What is the most important tool in the gardener’s arsenal? 

Most people would say a spade  or shovel, and it is a must all right. Others might say pruners or loppers, or a hoe, or a mower, or … and on ad infinitum. 

Depending on the person’s garden or the gardener’s bent, any of those could be a necessity. However, I say the most necessary tool to save work and make your effort most efficient is a file. You heard it right, a plain old file. And, its more sophisticated kin, a grindstone, alongside, would complete the picture. 

Most flat files are described as “mill bastard.” If you don’t believe me, just look right at the top of the serration, and it will say those exact words. It has something to do with the manufacturing data and has nothing to do with an illegitimate child.

If there is one thing that turns gardening pleasure into a bad experience it is a dull tool. A seven-inch flat file will do wonders when pruners, hoes, spades or other cutting paraphernalia are needed. Nothing in gardening is worse than dealing with a dull tool. 

No less authority than the 19th century gardening icon Gertrude Jekyll said the same thing in a bit more poetic terms 100 years ago when she noted “I simply cannot abide a dull tool.” Or words to that effect. Neither can I. 

I have an electric powered grindstone to take care of the larger jobs, such as that spade. It is uncanny how much easier digging in our dense clay can be with a sharp spade. It takes about a minute to sharpen up a dull one with the grinder. The file will work on them, too, but is more time consuming. 

For pruners, the file is a miracle. Unless a pair of pruners is hopelessly nicked up and the cutting blade has almost no edge a three-stroke attack will get it going in a few seconds. 

Pruners that have scissor-like actions, with the cutting blade bypassing the opposite blade, which needs no sharpening, are the most efficient. I have two pairs of such pruners that have done yeoman duty for some 40 years or more. The curve of the cutting blade utilizes a slicing action to ease through green wood up to maybe a quarter-inch thick, but is best on smaller stuff. 

My pruners are of the famed Felco brand, made in Sweden of Swedish steel. 

The cutting blades are easily replaceable, and they need replacing perhaps once a year under heavy duty. Fortunately for me, Santa provides me two new blades every Christmas. 

My original Felcos were priced at about $30 when I got them years ago, but inflation has just about doubled that. Actually, there are copies of Felcos around that are passable, and at much less cost, about the $15 range or so. 

A relatively low-cost grindstone can be had for $40 or so, and it is worth its weight in abrasive. The grinding wheels wear out sooner or later, but are not costly to replace. 

Just about anything with a cutting edge that demands sharpening is a good candidate for file or grinder. One thing that is sometimes overlooked is the sharp edge of bulb planters. 

For a number of bulbs the foot-operated ones are most efficient. The hand-held ones can bring on carpal tunnel before your very eyes. (By the way, carpal tunnel is not where carp hide.) By honing the edge of the planter, the push into the ground is amazingly easy if the soil is damp. 


From Poor Willie’s Almanack — “Santa Claus is coming to town.”


JIMMY WILLIAMS is the garden writer for The Post-Intelligencer, where he can be contacted on Monday mornings at 642-1162.

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