When you're short on time or money-and who isn't these days?-reliable tools help you use both more efficiently. During the 2008 growing season, we tried out several dozen gardening aids in our test gardens, at the Rodale family farm, and in our own yards. We used the products just as you would in your garden, and put them through a "stress test" designed to simulate the most challenging conditions and treatment in which you would use them. The following eight are the products that worked best and enticed testers back for repeated use. They are our 2009 Editors' Choice winners.
The result? The Felco #8 model is still our favorite. The ergonomic design makes every job quick and easy on the hands. It has a wire-cutting notch that is a real blade saver. Easy-to-find-in-the-litter red handles, holster-perfect size, and wide blade opening all add to the appeal to veteran gardeners. $53; felcostore.com
Corona's new Ergo-Action Forged Bypass Pruner is, however, a contender. It borrows Felco's handle shape, and the closing clip is an easier version of Felco's. It has heft and a durable feel, but, unfortunately for those of us who like to keep our tools forever, no replaceable parts. $20; coronaclipper.com
Green Lawn Mower
Of the three battery-operated mowers we tested, the Neuton CE 6.2 battery-powered mower cut more consistently than the others. It chopped down thick, at times damp, grass with steady power. With its mulching plug (included) in place, the mower left fine clippings on the lawn that decomposed in a few days. Its 19-inch cutting width is just slightly narrower than the typical gas-powered mower. The Neuton's 36-volt battery takes eight hours to charge and provides power for about an hour.
A few minor but valuable features also distinguish the Neuton from the competition. An easy-to-read gauge lets you know when the battery's charge is waning. You can remove the battery from the mower when you need to recharge it--a handy option for those who don't have a power source where they store their mower. It was the only model we tested that let you keep a spare battery (sold separately), which can double the length of time you have to cut the lawn. And you can raise the cutting height to a healthy 3 inches tall with the shift of a single lever. For that reason alone, we recommend this mower to any organic gardener caring for a lawn that's one-third of an acre or less. $449; neutonpower.com
The electric mower cut down thick, damp grass with steady power for nearly an hour on one charge.
Fuel-Free Trimmer and Edger
For regular lawn maintenance, however, we found the Ryobi One+ Trimmer/Edger durable and comfortable to use. The telescoping shaft allows each user to set the length to what works best for his or her height. Its pivoting head and a handy guide bar make this trimmer easy to use for edging beds and walkways. The battery charges up fully in an hour and holds its power for 30 to 45 minutes, depending on how thick and wet the grass is. (You can also buy a second battery to have ready.) On most trimmers, the cutting line is replenished using a bump-and-feed mechanism that is often so frustrating some users refer to it as the "slam-and-jam" approach. Ryobi has solved that problem by equipping the One+ with an automatically advancing line that worked reliably for us all season long. You get only one string, not the two you find on gas-powered machines, but it stays at the optimal length at all times. Trimmer plus battery: $75; ryobitools.com
The Echo SRM-265T started with just a pull or two on the starter cord every time we used it, which was not the case with the other two gas-powered models we tried. The Echo is hefty at 13.4 pounds, but well balanced, so it was comfortable to use for long periods of time--for both right- and left-handed testers. It has professional-level power, essential for slashing down brush and cover crops. Our one complaint: The grass shield is too small, allowing a heavy spray of clippings to coat our legs. About $320 from retailers; echo-usa.com
We trimmed a thick stand of sudangrass, a coarse, grassy cover crop that renews weedy beds and adds a big dose of organic matter to the soil. We had been using hand shears, so the trimmers made the job quicker and easier on our backs.
Another option that we found almost as appealing is Durable Plastic Design's Raised Bed Garden Kit, made from recycled milk jugs. It is as attractive as plastic can be and was easily assembled by our team of 13-year-olds. Price for a 4-foot-by-8-foot-by-11-inch bed is $212. We added a top sitting rail for an additional $108. orcaboard.com
We also liked a simpler staking option we tried: 3-foot Y-stake Supports with bendable arms, $34 for five at gardentalk.com.
We placed half-ring supports in rows of zinnias and giant tithonias and slid the half-rings gradually up the stakes as the plants grew taller. In October, we were still snipping flowers, and the plants were not sprawling all over as in past years.
Organic Weed Spray
The active ingredients in Perfectly Natural Weed 'n Grass Killer are clove and citrus oils, both proved very effective in independent testing. An hour after spraying, we found the weeds' top growth had withered. Within 24 hours, they were dead; in most cases, they didn't return. Tougher weeds required repeat applications. You won't dread that, because unlike chemical herbicides, this spray has a very appealing scent. $8 from doitbest.com. Info at perfectlynatural.com.
The flagstone patio had a pleasant spicy scent after we sprayed the weed killer. And it's even safe for your puppy to play on.
Containers that Conserve
- It's big enough to grow tomatoes. But, we learned, the staking system (ordered separately) was fashioned more for beans than tomatoes, so construct your own sturdy support.
- The water reservoir is sized right for the large boxy container. Weekly refilling proved to be enough to keep our tomatoes producing all summer.
- An overflow hole made over-watering impossible.
The EarthBox Organic Ready to Grow Kit comes complete with soil, fertilizer, trace elements, and casters (so you can wheel your plants around to catch the rays), making failure difficult if not impossible. $53; earthbox.com