Silent saws, pruners help gardners listen to sounds around them

Wednesday, October 29, 2003

Gardening has surely changed over the years. As a young boy, I remember Grandpa going to work in his garden. Tillers were available, but he wouldn't have thought about using one. When he wanted to turn his garden, he used the spade. It was a slow, methodical process. But the slow motion of putting his foot on the spade, transferring his weight to it and watching it sink into the earth must have done something for his soul.

Most people used that tiller to control the weeds between rows. Not Grandpa. He would pull out his trusty hoe, sharpen it with a file, and then row by row slowly, with the rhythm of a hymn, remove weeds with the skill of a surgeon while not even nicking one of his green bean plants.

When it was time to prune the shrubs in the front of his house, he used a pair of shears that were dripping with oil when he first started. He would often use a stone to "put a better edge on them" just before the first snip-snip. He was never in a hurry. The rhythm never varied, although there were long pauses when Grandpa would stand back and survey the results of his work, and maybe decide where and what he would do next.

As I watched Grandpa work, I was usually entertained by a cardinal in a tree next to the garden. I sometimes think "Cardinal" was giving Grandpa directions. Grandpa would occasionally look up, grin and shake his head.

If the cardinal had to leave to attend to other business, there was no lack of substitute directors. All Grandpa had to do was listen to the locusts, crickets and bees. Of course, Grandpa always had his ear tuned to Grandma when she brought out lemonade for her "two hard-working men."

Grandpa did use a power mower most of the time when he had to "mow the hay." But I think that the power mower was only used because Grandma thought it was easier to use on the steep hill he had in the front of his yard. Otherwise I think he would have used the old push-type reel mower.

We modern gardeners are missing the boat. Most of us ride on a macho power mower and listen to the roar of 12 horsepower engine. We use a blower to scare the leaves into piles while we wear earmuffs to protect our eardrums.

When it comes time to prune, we think the chain saw that converts to a shrub pruner makes the job quick and easy. Just rev up the engine, watch the oil-filled exhaust waft over to the patio, and "let 'er rip." In just a few minutes all of the shrubs look like neat little cubes and balls. Pull out that leaf blower again, convert it into a vacuum and clean up the mess.

In the process of getting all of this work done so we can play golf, go to the soccer park or watch a ballgame, we miss probably the best part of gardening -- time to think, to listen to the heartbeat of nature, to commune with our own soul.

Since a lot of gardeners like to prune in the fall, I suggest that you invest in a few hand-powered tools, not powered hand tools. For pruning I like a good pair of hand-held bypass pruners. Get a pair that has replaceable parts, can be sharpened, can be taken apart to clean, and be adjusted. I like bypass pruners because it is really easy to keep them in adjustment.

If you are pruning branches larger than 3/4 inches in diameter, find a good pair of bypass loppers. Again make sure that the loppers can be taken apart and sharpened.

If you are pruning branches larger than 2 inches in diameter, you can use some of the newer pruning saws on the market. Unlike a carpenter's hand saw, these saws remove wood while pulling the saw toward you, instead of when pushing the saw away from you. These saws come in folding and straight models. Believe it or not, these saws are just about as fast as a chain saw, much lighter, and you don't have to wear ear protectors.

If you are shearing boxwoods or yews, try a pair of hedge trimmers with wavy edges. Get a good heavy pair that can be easily taken apart, cleaned, adjusted and sharpened. I think you will find that you may not get quite as much work done per unit of time, but the noise level will be a lot lower, and the shrub you are working on will not look like it has been skinned.

When you are using these hand tools, get to know how they feel. Listen to the snip-snip. Get a rhythm going. The mantra will be just what you need to listen to your inner self. Oh, and occasionally listen to all the sounds of nature that surround you -- the sounds that you never hear when an engine is running.

Send your gardening and landscape questions to Paul Schnare at P.O. Box 699, Cape Girardeau, Mo. 63702-0699, or by e-mail to

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