c) Glasshouses & Poly-Igloos
Glasshouses are for the seasoned gardener. For the novice, leave well alone. The smaller they are the more difficult they are to manage. They need critical mass in them to retain enough heat to be useful. That can be a brick bench or drums filled with water that heat up during the day and the latent heat trickles out at night to provide a mild warm environment. Most glasshouse owners I've met have complained about needing more ventilation. Too much is never enough. While a large glasshouse is every gardeners dream, the poly igloo frequently fills the gap until you can afford the creme de l' creme. The rules for ventilation are just as valid in poly igloos as they are with glass and other synthetic sheeting materials. Poly cools down much faster at night than glass, but you can get more ultra-violet light protection under poly film than under glass. In summer glass generally needs to be painted with Parasoline® or a Calsomine type water-based paint, to reduce the sunlight intensity. Then in winter it is washed off. A poly film igloo will last from one to three summers, with the yellow UV protectant films lasting the longest.
I've made poly frames in market gardens by bending half inch (yes imperial measurements, because it was along time ago) waterpipe around water tanks and by ramming one inch pike two feet into the ground, it made a good firm sleeve for fitting the smaller water pipe into. Then we used to link downy pipe along the centre ridge of the roof and at the ground level of the edges, to which battens were fixed. All the joints had to be wrapped in strips of poly film or Hessian or else they punctured the film. The edges of the whole poly film all around would be buried in a trench backfilled with sand. Wooden frames for doors and vents were erected at the end. This method is still used, but there are lots of pre-made kits that really are worth looking at. Even re-enforced poly film may be worth the investment if you live in a windy area.
One common detail often overlooked by glasshouse novices, is that to pollinate any vegetable you need bees and they need access, so wide open doors at each end are essential if you want fruit to set on your tomatoes, cucumbers and melons.