My favorite gardening tool

Gardeners often ask me what my favorite tool is. It’s not a rake, cultivator hoe or pair of good gloves (though if you gave me a pair I wouldn’t argue).

My favorite tool is the No. 2 pencil. Not those mechanical jobbies; just a wooden one.

garden, gardening, seed, seeds, seed starting, tools

A simple wooden pencil can solve many of life’s challenges, like picking up a single spinach seed. [Marion Owen photo]

See for yourself. Pick up a pencil and roll it in your fingers. Think potential here. Like paper clips, Q-Tips, and toothpicks, pencils have more than one life. And for gardeners, it’s a dream-tool come true.

While pencils can’t pull dandelions or help you lose weight, there are many things they can do to make life easier. Let me explain the many ways I’ve fallen in love with the humble pencil, starting with handling seeds.

Starting seeds indoors is a ritual that I look forward to as the official kick-off of the growing season. After filling containers with potting soil, I can hardly wait to break Old Man Winter’s grip with the sowing of the first seed. But most seeds are tiny buggers and making a pinch of seeds go where you want them to go is like trying to mobilize a litter of kittens.

Oh sure, seed packets provide some instructions, like, “Sow seeds sparingly over the soil,” or, “As seed is very fine, they should be barely covered with soil.” Easier read than done.

Have you ever tried to pick up only 3 — count them – lobelia seeds? They’re so tiny, an ounce of them contains 400,000 seeds. How about the Cycnoches chlorochilon orchid? Each pod produces an amazing 3,700,000 dust-like seeds. Spinach seeds are monsters by comparison.

Maybe you’ve had similar encounters with handling small seeds. Here’s how a pencil can solve your seed-sowing problems:

With your containers filled with moistened potting soil, take a packet of seeds and empty it into a dish or the palm of your hand. Pick up a pencil in your other hand. If the tip is sharp, round it off a little. Touch the soil with the pencil to moisten the tip. Now, bring it over to the seeds in your hand and connect the tip to one or more seeds, depending on what you’re aiming for. Try it a few times to get the hang of it. You’ll be amazed how easy it is to pick up just the right number of seeds.

Now, roll the pencil tip on top of the soil to wipe off the seeds. Cover them with soil if necessary and mist them with water. This little trick makes short order of sowing seeds. In fact, it works so well, you’ll find yourself carrying pencils and seeds to parties so you can show all your friends.

The next step: transplanting seedlings

After seedlings have formed their second set of leaves, it’s time to transplant them into larger containers. Here’s where a pencil works better than a dinner fork or chopstick. It’s a trick I learned years ago while visiting a local garden nursery. I watched in amazement as the owner deftly separated out perfect clumps of pansies using a pencil. In fact, at transplanting time, all of her employees use pencils. “We’ve tried everything,” she said, “and pencils work the best.”

Pencils by the way, don’t really contain lead. That dark gray stuff is graphite and clay, which means you can use it for a swizzle stick to stir your favorite beverage. I think it adds a nice, nutty flavor.

I’ll leave you with a few more pencil tips. I didn’t make these up; I found them online:

  • A good-size tree will make about 300,000 pencils.
  • You can also impress them with this clever factoid: More than 14 billion pencils are produced every year–enough to circle the globe 62 times.
  • Pencils didn’t have erasers on them until 100 years ago because teachers felt they would encourage children to make mistakes.
  • The average pencil can be sharpened 17 times, write 45,000 words or draw a line 35 miles long. No doubt, that’s why novelists Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck used pencils to write their books.

Can using pencils help us in other ways? Hmm, I like to think so.

“Everything that slows us down,” wrote May Sarton, “and forces patience, everything that sets us back into the slow cycles of nature, is a help. Gardening is an instrument of grace.”

There are times though, when we need to pause in our stormy efforts to do, do, do. To step back and admire the beauty around us. So put your feet up. Take a break. Consider picking up a sketchbook and a pencil.

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4 Responses to My favorite gardening tool

  1. Kate says:

    Sitting on the beach at Abercrombie, reading this in the thin but still warming sunlight… Wishing I had a pencil !!!

  2. Bob Martin says:

    Thanks, Marion! Your article holds the promise of spring and green and new life. After 18″ of new snow this weekend, it is a life-saver.
    Bob

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