A decade ago, my wife and I built an absurdly ambitious garden that involved homemade fencing, a bamboo-and-string trellis for the beans and, for me, about 10 backbreaking hours behind a tiller.
As we planted, a neighbor strolled by, grinning. “Growing some deer food?”
Weeks later, our little farm verging on a big harvest, we awoke to find the fence trampled, the trellises flattened and the vegetables gone.
It was farmageddon. Or armagardden. Or hell.
I have since avoided gardening, and not just because of the deer. Knee and elbow surgeries killed what little enthusiasm I had for digging and kneeling, so I limit my harvesting activities to the produce aisle.
In recent years, though, I heard enough about the virtues of ergonomic gardening tools that I thought it might be worth another shot. But first, I queried a trio of gardening specialists: Barbara Pleasant, a gardening author and contributing editor to Mother Earth News; Pam Ruch, who managed the test gardens for Organic Gardening magazine; and Bruce Butterfield, the research director for the National Gardening Association.
My question: Is the buzz surrounding ergonomic gardening tools just noise, or have there been legitimate innovations lately? Their answers could put some fresh veggies on my family’s table this summer (if the deer don’t get to my new garden first).
“When I started gardening 30 years ago,” Pleasant said, “hand tools had wooden handles that rotted and splintered, and the only hoes we had were designed to chop cotton. Are today’s lightweight tools with easy-to-grip handles better? Yes, they are.”
And much of that improvement, my panelists and others said, has come in recent years, as manufacturers and retailers moved away from the one-size-strains-all approach.
The first such tool that bears mentioning is the only one that all three panelists went out of their way to rave about: the Cobrahead weeder and cultivator, manufactured in Cambridge, Wis. The business end of the tool looks like a longshoreman’s hook but with a flare resembling a cobra’s hood. It comes in two versions, for close work and for standing work.
Pleasant said she’s “gotten kind of dependent on it.”
Butterfield said it’s the most efficient tool for taking out weeds, “and it’s built like a Russian dump truck so it won’t break.”
Ruch acknowledged that the conventional handle doesn’t exactly scream “ergonomic” in the era of molded, rubber-coated instruments. “But it’s the best all-around tool for the garden, because you don’t use a twisting motion,” she said. “You’re kind of punching it into the soil, so you’re using your arm muscles rather than your wrist, which is a real area of vulnerability.”
Flower gardeners and landscapers know this all too well, especially those who have spent a day with a bad set of pruners.
Ruch favors bypass pruners, as opposed to anvil pruners, for their ease of use. “And everybody loves Felco pruners,” she said. “You can buy spare parts for them, which is great. But Bahco pruners seem to stay sharper longer, and I’ve never lost a part on them. I may be switching my allegiance.”
Bahco and Fiskars sell pruners with front handles that rotate toward you when you squeeze them, further reducing hand and wrist strain. (I tried Bahco’s Professional PXR-M2 and the Fiskars PowerGear pruner.) Fiskars last year added a gel pad to the PowerGear pruner for further comfort, and it still weighs less than the Bahco PXR-M2.