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There are very few activities where you need anything more than a few, well-chosen bits of kit – the rest is just padding, the desire you’re feeling to fulfil a need you didn’t realise you had simply the sad but inevitable result of appending the word “industry” to your favourite activity. There’s a big machine in play, and it’s fuelled by the insecurities of people like you and me. You’re not happy with your ability to complete such and such a task with the ease and proficiency you see being displayed online, in a magazine, in an ad, or (heaven help you) by your peers. You’ve seen a Thing that you know will help you.
You don’t need that.
Of course, you may choose to expand your collection of doodads and wotsits, becasue you find them interesting, or you enjoy assembling a collection, or you just like a lot of stuff. That’s all well and good – just as long as no one’s making you feel that you need any more than about five per cent of it to get the job done.
I spent a day last week at a trade show for the horticultural industry. It was stuffed to the rafters with brands displaying their latest wares, hoping to attract the attention of retail buyers and secure orders the orders that will see these lines appearing on shelves in your local supermarkets and garden centres. There were some really great products. There was an awful lot of stuff you don’t need.
“If you’re into gardening, you’re going to have to buy stuff”, I heard someone say. Well, to an extent, but really, not that much, and not as much as they’d like you to believe. That said, there are some things you probably are going to have to buy, and to that end, here’s my list of things that don’t fall into the category of Stuff.
If you’re a gardener, it’s a good bet you’re going to acquire more plants, either by buying them, swapping them, being gifted them, or raising them yourself. You may not always be able to, or want to stick them in the ground, and short of kokedama, you’re going to need more pots. Quite a lot more pots. There were many pots, and this was a Good Thing. There was an impressive display of pots from the people at Woodlodge, including their excellent and reasonably priced Hertitage containers, and a beautiful new range based on designs by William Morris.
Unless you’re the really rugged type that doesn’t need them (I don’t know anyone who is). There’s only one company who’s gloves I know I can rely on to protect my hands year round in the garden, and that’s Gold Leaf, whose range is endorsed by the RHS. A family firm run, I really admire their refusal to expand their range beyond the key product, which allows them to concentrate on customer service and quality without diluting their brand. It’s counter cultural in a world of turnover and scaling-up, but I think it’s a craftsperson-like, long-term approach. My only trouble is that although they are undoubtedly the best gardening gloves, they are also leather, and as this household is moving away from animal products I’m not sure how much longer I can allow myself to use them. I’ve not found a decent vegan alternative yet, and I think the hunt may be a long one – until I can, I will just continue to plead with Peter and Kelly to look into pleather alternatives. A gardening glove made from pineapple fibre, that would be a thing.
You will need some tools. Not as many as you might think – but here’s where it pays to do the research, talk to people, but above all, try things out. Tools are personal, weighted, shaped – and as we use them as an extension of our bodies, they fit each individual differently. Sometimes, a tool manufacturer comes up with a really clever twist on an old tool that truly makes a gardener’s job easier – but it doesn’t happen very often, and these tweaks tend to be apparently quite modest, like treads on a digging spade, or a ratchet on a pair of loppers. It’s always worth trying out as many tools as you can, but don’t buy them all, and unless you’re deliberately building a collection, steer clear of anything new-fangled that fails to meet a need you were aware of before you arrived at the point of sale. Burgon & Ball make consistently good, well thought-out hand tools, some of which, like the RHS endorsed collection of digging tools, are modern reinterpretations of traditional designs. (There’s also an impressive and attractively designed portfolio of gardening gifts which is rescued from tumbling into the territory of Stuff by conforming entirely with the William Morris opinion, vis. that one should “have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful”.) I have paid more for tools, and been disappointed. I’ve also spent less, and been pleasantly surprised, so my message once more is, try before you buy.
Those with a lawn will, in the absence of a biddable sheep, require a mower, and though a push-me-pull-you type is worthy, it’s some effort. If you have a hedge, you’ll probably want to take the strain off and resort to a powered hedge trimmer, and now that battery power is replacing the traditional 2-stroke engines, there’s no need for noisy, smelly machines. Readers of this blog will know that I have been a fan of Stihl’s kit long before they sent me the cordless tools to review.
Especially peat free composts – again, not as much as you think, and those of us blessed with gardens should all be making our own compost – but it is nice to have a good bag of well-balanced, weed-free sterile stuff, isn’t it? Particularly when, as with Dalefoot Composts, you know that the contents are renewable and natural, and that buying a bag contributes to the restoration work on the unique peat bogs of the Lake District.
Organic plant feed/tonics
You can make your own comfrey or nettle tea. Whiffy. Or use the juice from your wormery or bokashi bins. Again, peeeew, but great. I would not be without a bottle or three of the seaweed based Maxicrop plant food, including their high potash tomato feed and one with sequestered iron for ericaceous plants. There’s also a lawn feed.
When it comes to chemical controls in the garden, I would strongly advocate organic, low impact solutions, and good plant husbandry, rather than the twentieth-century model of nuking everything in sight just because we can (so, yes to products like SB Plant Invigorator to pep your plants up and help them resist pests like whitefly, but no to stuff like Rose Clear – choose good, disease resistant varieties when buying new roses, and be assiduous in tiding up infected leaves). Encouraging beneficial insects to control annoying garden visitors such as aphids, and using biological control like Nemasys to combat slugs and vine weevil grubs seems like a far more sympathetic, low impact way of working with nature than filling your shopping cart full of a batch of petrochemically derived pesticides, and the same goes for herbicides, fungicides, or mineral-based fertilizers, lawn treatments... the list goes on. We’re told that we need all this stuff, and the new gardener facing challenges for the first time can find the marketing for off-the-shelf solutions seductive. My advice? You don’t need that.
What else don’t you need?
Plastic hanging box balls. Unless you really like them. In which case, what are you doing reading this?
So, when it comes to gardening, just how much stuff do you really need? Well, as much as you want, is the honest answer. You can get by with relatively little – you can acquire well made tools at boot fairs and online auction sites, sometimes even in the pound shop. Or you can choose to splash out on something shiny and new that makes you feel happy when you’re using it – as long as the burden of the decision to purchase is being made by you, and not the shiny people behind the ad campaigns. To which end, you may find repeating the following mantra to yourself a useful exercise when walking through the aisles of your local garden centre:
You don’t need that. Or that.
And you definitely don’t need that.
But this…hmmm. Maybe that’s one of the good ones.
On a similar subject, I wrote a blog post with my Top 10 tools for the new gardener in response to a question I am often asked. Do let me know what your attitiude to the proliferation of garden stuff is – I’d love to know! You can contact me on Twitter at @AndrewTimothyOB, or leave a comment below.
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Hello! I’m Andrew, gardener, writer, photographer, and owner of a too-loud laugh, and I’m so pleased you’ve found your way to Gardens, weeds & words. You can read a more in-depth profile of me on the About page, or by clicking this image.