Family often provides the inspiration to garden, whether it's the simple act of growing a child's favorite vegetable or cutting a bouquet of flowers for a loved one. Many times, parents or grandparents introduce us to the pleasures of planting and caring for plants.
I barely knew my paternal grandparents. My grandmother died when I was 5 and my grandfather passed away before I was born. But I think of them often when working in the garden. I'm using their old tools.
The shovels, hoes, cultivators and the like from the 1930s are showing their age. The ones that break are either hung on the outside of the tool shed or used as decoration in the garden, in memory of my grandparents. The others' cracked handles, rusted metal and bent parts have made me contemplate replacing them. It's a sad task.
To keep the tools in good shape I do a couple different things.
The old wooden ash handles are coated in boiled lindseed oil. This keeps the wood from drying out. Sometimes they need a couple applications over a week long period.
The metal parts are coated with a thin layer of motor oil to resist rust.
It's very important to keep them sharp too. Not just the cutting tools either; shovels, hoes and any tool with an edge needs to be sharpened. I use a tool called AccuSharp. It's inexpensive, works well and lasts forever. Sharp tools make life easier for the gardener and prologs the life of the tool too. I actually use one in the kitchen too for knives.
One old trick is to fill a 5-gallon bucket with play sand and add a quart of motor oil. At the end of the day, plunge the metal parts into the bucket in the tool shed. The sand takes off some dirt and the oil stops the steel from rusting.
There's a point where these old tools simply wear out, regardless of how well you treat them. When they do, I display what's left as art in the vegetable garden.
One of my favorite tools was a Solid Shank True Temper Lightweight Bantam. It's a masterpiece, with a business end of heat-treated steel that's smaller than most shovels, only 9 inches long and 7 inches wide. It's perfect for turning over soft, fertile vegetable beds or getting into tight places.
One day, while I was creating a new bed, the blade hit a huge maple root and the rotting handle instantly snapped. I solemnly found a place in the vegetable garden with the other broken tools. All summer, that shovel sat in the garden looking ridiculous, just the neck sticking out of the soil. Then I started thinking: As long as the metal part was solid, why not just replace the handle? I looked online for information. But instructions about filing off the rivets don't help much when the rivets are pounded flat.
So I called on my neighbor, Rob Joswiak, who was born with a level in one hand and a drill in the other.
"Why don't you just buy a new shovel?" he asked. "I've been down this road before. It's going to cost you just as much to buy the handle." When I explained my sentimental reasons, he offered to help.
The first task was eerily reminiscent of my childhood. I tried my best to pin the shovel head to the seat of a picnic bench as he drilled and hammered at the stubborn 70-year-old rivets. I hung on as the vibrations shook my hands. I never let go when I helped my father and I wasn't letting go now.
After removing the rivets, he tried drilling and prying out the wood without much success. He decided to burn it out. Into his soapstone wood burner the shovel went. Twenty minutes later, he pulled it out of the fire and tapped the neck on the bricks. A shower of hot coals tumbled out.
My grandfather's shovel was ready for a new handle. I took it with me to the store to find one that fit. Once home, I pounded it into the head, drilled a couple of holes and hammered in the new rivets. For less than $9, I had resurrected my grandfather's shovel.
For my grandparents, these old tools were probably just utilitarian instruments for planting. I can just imagine them digging, raking and prying out roots, struggling with the things all gardeners do. It feels good to know the memories and the tools live again.