When you're short on time or money-and who isn't these days?-reliable tools help you use both more efficiently. During the 2008 growing season, we tried out several dozen gardening aids in our test gardens, at the Rodale family farm, and in our own yards. We used the products just as you would in your garden, and put them through a "stress test" designed to simulate the most challenging conditions and treatment in which you would use them. The following eight are the products that worked best and enticed testers back for repeated use. They are our 2009 Editors' Choice winners.
Like most experienced gardeners, we have long recommended Felco brand pruners for their durability and smart design. But to be sure we are not locked into prejudice against other models, we compared them with five other brands. We used them to remove suckers from tomato plants, cut flowers for bouquets, snip twine for trellises, and a variety of other purposes that would make the manufacturers cringe.
The result? The Felco #8 model is still our favorite. The ergonomic design makes every job quick and easy on the hands. It has a wire-cutting notch that is a real blade saver. Easy-to-find-in-the-litter red handles, holster-perfect size, and wide blade opening all add to the appeal to veteran gardeners. $53; felcostore.com
Corona's new Ergo-Action Forged Bypass Pruner is, however, a contender. It borrows Felco's handle shape, and the closing clip is an easier version of Felco's. It has heft and a durable feel, but, unfortunately for those of us who like to keep our tools forever, no replaceable parts. $20; coronaclipper.com
Green Lawn Mower
Electric grass cutters spare you the hassle of refueling messy tanks of gasoline and motor oil, and they don't produce the emissions that make gas-powered mowers an environmental negative. Plus, electrics are easier to start (just flip a switch) and no louder than a vacuum cleaner. A rechargeable battery frees the mower from the leash of a power cord, which can make using an electric grass cutter unwieldy in many yards.
Of the three battery-operated mowers we tested, the Neuton CE 6.2 battery-powered mower cut more consistently than the others. It chopped down thick, at times damp, grass with steady power. With its mulching plug (included) in place, the mower left fine clippings on the lawn that decomposed in a few days. Its 19-inch cutting width is just slightly narrower than the typical gas-powered mower. The Neuton's 36-volt battery takes eight hours to charge and provides power for about an hour.
A few minor but valuable features also distinguish the Neuton from the competition. An easy-to-read gauge lets you know when the battery's charge is waning. You can remove the battery from the mower when you need to recharge it--a handy option for those who don't have a power source where they store their mower. It was the only model we tested that let you keep a spare battery (sold separately), which can double the length of time you have to cut the lawn. And you can raise the cutting height to a healthy 3 inches tall with the shift of a single lever. For that reason alone, we recommend this mower to any organic gardener caring for a lawn that's one-third of an acre or less. $449; neutonpower.com
The electric mower cut down thick, damp grass with steady power for nearly an hour on one charge.
Fuel-Free Trimmer and Edger
Rechargeable electric string trimmers are easier to start, quieter, and cleaner to operate (no fumes or mixing fuel) than the gas-powered types. In exchange for those advantages, you give up power. None of the three electric trimmers we tested were powerful enough to cut down dense stands of cover crops.
For regular lawn maintenance, however, we found the Ryobi One+ Trimmer/Edger durable and comfortable to use. The telescoping shaft allows each user to set the length to what works best for his or her height. Its pivoting head and a handy guide bar make this trimmer easy to use for edging beds and walkways. The battery charges up fully in an hour and holds its power for 30 to 45 minutes, depending on how thick and wet the grass is. (You can also buy a second battery to have ready.) On most trimmers, the cutting line is replenished using a bump-and-feed mechanism that is often so frustrating some users refer to it as the "slam-and-jam" approach. Ryobi has solved that problem by equipping the One+ with an automatically advancing line that worked reliably for us all season long. You get only one string, not the two you find on gas-powered machines, but it stays at the optimal length at all times. Trimmer plus battery: $75; ryobitools.com
String trimmers, a.k.a. weed whackers, are handy for cutting grass on slopes and other places that are hard to reach with a mower, as well as around the edges of garden beds and other objects in your landscape. We also put string trimmers to the test taking down thick stands of soil-nourishing cover crops in our test garden plots.
The Echo SRM-265T started with just a pull or two on the starter cord every time we used it, which was not the case with the other two gas-powered models we tried. The Echo is hefty at 13.4 pounds, but well balanced, so it was comfortable to use for long periods of time--for both right- and left-handed testers. It has professional-level power, essential for slashing down brush and cover crops. Our one complaint: The grass shield is too small, allowing a heavy spray of clippings to coat our legs. About $320 from retailers; echo-usa.com
We trimmed a thick stand of sudangrass, a coarse, grassy cover crop that renews weedy beds and adds a big dose of organic matter to the soil. We had been using hand shears, so the trimmers made the job quicker and easier on our backs.
You can make a frame for your raised beds with lumber and basic hardware you can buy at any home center. But for those situations where it's easier to have everything you need in one box (such as with a school garden), we tested five different raised-bed kits. We assembled our Naturalyards Raised Garden Bed in minutes with no tools by stacking the rot-resistant cedar boards--bed depths can range from 5 1/2 inches (one board) to 33 inches (6 boards)--and simply joining the corners with the supplied metal pins. A nifty option: You can slip flexible hoops (not included) onto the corner pins and top them with row cover or plastic. This allows you to get a head start on growing super-early tomatoes or perfect spring greens. There are many size choices; we found the 4-foot-by-8-foot-by-11-inch model just right. $265; naturalyards.com
Another option that we found almost as appealing is Durable Plastic Design's Raised Bed Garden Kit, made from recycled milk jugs. It is as attractive as plastic can be and was easily assembled by our team of 13-year-olds. Price for a 4-foot-by-8-foot-by-11-inch bed is $212. We added a top sitting rail for an additional $108. orcaboard.com
Peacock Plant Supports were obviously designed by a gardener-one who knows that we always forget, in June, that zinnias flop and dahlias slump, even though they do it without fail every August. Adaptable to any pose your posies may strike, the last-forever rings, partial rings, and scallops offer myriad support options for your flowers (and here's the good part) even after they've flopped and slumped. Plus they're practically invisible. Start with a half-dozen 50-inch stakes and 21-inch half-circles, $93 from gardentalk.com.
We also liked a simpler staking option we tried: 3-foot Y-stake Supports with bendable arms, $34 for five at gardentalk.com.
We placed half-ring supports in rows of zinnias and giant tithonias and slid the half-rings gradually up the stakes as the plants grew taller. In October, we were still snipping flowers, and the plants were not sprawling all over as in past years.
Organic Weed Spray
In an organic garden, a thick layer of mulch and a sturdy hoe are the best tools for controlling weeds. But around patios and pathways, and other tight spots where weeds sprout up, you can treat invaders with a spray-on weed killer that will not harm other living things. No, not Roundup, which can kill aquatic life downstream. We tested four nontoxic formulas, and each worked fairly well on weeds such as dandelions and crabgrass. All worked best on bright sunny days.
The active ingredients in Perfectly Natural Weed 'n Grass Killer are clove and citrus oils, both proved very effective in independent testing. An hour after spraying, we found the weeds' top growth had withered. Within 24 hours, they were dead; in most cases, they didn't return. Tougher weeds required repeat applications. You won't dread that, because unlike chemical herbicides, this spray has a very appealing scent. $8 from doitbest.com. Info at perfectlynatural.com.
The flagstone patio had a pleasant spicy scent after we sprayed the weed killer. And it's even safe for your puppy to play on.
Containers that Conserve
Self-watering pots are valuable to new gardeners or those who have no one to care for their container gardens when they travel. We favored the EarthBox over the five others we tested because:
The EarthBox Organic Ready to Grow Kit comes complete with soil, fertilizer, trace elements, and casters (so you can wheel your plants around to catch the rays), making failure difficult if not impossible. $53; earthbox.com