February 17, 2011

Tools of the Garden Trade-part 3- Chainsaws

heavy duty / commercial grade chainsaw

If you are a homeowner, an avid gardener, or even a home-renter, at some point in your gardening life you have looked at a chainsaw at a store, and thought "I wonder how much work I could do with one of THOSE.....". I acquired my first chainsaw right after Hurricane Katrina roared through southern Florida in 2005, and had some rude awakenings about how to use a chainsaw, since I had no training with the tool. The first thing you find out is that  new chainsaws can cut wood at an astonishing rate. The second thing you find out is that they can cut anything else in their path with equally astonishing speed, including tables, sawhorses, cables, and any body parts or clothing in the chainsaw's path. These two discoveries can happen at the same time !

medium duty chainsaw

commercial grade chainsaw with a 24 inch bar
built for commercial tree cutting

Chainsaws are useful but powerful tools, and need your utmost respect. The tool has essentially one purpose: to cut wood. It should not be used to trim bushes, old lumber, patio decks, or the like. It MUST be used with both hands on the saw, you MUST use protective equipment like body and eye protection, and you MUST have a solid and well balanced footing when you use a chainsaw. The possibility for injury is very high when using a chainsaw, especially when the user gets bold.   Perhaps  he uses only one hand on the saw to cut a branch a little further up the tree than he can get to with both hands. Perhaps he is on a ladder, and needs that last little tip of a trunk cut off, way out there, so he leans way out over the side of a ladder. Accidents happen with the predictable speed of the laws of physics ( really fast), and the cost of fixing the injury to you and the property can be very high indeed.
homeowner grade chainsaw, 16 inch bar
built for occasional use

electric pole chainsaw- light duty

I am not trying to dissuade anyone from using a chainsaw, but I am certainly trying to lend some strong counsel to non-professionals who might select a saw that is not matched to their needs or skills. I blog about getting the right tool for the job and for your needs, and this blog is no different. Here are some of the criteria
for choosing  saw for your needs. As with all tools, choose one that fits your hands, your skills, the job needs, and your budget. This is one case where a heavier-duty saw has the power to cut through tough wood materials like oak or maple or some of the tropical hardwoods, as long as you can effectively control the saw. Some of the heavy duty saws are quite heavy, more so than a homeowner might like. A 14 or 16 inch bar is sufficient for most needs. Some of the European brands have controls in curious places, so pick up a few brands in the store to see how they feel to you. Poulan and Homelite are made mostly for the retail gardener / homeowner market, for occasional use. Echo, Stihl, Husqvarna and Jonsered are brands with both commercial and retail pedigrees, and make numerous models for various needs.

Electric chainsaws are the lightest weight and lightest duty chainsaws, and come in both a hand-held and pole saw version. They will cut through wood a few inches thick, but lack much muscle, so let the chain do the cutting, and simply keep control of the saw. These are strictly homeowner grade, and for light jobs. They would jam up on hard woods, or on resinous tree trunks. The larger gas-operated saws can require some muscle to keep them on track, but you can exert a lot of down force on the saw to expedite cutting. 

Let me address safety equipment, and recommend that you spend as much on the equipment as the saw. I have heard many people complain that the equipment is hot, and makes you look funny. I have the same response for those complaints: would you prefer to look funny for an hour, or look even worse without your hand forever ? Chainsaws operate at blinding speed, and the kickback from a saw hitting something hard is faster than a human can respond to. I would much rather look like a movie stunt man for an hour or two than risk an injury. It is incredibly common to see tree crews working without safety gear. Such people often have the scars and hearing problem to prove their foolishness.

As with the power tools of carpentry or construction , a chainsaw is a great tool when used safely and for the right reasons. Choose a saw with the size and power for your needs, get educated on how to use it well, and as the old saying goes " don't get stupid". The penalty for such bravado is expensive and long lasting. I suggest these saws for the calm, professional, educated gardener. I learned a lot in a hurry about how to use these saws effectively. We use them routinely as part of vegetation management at Pinecrest Gardens, but we always brief the cutters about where the trees will fall, potential hazards to watch out for, and to keep an eye on nearby people.

Craig Morell
Pinecrest Gardens

light duty electric chainsaw


face shield / hard hat / hearing protector combination

purpose-built chainsaw gloves

chainsaw chaps

February 16, 2011

Tools of the Garden Trade- part 2- Pole Saws

 In this episode, we'll look at the next step up from hand-held cutting tools, the pole saw group. It is commonplace to see pole saws at big-box home improvement stores, and for most general home gardening purposes, such pole saw / lopper combinations work fine. As with all tools, there are variations in size, weight, cost, ease of use and durability. The same criteria apply for choosing one of these tools as for hand-held clippers or loppers. Some of the variety of pole tools are illustrated below, and the costs in the illustrated tools vary from about $ 30 to almost $ 300. Some of the extendable pole saws have exquisitely crafted and exceptionally sharp saw blades, with an equally exquisite price ( about $75 for a new blade). One must ask oneself if a really high end tool is really needed. For trimming an errant branch or dead palm frond, almost any pole saw will do, if it meets your needs. For trimming a really tough branch or frond 25 feet in the air, the higher-end tools are needed.
Pole saw / lopper combination
uses a push-pull saw

professional-grade pole lopper

Silky pole saw
uses a pull-stroke blade
One of the real advancements in pole saws has been the advent of pull-stroke saw blades. The old fashioned push-pull motion that was needed 30 years ago often led to tired gardeners, badly cut branches, and ripped tree bark. The higher quality blades use pull-stroke teeth, where you cut through the wood by pulling back on the blade, pushing forward with only as much effort as needed to push the blade back through the cut. Not coincidentally, these saw blades make excellent carpenter saws, and the Japanese have made such tools for a long time. The smoothness of the cut from a pull-cut blade is far superior to the old fashioned double-cut tooth type of decades ago. Naturally, such blades are more expensive and require a bit of training so that you don't break the blade with a strong push through binding wood. The advantages of such blades become evident when cutting branches or fronds far above your head: just park the blade on the branch, and pull down. VOILA ! In many cases, 1 or 2 pulls is all that is needed for a clean cut.     

Hayauchi pole saw
uses a pull-stroke blade

pole chainsaw, extendable

add-on pole saw with fiberglass handles
photo: Add-On Saw company

In some cases, a pole chainsaw is needed or warranted. Such tools should be used carefully, since the saw end is heavier than a blade pole saw, and the weight distribution favors the saw, not the human. In such cases, the idea is to place the saw on the branch, give the saw some power, and let the weight of the saw and moving chain do all the work.Too often I see people trying to muscle the saw around, and put downward force on the saw chain. This often leads to binding the saw chain into the branch or stripped chain gears, which stops the process really fast. This leaves you with a stuck chainsaw 12 feet over your head. Gravity and physics don't favor you at this point ! I encourage people to avoid these saws unless there is a lot of low-level tree cutting to do, wherein a pole saw won't tackle the project. The wear and tear on your nerves, shoulders, and especially your lower back can be tremendous.

I also wish to make a strenuous argument for safety with these tools. The temptation is very strong to buy a pole saw, and start removing those troublesome branches near your phone cables or power lines. STAY AWAY FROM ANY UTILITY LINE WITH A POLE SAW. Aside from the obvious problems of making a great electrical connection with the electric line ( You + long metal pole + power line= trouble), you could easily drop a branch on a phone cable. The repairs for this type of damage are expensive. The consequences of you even getting close to a power line ( you don't have to actually touch a power line) can be deadly or debilitating.

Last and not least, many, many people make the same error when pruning a branch or frond overhead. The mistake is that the branch or frond will break off before the item has been completely and cleanly cut through. This ends up badly, since the partly cut branch will tear the bark on the trunk as the branch falls away. This can be avoided by making a cut part way through the underside of the branch, from a distance off to one side of the tree. Cut about 1/3 of the way through the underside of the branch, then cut from the top down, on top of the "undercut". The branch should fall away cleanly, with no damage to the tree.

For most needs, a better-quality pole saw is a better choice than a pole chainsaw, but both have their places in a garden. Choose them with knowledge beforehand, use them wisely, know how to handle them effectively, and your garden becomes more manageable.

Craig Morell
Pinecrest Gardens        

February 14, 2011

Tools of the Garden Trade, part 1- Hand pruning tools

Double-Cut Clipper
aka "Italian Pattern"

After gardening for more than 30 years, I've seen a  LOT of garden tools, and used more of them than I really needed to. As with so many venues in life, skills and good planning are more important than the tools, but I will concede that good and correct tools are still important. I have witnessed many gardeners attempt to prune a tree with  a hand clippers, only to acquire a broken clipper, badly cut tree, and sore hands. I've also seen people use a chainsaw or string trimmer to trim a hedge, a lawn mower to trim annuals, a machete to to divide Crinum lilies, and on and on. The old sage advice of "the right tool for the job" is still true. As with many tools, there is a huge variety of garden and landscape tools to choose from. Each vendor states they have the "best" tool for every job, and sound, objective advice is getting harder and harder to come by. So how does a gardener choose the tool for the job ? Here are some tips for choosing the tool for your needs.

classic style of bypass pruner

anvil pruner

There are several criteria for choosing tools for any job, whether it is building a house, cutting down a tree, or pruning a rose bush. This blog concerns hand pruning tools, and there certainly are a lot to choose from. The first and likely most important criterion for a hand tool is that it fits your hands i.e. that is comfortable to hold and neither too big or too small for the intended job. The second criterion is the right size tool for the job e.g. a medium hand clipper for pruning roses, a large hand clipper for pruning a hedge with hard wood, a small lopper for branches or stems more than 1/2 inch diameter, and a long-handled lopper for branches up to 1 -1/4 inch diameter. The third criterion for choosing a hand tool is the cost-to-use ratio. If you use a tool a few times per year, you can get away with a lighter weight, lower cost tool. Pruning or cutting plants every day or on a commercial scale requires the heavier duty, more expensive tools. Last, consider the material to be trimmed: if the tree has exceptionally hard wood, or the material to be trimmed has abrasive characters to it ( palm trunks, bamboo, etc). then consider a top-end tool.

loppers come in a wide range of lengths
a size to fit your needs

Also consider your own strength and abilities. A slightly built person with petite hands will need a tool built for that gardener. Also consider that sometimes an oversized tool can lend the leverage need to muscle through a tough task as long as you can use the tool easily. A long handled lopper can exert a great deal of force on a small branch even with a slightly built person at the controls. Hand clippers, also called pruners, secateurs, snips, Pradines, (and a range of other names,) come in several basic styles: bypass, anvil, and double-cut. They cut differently, and some very fibrous plants require a bypass pruner to cut through the fibers, whereas some softer woods can be cut effectively with anvil pruners. 

short loppers
good for high-leverage, close-quarter jobs
      Many manufacturers cite a tool's ability to cut through ridiculously hard materials, or cite feats of engineering prowess, courtesy of the exotic materials and metals in the tool. In the end analysis, find a tool that fits your hands and your strength, will cut the material effectively, and one that you can afford. Some of the best European brands can set you back $ 100 for a hand clipper, over $ 200 for a a large lopper. For my own needs, I have several different clippers, one short lopper, and one 36 inch long-handle lopper for really hard-wooded trees. I was given a double-cut pruner 10 years ago, and it works great on cutting through seed shells or for large diameter branches, not so well on roses or palms. Sharp-point clippers are used for pruning roots and flower stems on my orchids, and the classic bypass "Corona" clipper is useful for everything else. I used to use a professional German 9 inch clipper, but it was so heavy, and the handles spread so far apart that my paws couldn't work with it anymore. I gave it to a friend with bear-paw sized hands, and he loves it.

There are many makers of pruning tools such as ARS, Felco, Corona, Sandvik, Bahco, Tramontina, Stihl, Stanley, and of course, Craftsman /Sears. There are numerous others, but the basic message is still finding the right tool for your needs, budget, and project. Stay away from the miracle gadgets for now, and stick with the tried and true tools. The fancy battery-operated clippers, ratcheting gizmos, and plastic-handled long reach pruners all work to a degree, but longevity is not in their pedigree.

Craig Morell
Pinecrest Gardens        

Straight -nose clipper
aka fruit or grape shears


February 11, 2011

Preparing Your Garden for Spring

Here at Pinecrest Gardens, we are already starting our preparations for the onset of warmer weather and an "awakening" of the plants. We are also preparing for the onset of mosquitoes, spider mites, snails, and everything which might eat our plants. Each year when we start this process, we get quizzical looks from those I tell about the preparations, and I say that we are planning the processes of fertilizing , pest control, weed control, and planting. We will implement the plans in a month or two.  

The most useful and versatile garden
tools ever developed. Take care of them !

 Some of our methods include using organic fertilizers which take several weeks to start breaking down enough to become useful. We'll apply the products now, and they'll take effect next month. We are fixing irrigation heads while the weather is amenable, as well as planning our fertilizer and mulch needs for the next 6 months. We'll take a new look at our nursery and holding areas. These areas are great places for insects and snails to hide, so while the weather is pleasant, we are renovating these storage and potting areas. This is also the time of year to look at soil insect or fungus problems in turf areas, when we have cool, still, humid nights, conditions that are ripe for certain fungus problems to set in. The old term of "spring cleaning" was usually meant for homes after a long and dreary winter in temperate states, but here in the subtropics, this can apply to those situations where we need to do garden maintenance before the predictable onset of some problems. I also have to admit that there are many laborious tasks that delay until the weather and soil are dry enough to work comfortably.

well-used garden tools,
Spring is an excellent time to clean and oil them

This is also a good time to start planning what plants will go into your garden as the weather warms up. In our area, we can plant many annuals which thrive in the winter, but now is a good time to think about their replacements. We plan for an interval of time between the old crop of plants coming out and the new plants being installed. This time gap is an excellent time to till the soil, add fresh soil, add slow-release or organic fertilizers, re-set borders and edges, and all those other details that make gardens thrive.

Stacks of old pots, perfect
homes for snails and insects

Over the last 20 years or more, I learned to start thinking of what to do in a garden months before the time arrives to tackle the project. Thinking ahead of the project's needs will make gardening easier than waiting until the last moment and then rushing to a decision. Use the cooler winter months to research new plants and new ideas. There are so many new plants and new materials on the retail market that sticking to the same plants year after year is a disservice to the wide world of variety available to you.

Craig Morell
Pinecrest Gardens

February 3, 2011

Those #**# Snails !!

At some point in every gardener's life in the subtropics, you'll run into snail problems. It can happen at any time of year, but is especially prevalent in the warmer months of high humidity and rain. Snails can be devastating to many types of plants, and at the least, they can annihilate flowers and seedlings in short order, disfiguring a plant beyond sale-ability or show-ability. Why, if snails are prevalent in Summer, would I write a blog in January ?

Prepare yourself NOW for Summer's damages. This is the time to seek out where snails hide, remove their food sources, take preventative actions, and start a holistic program of control before the problems begin. Now is an excellent time to clean up stacks of pots, remove piles of rotting leaves under benches, kill weeds, and lift bags of mulch or soil off the ground onto pallets or racks. There are books written listing hundreds of methods of snail control, many of them by British authors. It must be enough of a problem in the UK to write an entire book about snail and slug control........... 

There are many tactical methods used to control snails, some of which are organic, some are chemical, both are equally in different ways. Aside from following basic hygiene protocols involving a clean up of debris, lumber, and old pots in the areas where snails may be prevalent, considering how much time you have to spend on snail control will drive the decision on which control measures to employ. Some of the most Earth-friendly fixes are the most time-consuming.

Cuban Land Snail

There are numerous varieties of plant-eating snails, the term includes slugs as well. Many of these mollusks do their work at night, out of sight of predators, so looking for them in the daylight hours is fruitless. Some snails do their damage  below ground, eating just root tips, especially in container plants. Some of the most damaging snails are quite small. Bush snails can be as small as peas, but they have a voracious appetite. Some of our recently introduced snails, such as Cuban Land Snail, move fast by snail standards, and can strip small seedlings and flower buds in a hurry on hot summer nights. The telltale damage of ragged-edge holes in leaves and flower buds, especially leaf edges, means that you have trouble and need to employ control measures fast. 

There are numerous controls, but the most effective short term controls involve setting out snail baits. There are some which contain metaldehyde, an effective but toxic ingredient. In controlled areas such as greenhouses and in gardens without pets or children, such baits are effective, but should be used judiciously. On of the more popular baits is a blue pellet, and you'll only need a few pellets per plant every month to do the job. Some of the less toxic products contain iron phosphate, and work well, but these products take longer, and need to be used longer to enact good control. Some of the more holistic controls call for setting out dishes of beer, then cover the dishes with a plate or cover to keep rain out. It is the yeast  which does the job in killing the snails, not the alcohol.

A trap for snails, using beer as bait 
cheap beer actually works better than premium brands

Surrounding a garden with a raised copper band as a lawn edge controls snails quite well, although the copper band needs to be cleaned every few months to expose the copper to the snails. Copper is lethal to mollusks. Some gardeners have spread out pool filter powder composed of diatomaceous earth. This is extremely effective and totally organic, but needs to be re-applied every week or two. Over the course of several months, you'll see the snail problems disappear. The powder is very finely ground silica, and abrades the snails and slugs to death. This tactic is also effective in controlling roaches and other nuisance pests in the lower edges of cupboards and cabinets. Be aware that this powder is irritating to human and pet noses and throats, so be careful in using in children or pert areas.

My suggestion is to employ several measures to control snails and slugs, starting with good garden hygiene and keeping clean pots in stacks off the ground. Start early in the year by using some gentle prevention and control measures to keep snails and slugs away from your valuable plants. Be diligent in watching for damage, followed by rapid response in controlling the problem.These pests are one of the most damaging of all in a garden, and you need to be watchful in order to control them

Craig Morell
Pinecrest Gardens