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Tool Of The Week – Week 16

We love this hand tool!!! The Radius Weeder features a patented specially curved ergonomic grip that provides more leverage with less wrist stress.
When held properly the wrist is in what’s called a “wrist neutral position”, unlike the wrist position on a straight handled tool. After testing it in our miserable clay soil, we’ve both concluded that this is a unique tool that really means business.

The aluminum blade has a sharp tip and serrated edges for easy weeding and is surprisingly light yet remarkably strong!
Great for popping out deeply-rooted weeds like Canadian thistle. We do not sell tools; just review them.  For a retailer near you go to www.radiusgarden.com.

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Timely Tip: Avoid working garden soil when it’s wet, but if you have to move wet dirt, coating your shovel with W-40 will help to keep the mud from sticking to the blade.

Of all the tools in your garage, none is probably used more but gets less respect than the shovel. Even Martha Stewart over-looked this all-important tool in recent column featuring her favorite gardening tools.

If I had to choose between a trowel and a shovel, I’d pick the shovel any day. I have lots of tools I substitute for a trowel, but my trusty round-point long handled shovel is the garden and grounds workhorse I use for the tough stuff from planting shrubs, to digging ditches. In fact, my long handled shovel is the first tool I take out in spring and the last to be stowed away in fall.

So when a friend called to ask if I thought shovels might make a good housewarming gift my answer was – That’s a great idea. Using the right tool for the job means less stress and strain on the body and gets the job done faster and when it comes to buying shovels, many folks, especially new homeowners don’t have a clue.

A quality long handled round point shovel is a must for every homeowner. A good rule of thumb to remember is, the longer the handle, the less the strain on the back.

Next I’d choose a flat edged D-handled spade. They’re used for transplanting, edging, turning soil and narrow bed work. The shorter D-handle gives the user more control.

A favorite of mine for digging perennials is a modified version with a slightly tapered blade and a rounded edge. Old timers call it a poacher’s spade, but today it’s called a transplanting spade.

A D-handled round-point shovel is used for heavy digging in tighter areas where you want more control. The shorter handle also makes it easier to haul around in smaller garden carts.

Often overlooked, but handy to have, is a square-point shovel with a flat edge and upturned sides. They’re also called transfer shovels because they are designed specifically to move loose material, such as topsoil, mulch or pea gravel, from one area to another. Transfer shovels come with both long handles or D handles.

When shopping for quality shovels there are several things to look for. Strong tight-grained white ash has long been the wood of choice for shovel handles regardless of the price range. Painted handles may appeal to the eye but often hide softer wood that splits with age and cracks under pressure.

In a top quality shovel choose either a wood or fiberglass handle. Traditionalists usually opt for wood. With a yearly coating of linseed soil and protection from the elements, a premium grade ash handle will last a lifetime. And it will flex under pressure, which helps to lessen fatigue.

A top quality fiberglass handle is waterproof, lighter in weight, 40 percent stronger and brightly colored, so you won’t loose it in the tall grass.

Heavy gauge heat tempered carbon steel blades add to a shovel’s strength and durability. The forward-turned steps on the blade top provide safe firm footing when digging. On standard-sized shovels, a strong 9-inch blade socket is also an indicator of quality. On some models a steel-reinforcing collar is added to strengthen the handle/socket connection.

Other features may include ergonomically designed D-handles constructed of strong but light weight space age polymers that have an extra-wide opening and an angled shape to provide a firm, comfortable grip.

Weight can work both ways. A heavier blade when planted into the soil will cut deeper than a lightweight model. And a heavy gauge, forged steel blade is less likely to break under stress. However, many gardeners, find light weight shovels easier to use and for that reason Union Tools had designed an entire line of quality garden tools fitted with slimmer handles and smaller blades, that are lighter in weight than their full sized cousins, and they carry a life-time guarantee. Sold under the brand name Scott’s Landscape Gardener, these quality tools are available at Sears and independent nurseries.

In my father’s day, picking out a shovel was a no-brainer. My Dad relied on Sears Craftsman brand tools because they were known for their quality and guaranteed for life. Today Sears continues that no-hassle return policy on all their Craftsman shovels and the blades are still hand-forged. That’s one reason Tim Travis, president of Goldner Walsh Nursery in Pontiac, supplies his landscapers with Craftsman shovels. Travis says along with the guarantee, the strength and durability are critical, broken shovels cause downtime that’s very costly. The Craftsman long handled round-point fiberglass handled shovel retails for $19.99 and the ash-handled model is priced at $17.99.

While talking quality tools with the experts at Union Tools, Steve Forgy, national accounts manager, stressed that most shovels are broken when folks misuse them to pry rocks and roots out of the ground. So he recommends homeowners as well as contractors get a long handled wedge point bar to do the prying. I recommended my friend include one in her housewarming gift set.

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Jeff’s Perfect Lawn Care Secrets – Week 14 of 2010

I had to put some gasoline into my lawn mower last week.  I was using one of those bright red plastic five gallon gas cans that I have had for years.  The nozzle that comes with the can has always been awkward so I use a funnel to guide the gas into the tank.  And as has happened a few times in the past I put a bit too much into the funnel and the tank overflowed, maybe a half a cup of gas. After wiping the gas from the engine surfaces with an old rag I let the mower sit for ten minutes to make sure the fumes evaporated and there would be no problems when I started the engine.

I have since learned that by spilling a little gasoline I am a hazard to the environment.  According to the Environmental Protection Agency, Americans homeowners spill over 17 million gallons of gasoline every year as we fill our various gas powered yard care equipment. I found that figure to be astounding.  Then I learned that those 54 million yardeners use over 800 million gallons of gas each year in caring for their yards.  Think about that figure in relation to today’s price of gasoline.  At $2.50 a gallon Americans waste $42 million worth of gas and that isn’t the most serious problem.

The real problem is the impact of that spilled gasoline on the environment.  Obviously spilled gasoline can seep down into the soil and may eventually pollute the water table.  That is bad enough, however the really serious problem caused by spilled gasoline is the air pollution that is created as the gasoline evaporates.  In 2001 the California Air Resources Board (CARB) determined that the gas fumes from spilled gas, fumes from gas cans with vents left open, and even fumes from just putting gas into a lawn mower created about 87 tons of smog producing pollution per day, equal to the daily fumes from a million automobiles.  That’s just one day.

The culprit is that gas can.  Whether you use the spout or a funnel, there is no easy way to determine when the level of gas in the tank is reaching full.

It turns out that there are gasoline cans that have what are called “spill proof” nozzles.  The nozzle automatically stops the flow of gas when the gas level in the tank makes contact with the end of the nozzle.  In the past five years, California, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware have established regulations requiring all new gas cans sold to consumers in those states to have the “spill proof” nozzles.  They estimate that in ten years, as the older cans are replaced with these new designs, the spillage in those states will be reduced by a whooping 75%.

Armed with this new information I went shopping for a replacement for my old fashioned gas can.  After visiting three stores selling gas cans I found that the new technology in gas can nozzles is not readily available. After calling the Clean Air Division of the Department of Environmental Quality in Lansing, I learned that this problem of air pollution from the evaporation of spilled gasoline by homeowners has never been brought to the attention of that organization.  If those new spill proof cans are not required in Michigan, I guess the stores figure why stock an item that will cost $6 to $12 more than the traditional gas can.

Several years ago, Consumer Reports evaluated the gas cans that were advertised to be spill proof.  The can with the best evaluation was made for Briggs and Stratton. Called the “Smart Fill” fuel can, the nozzle is unlocked before filling the tank and then is inserted into the tank in a vertical position.  When the gas level in the tank reaches the end of the Smart Fill nozzle, it shuts off and you can remove the nozzle from the tank with no spills.  Holding 2.5 gallons of gas, Smart Fill fuel cans can be bought at http://www.jackssmallengines.com Jack’s Small Engines Web Site for $25.  I have ordered two; one for regular gas and one for gas mixed with oil for my tools with two-cycle engines.  Jack’s also sells another gas can, the envroflow, which looks just as good.

I put my lawn mower back into the tool shed; it’s much too early to mow the lawn.

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Jeff’s Perfect Lawn Care Secrets – Week 12 of 2010

Good Gas For Mower

When you add new gas to the lawn mower, remember to include a gasoline preservative or stabilizer in the mixture to avoid any problems of the gas going bad.

Sharp Lawn Mower Blade

Get your lawn mower blade sharpened so you will be ready for the first mowing job in late April. As I have discussed in the past it is wise to replace your lawnmower blade every few years rather than trying to have it sharpened year after year. Usually the place where you buy the blade will install it.

Leave Crabgrass Preventer to Neighbors

While I may have ranted about crabgrass preventers many times, I will say again that I believe it is better to overseed in the spring and again in the fall as the best method for getting rid of crabgrass.  If you use crabgrass preventer this spring, you cannot overseed until next fall, letting more weeds develop in the meantime.  It does not make any sense.  Thick turf mowed tall has no weeds, including crabgrass!

The Crabgrass Conundrum

Crabgrass is one of the many pesky “grass like” weeds found throughout the United States. Again, it is particularly bad in the east and southeast. Unlike dandelion, crabgrass is an annual plant, dying each year in the fall. However, before it dies it leaves tens of thousands of seeds to keep the family going next year. The common reaction to a crabgrass problem is to spread what is called a “pre-emergent” herbicide (Team, Betasan, or Dacthal) on the lawn in the spring to prevent the seeds from ever germinating. There is no question that such an herbicide will definitely work if properly applied, but there is a problem with this strategy. Unless you overseed that lawn, previously inhabited by lots of crabgrass plants, the grass is going to stay thin and there will be a need to protect yourself with pre-emergent herbicide every year. But you can’t plant grass seed because the crabgrass killer kills all seeds, including grass seeds. It is a classic Catch 22.

Crabgrass is probably the most common grassy weed found in the lawn. There are other grassy weeds, but the technique for dealing with them is about the same as for dealing with crabgrass described below.

The Crabgrass Strategy

So here is a strategy to rid your lawn of crabgrass and many other similar grassy weeds. In the spring, instead of using crabgrass killer, overseed your lawn to make it more dense. Then you raise your lawn mower to 2 or better 2 ½ inches for the whole season. You will still have some crabgrass, but not as much as last year. Then in the fall, overseed the lawn again. Keep that lawn mower high from then on and by the third year you will see very little crabgrass. You can be sure the crabgrass seeds will still be there, but there will be no room and no light available for germination.

Nature report

In the next few weeks you should be seeing the honey bees emerging from their hive on warm sunny days. In addition the Queen bumblebee should begin appearing, perhaps in your flower bed. The dreaded woodchuck whether he saw his shadow or not is likely to call it a winter and begin eating everything in sight. Now is the time to look for that first Robin. Dandelion leaves should be emerging and while they are young they are quite edible.

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Several readers e-mailed me regarding safety concerns of the vermiculite used in Mel’s Magic Mix, the soil-less potting mix used in raised bed gardens featured in the “All New Square Foot Gardening” book.

Author Mel Bartholomew addresses this issue on his Web site, www.squarefootgardening.com. Click on frequently asked questions (FAQ) and type “safety of vermiculite” in the search box. I also did a Google search and am satisfied it’s safe to use, but aspirating the dust can cause lung irritation and should be avoided.

Breathing in dust of any kind, whether it comes from vermiculite, peat moss, fertilizers or just topsoil is bad for your lungs. This is especially true if you’re asthmatic or have any kind of immune deficiency or lung issues.

So when pouring bagged materials, wear a paper facemask. They’re available at drugstores and are very inexpensive. A light spray of water over the material will cut the dust. Also, always work upwind of the product

Safety precautions should also be taken when working with liquids of any kind. Paper facemasks are not effective for use when spraying liquids. Fine vapors sift right through the material.

A professional-grade face respirator with replaceable filters is the only safe way to go any time you spray liquids, including fertilizers, herbicides, fungicides or pesticides. They are available in the paint departments of big-box stores. Remember, if you can smell the product you’re breathing it into your lungs.

Dust particulates and liquid vapors also cling to clothing, so the pros recommend wearing a protective covering. Those inexpensive white Tyvek coveralls are great for this purpose and can be reused many times. Priced under $10, they range in sizes from XS to XXL. Be sure to take them off and hang them up in the garage or potting shed before going into the house.

For hand protection, wear nitrile disposable gloves, very inexpensive and available at drugstores.

When messing with chemicals, wear waterproof boots and wash them with soap and water when finished. Also, take them off when entering the house so you don’t spread contaminants to carpets and upholstery.

The Rosemania catalog at www.rosemania.com, (888) 600-9665, carries a complete line of safety equipment at reasonable prices, and shipping is free for orders totaling more than $15.

Blog Alert! Be sure to check us out on Saturday for the first of the weekly “Nancy’s Tomato Chronicles”.  Timely tips and advice for having terrific tomatoes this year.

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First it was designer sneakers and now we have designer planting mixes. But in the case of the planting mixes, the word designer refers to content rather than looks. Because if you want to grow gorgeous flowers and lush landscapes, a one-kind-fits all potting and planting mix doesn’t cut it. That’s why Premier, maker of quality growing mixes for professional growers and home users, has introduced their new Pro-Mix Ultimate line of soiless mixes.

“These top quality sphagnum peat based soiless mixes now provide homeowners and gardeners the “growers – edge” that professionals have enjoyed for decades,” says author and Today Show garden expert Jeff Ball.

“These exciting new products are lightweight, clean and easy to use. But the big story is in the results,” says Ball.  With Pro-Mix Ultimate soilless mixes, even beginning gardeners can grow flowers, trees and shrubs like a pro.”

The Pro Mix state-of-the art double acting soilless mixes start with premium grade Canadian Sphagnum moss, an all-organic, disease free material that’s prized for its ability to grow great plants. Then, depending on the use, the sphagnum peat is mixed with a combination of horticultural materials, scientifically chosen and blended to give plants exactly what they need for healthy vigorous growth. Canadian sphagnum peat moss was rated best in growth tests performed by soil scientists, when compared to other growing mediums.

Pro-Mix Ultimate Landscaping Mix is a ready made-peat bark blend specially formulated to condition garden soil and landscape beds. This combination of 100 percent organic planting materials combined with the biological root stimulant, Ectomycorrhizae, and a complete time-release fertilizer gives homeowners a soil conditioner that is tops in quality and easy to use whether they are rejuvenating a garden bed or planting trees and shrubs. It’s great for improving drainage as well and holding moisture and enriching the soil

Pro-Mix Ultimate Potting Soil is formulated specifically for repotting houseplants, potting up container gardens and seed starting. Canadian sphagnum peat combined with just the right amount of perlite and vermiculite to retain moisture yet provides excellent aeration and drainage, gives plants just the right growing conditions to make them happy. The addition of a completely balanced slow release fertilizer helps them thrive and takes the mystery out of plant care.

Pro Mix Ultimate Container Mix was developed for hanging baskets and pots that are continually exposed to sun drenching heat and are constantly at risk of drying out. To help retain moisture and reduce the need for watering, water-absorbing polymers that act as tiny water reservoirs are blended into the mix of Sphagnum peat and horticultural amendments. A nine-month supply of a complete slow release fertilizer makes plant care easy, giving homeowners plenty of time to smell the roses and other gorgeous flowers they grow with little effort, thanks to the new Pro-Mix Ultimate line of soils mixes.

The brightly colored packaging for the Pro-Mix Ultimate soilless mixes features easy to use re-sealable vinyl bags and includes planting tips along with complete instructions for use. Look for them at fine garden centers or check out Premier’s website at www.premierhort.com to find a retailer in your area.

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Choosing A Gas Driven Lawn Mower

Jeff Ball’s Perfect Lawn Secrets – Week 7 of 2010

(Week 7 is Feb 15th to 21st)

A few weeks ago I went over to our local Home Depot on an errand.  It had been snowing for a few hours putting down three inches with more predicted.  I walk into Home Depot and they are putting their new lawn mowers on display.  It seemed just a bit early in the year for a new lawn mower, but then Christmas decorations begin appearing shortly after Halloween so maybe it’s time to look at lawn mowers.

Today I’ll review gas driven walk-behind mowers and deal with the electrics and riding mowers later in the season.  It’s amazing the range of prices you see for walk-behind mowers these days, starting around $100 and soaring to more than $700.  As we demand more modern features and higher quality, that price will probably continue to climb.  Here are some of the features I consider a must:

Mulching Mowers Rock – A mulching mower is designed to cut grass blades into very small confetti like pieces before throwing them back down to the soil.  This allows us to leave the clippings on the lawn where they belong, because the smaller pieces fall down amongst the grass blades out of sight.  I would never buy a mower that does not have a mulching capability.

Power Makes A Difference – Power is what determines how effective a mower blade will cut the grass.  If you are mowing grass that is over four inches tall, having just returned from vacation, your mower needs power to do that job cleanly.  A mower also needs power to mulch effectively.  I prefer having 6.0 or more horse power, but a 5 horse power machine will do an adequate job.  I would not consider buying a mower with less than 5 horse power.

Blade Override System Makes Safety Sense – A number of companies have developed a feature, called the blade override system (BOS) which raises lawn mower safety to a higher level.  For years, most mowers have had an automatic engine turn off mechanism that worked when you let go of the wire bale at the top of the handle.  This has been a valuable feature and has probably prevented many accidents.  The BOS is similar in that when you release the wire bale the blade stops in less than 3 seconds, however the engine keeps running.

The BOS serves to reduce the number of times you have to restart your mower engine while still giving you the ability to almost instantly stop the blade from cutting.  It is useful when you want to move over a garden hose, stop to pick up a small toy left in the lawn, or stop to move around a rock pathway.

Personal Pace System Is Terrific – I have always preferred a mower with some kind of self-propelling mechanism.  They usually come with a throttle handle that allows you to slow down or speed up the mower as you wish.  I have no idea how Toro made this happen, but with their Personal Pace mowers, the speed of the mower changes whenever you change how fast you are walking, without adjusting any handles or touching anything.  I’ve been using a Toro mower with Personal Pace for about four years and I love it.  Craftsman has several mowers with the same feature called EZ Walk.

Toro Mower

Front Wheel Drive vs. Rear Wheel Drive – For reasons I have not been able to fathom, some self-propelled mowers come with the power driving the front wheels and others with rear wheel drive.  I don’t think the difference is all that important, although I happen to favor the front wheel drive mowers because I feel they are easier to maneuver in tight spaces where you have to turn frequently to get around a barrier of some kind.  All you have to do is push down on the mower handle to raise the front end and you can push the machine any way you wish when the front wheels are in the air.  With rear wheel drive, it seems awkward to me to have to pick up the rear end and have to move the machine around on the front wheels.

Toro (www.toro.com) and Craftsman (www.craftsman.com) sell mulching mowers with all of my favorite features costing somewhere between $400 and $500.  I consider that a fair price for a machine that should last ten years or more.


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