Needed Now, A Hay Rake, Garden Line, & Bulb Planter

The small meadow that stretches south of my vegetable garden is more than just a meadow. It also provides mulch for my trees and shrubs, and food for my compost “pet.” All this necessitates moving the greenery — or brownery, when it’s old — from the field to the trees, shrubs, and compost bins. I cut the hay with a scythe, gather it together with a rake, scoop it up with a 4-tine pitchfork, then pile it high in the garden cart for transport.

The tools needed seem straightforward enough, except for the rake. An ordinary garden rake would not do. It’s too small for so large an area and its heavy, short, sharp teeth would too readily tangle up in the mown hay without reaching deeply enough too grab a sufficient amount with each pull. A leaf rake likewise would not do; the fine teeth would merely skim the surface layer of hay or break off.

Years ago, rather than purchase a bona fide hay rake, which may or may not have worked as expected, I thought I’d save some money and get just what I wanted by making one. A quickly made homemade rake would tide me over until I felt like purchasing one or made a new one, improved by my experience using the original. That was years and years ago! The old wooden rake, originally with dowel teeth, later upgraded to teeth of metal spikes, and handle made from a long tree branch, served me well. Eventually, sun, rain, and use tore it apart.

My homemade kay rake of aluminum, PVC plastic, and bamboo

My homemade kay rake of aluminum, PVC plastic, and bamboo

Recently, after looking over all the options — including an antique wooden hay rake, a “professional” rake, a “grading rake” — and not knowing which might work best, I decided, once again, to make one.

And proud I am of my new rake, both in function and beauty. Four-inch lengths of aluminum dowels, rounded at their bottoms with a grinder, are evenly spaced and firmly anchored with small screws at their tops and the upper part of their sides to a 40 inch wide piece of aluminum angle stock to make up the head. A short piece of aluminum angle stock in the middle of the head provides an anchor for the handle, which starts out as an 18” length of 1” diameter PVC pipe. To complete the handle, I slid into the PVC pipe a 7 foot long, straight, strong piece of bamboo, home grown. The rake is a meeting of universes, two corners of the high tech, embodied by aluminum and plastic, with the natural, bamboo. They seem happy together.

Bad Home-Made

With all that’s available in stores and online, it may seem archaic to fashion one’s own tools. But doing so — as is the case with my new rake — can get you a custom-made implement, exactly to your particular specifications. I had the luxury and job of choosing the length and spacing of my rake’s teeth as well as the width of its head, even its weight, depending on the materials I chose. The finished product works well and everything, from lining up drilled holes as I seated the teeth into position to choosing a bamboo handle to fit securely into its PVC sleeve was very satisfying work.

Garden line, a design failure for me

Garden line, a design failure for me

Such is not always the case with homemade. Years ago I needed a garden line that could be wound up quickly and easily, and mounted on a spike that could be stuck in the ground. I made one. Not a very good one in form or function. It’s time to finally cannabalize it for its string which I’ll just wind up around a piece of wood — for now.

Good Bought or Borrowed

Okay, some gardening tools cannot be homemade so are better bought. Case in point: I’m hoping for a dramatic planting of ornamental alliums in part of the meadow. Dramatic, as in 125 bulbs, 100 of which (Purple Sensation) will make purple globes 4 inches across, and 25 of which (Ambassador) will have purple heads 7 inches across, all these heads sitting high atop 3 to 4 foot high stalks. The hope is that their leaves will be up, do their photosynthetic job, and be out of the way before the surrounding grasses and herbs pick up enough steam to choke them out. If so, allium flowers will brighten the meadow year after year.

Sammy the Dog inspects the powerful B&D drill and bulb auger.

Sammy the Dog inspects the powerful B&D drill and bulb auger.

Pushing a shovel through dirt and roots 125 times would be an arduous task indeed. So I borrowed an earth auger from my friend Bill and inserted it into the chuck of my Black & Decker 20 volt cordless drill. If it seems as if, by explicitly naming it, I’m promoting this Black & Decker product, I am. The tool has power, longlasting power, enough to muscle the auger 6 inches deep into the soil. (Full disclosure: No rocks here.) In one hour, all the bulbs were planted.

No, I’m not about to cobble together a cordless drill. Same goes for the earth auger. This particular one, borrowed, was an antique, cast from solid steel.

The humongous Ambassador alliums were too large for the auger holes so I did have to dig those 25 holes by hand.

Farmdening, Not Too Much

Earlier, I mentioned using a scythe to mow the vegetation. The scythe is an archaic yet very useful and enjoyable tool, but, as Charles Dudley Warner wrote in his 1871 classic My Summer in the Garden, “Blessed be agriculture! If one does not have too much of it.”

At one time I did mow the whole, one acre meadow with a scythe — 3 times each season so that the vegetation would not get too long to be mowed. No longer. That much scything got tedious, and I got tennis elbow. So now the scythe takes care of my mowing enough hay for my mulch and compost needs, and a Kubota tractor with a brush hog, once a year, takes care of the rest.

Serendipity Strikes!! & Join Me in Seattle

Join me in Seattle on August 10, 2014 for a talk I’ll be giving on “Luscious Landscaping — With Fruiting Trees, Shrubs, and Vines!”. Luscious landscaping is the way to beautify your yard and, at the same time, to put (very) local, healthful, flavorful food on the table. Following the lecture, we will explore the gardens at Magnuson Park. For more information about this event, go to

Ice Cream for Poppies

I first learned the word “serendipity” when I was in junior high school; it was the clever name of an ice cream shop that my parents had come upon in New York City. I’ve been on the lookout for it ever since: the word, not the shop. And I find it, occasionally, in the garden.

Like yesterday, for instance. Last March I sprinkled corn poppy (Papaver rhoeas) seeds on a flower bed that’s also home to espaliered Asian pears and a plum tree. Looking down at the dust-like seeds in the palm of my hand, it would have been hard to imagine that they could ever amount to anything. Especially since I did nothing more than sprinkle them on top of the ground, the whole packet.

But the seeds did amount to something, to more than just something, to oodles and oodles of two-foot-long stems capped by orangish red blossoms. The color is similar to that of Oriental poppies (P. orientale), but corn poppy flowers are smaller and more delicate, “all silk and flame,” to quote John Ruskin. Not exactly a serendipitous planting because I did, after all, sow the seeds. But I could hardly have predicted the exuberant response.

Fenced in red poppies in front of espaliered pears

In amongst other plants, the flowers are held high. At the front edge of the bed, though, the dainty heads flop down on the lawn. Which would be okay, except that it would be a shame to mow those silky blossoms when mowing the lawn at the bed’s edge.  Likewise, it would be a shame to let the grass grow unfettered up around and hiding the blossoms. Too messy.

So yesterday I propped the floppy plants up with a fence. Nothing fancy or permanent, just five short bamboo canes pushed into the ground about eight feet apart as posts. The crosspieces, four long bamboo canes each slid along the lawn beneath the flowers, were then lifted and lashed to the short canes a foot above the ground.

Serendipity. Not only are the flowers up off the ground but the bamboo “fence,” simple as it is, greatly improved the appearance of the bed, visually defining it to better highlight the plants.

Tea Crabs into a Tea Hedge, with a Doorway

My most serendipitous planting was many, many years ago, of tea crabapples (Malus hupehensis). I was using these plants for research when I was working for Cornell University. I needed clones, and tea crabapple has the quirk of apomixis, which means that its seeds do not reflect the sexual union of pollen with egg cells; the seeds are formed only from mother tissue so grow into clones of each other and the mother plant.

Privet hedge melding into tea crabapple hedge

Privet hedge melding into tea crabapple hedge

Starting many tea crabapples from seed left me with extra plants, so I took eight home and planted them in a tight row, with only a couple of feet between plants, along and about five feet from the back edge of my garage/barn. What was I thinking? Tea crabapple can grow 40 feet high and wide!

As the plants grew, I sheared them into a hedge 10 feet high and 4 feet wide. After a few years, I put a rear, sliding door on the back of the garage/barn. Rather than walk out that door into a tree, I cut out one of the crabapples, and sheared a living doorway through the row of remaining trees.

I subsequently planted a privet hedge that runs perpendicular to the north edge of the crabapple hedge. Because the privet hedge is only about 3-feet-high, I decided to meld it with the crabapple hedge by letting it swoop upwards at their meeting. Access was needed through the privet hedge also, so another arch was created, this one higher and wider to let my tractor pass through.

It’s all very playful and, to me, pretty. And it all started with a mindless planting of extra tea crabapples.

Shearing Easily

The height and length of these hedges present maintenance challenges. Years ago, scissoring hedge shears made the work pleasant but very slow. The top of the crab hedge demanded my climbing a ladder and swinging a shearing knife — a dangerous proposition.

Shearing my tall hedge with Black & Decker pole pruner

Black & Decker pole pruner makes me taller

Technology has come to the rescue. Nowadays both hedges are kept trim and neat with two tools, both powered by 20 volt lithium batteries. What I can reach gets clipped with a Black & Decker battery powered hedge trimmer. Thanks to my Black & Decker battery powered pole hedge trimmer, the 10-foot-high hedge no longer demands a ladder. The trimmer’s articulating head makes it easy to give the upper sides a 45 degree cut and then, after repositioning the blades at 90 degrees, to make a flat cut along the top of the hedge.

The pole trimmer is especially important for making it convenient to cut high up on a hedge, the part most likely to be neglected especially on tall hedges. Hormones within every plant favor most vigorous growth highest up in the plant. So the top of the hedge, left to its own devices, would naturally overgrow the lower portions, leading to shading and bare branches lower down. Keeping the upper part of the hedge narrower than the bottom counteracts this tendency.