Cedar stakes for gardening

Growing tomatoes in a garden with limited space is a challenge, since the plants get tall, unwieldy and flop all over once the tomatoes start weighing them down. Keeping the plants off the ground is important, too, so your tomatoes aren’t in the dirt where they rot more easily or get eaten by slugs or snails. I used to buy tomato cages — open-ended, circular wire cages—to secure the plants — but they were never strong enough once the tomato plants got taller than 4 feet. The cages would slowly collapse, taking the plants with them, which was worse than if I hadn’t used anything.

Last summer I happened upon a simple, yet effective device to keep the tomato jungle under control: the cedar stake. Cedar stakes come in various lengths and can be found at any home-improvement or garden store. They are inexpensive, especially compared to tomato cages. I bought 6-foot stakes, one for each plant, and some stretchy vinyl tie that expands with the growth of plants. I jammed the stakes deep into my raised beds and loosely tied the tomato plants to them. As the plants grew, I would tie up the new growth. The stakes never once threatened to fall over, and even the bushiest, tallest tomato plants stayed in their allotted space.

This year I’ll be reusing the cedar stakes. They are naturally insect- and rot-resistant, so even though I left them in the ground much longer in the fall than I should have, they are as good as new.

-- Abbie Stillie  

Cedar Garden Stakes
12 4-foot stakes, $25

Available from Amazon

Fanno Pole Saw

I have had this saw for at least six years and use it quite often clearing and maintaining trails for cross-country skiing and walking. The handle is plywood, nicely edge-rounded and fits my hands well. The hook on the top end of the blade near the handle is great for dragging cut vines and brambles out without losing blood.

-- David Wing  

Fanno Pole Saw RF-05

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by Fanno Saw Works

Ultimate Tutorials: How to Grow Magic Mushrooms

(Cool Tools is interested in learning about great online tutorials. If you know of one, please tell us about it!)

Magic mushrooms, which contain a psychedelic compound called psilocybin, have probably been ingested by people for thousands of years for a variety of reasons, including spiritual rituals and recreation. This 2009 article written by “Ganjaglutin” presents a step-by-step guide “for people who have never grown magic mushrooms before because it is a very reliable way to grow magic mushrooms.”

(Before you decide to grow magic mushrooms, check the legal status of Psilocybe cubensis in your locality. Wikipedia has an list of magic mushroom laws for different countries, but I can’t vouch for its accuracy.)

-- Mark Frauenfelder  

Sample Excerpts:

A quick description of the procedure

A substrate consisting of brown rice flour, vermiculite, and water that will feed and supply water to our magic mushrooms is sealed in ½ pint jars and sterilized in a pressure cooker, or boiling water. This is to kill anything that might endanger the mushrooms.

After the mushroom substrate has been sterilized and has cooled, mushroom spores are added to the substrate using a syringe full of spore solution. The spores germinate and colonize the entire jar full of substrate.

They are germinated at about 75-85 degrees F, in a dark place. The resulting ‘cakes’ are removed from the jars when fully colonized, and placed in a terrarium with temperatures between 75 and 80 degrees until mushrooms begin to grow from the cakes.

Seed to Seed

You don’t have to buy seed. You can take seed from your own plants and sow them later. By going “seed to seed” you can selectively breed new varieties of favorite plants, or custom tailor plants to your local micro-climate. At the very least I’ve found it incredibly satisfying to use my own seed, even for a few plants. You realize, oh, these are self-replicating goods! And you can share rare or exotic heritage varieties not for sale kept by other seed savers. Since garden plants are optimized to produce edibles or flowers, rather than seed, getting good seed can be tricky. This book is the bible for a network of folks around the world — the Seed Savers Exchange — providing tips and methods on how to raise, save, and germinate seed, plant by plant. — KK


The basic general rule is that seed should be saved from 20 inbreeding plants or 100 outbreeding plants.

Always attempt to grow as many plants as possible in the space available in your garden, and that will usually yield an adequate range of genetic diversity for your particular gardening situation. This technique has worked well for gardeners throughout the last 12,000 years, creating the amazingly diverse richness of the world’s food crops.


Small-scale seed savers should also rogue their plants, being sure to plant large enough populations so that roguing is meaningful and doesn’t lead to inbreeding. Garden plants undergo almost daily inspection during watering, weeding and picking. Off-type plants are easy to spot within a population, and their removal helps eliminate the effects of any slight crossing that may have occurred during a previous generation or any accidental mixing of home-saved seeds.

For many gardeners, who often are concerned with food production and seed saving simultaneously, roguing is a hard thing to do. Letting an off-type plant remain in the garden is fine, if the plant is harvested for food before it flowers.


Vegetable seeds are at their peak when they reach maximum dry weight on the mother plant. Vigor is the seed’s ability to germinate rapidly with good disease resistance. Home-saved seeds will retain maximum vigor when thoroughly dried and stored in a moisture-proof container. The most vigorous seeds at harvest time will keep the longest in storage. The two greatest enemies of stored seeds are high temperature and high moisture. Seeds that are stored at fluctuating temperature and moisture levels will quickly lose their ability to germinate. As a rule of thumb, the sum of the temperature (degrees F.) and relative humidity should not exceed 100. In actuality, humidity is probably more important than temperature, because it allows for the growth of microorganisms that degrade seed quality.



Pollen-covered anthers of the petal-less male flower are used as a brush to transfer pollen onto the stigma of the female flower. 

-- KK  

Seed to Seed
Suzanne Ashworth
2002, 228 pages

Available from Amazon

All New Square Foot Gardening

Outlined in this classic book is the best foolproof way to begin vegetable gardening. It’s a simple system that works on the small scale of an introductory backyard garden for someone who has never gardened before. In brief, you do this:

* Make raised beds with a square frame of boards. Staple chicken wire on the bottom.
* Size it so you can reach every part of the inside without ever stepping in it.
* Fill it with potting soil, or as much compost mix as you have.
* Place it near your kitchen or somewhere that is easy to see and use.
* Plant your seeds/seedlings very close together but only a few of each type.
* On the north side you can erect a vertical net to gain extra “space.”

This works. Essentially, these beds are flat growing containers that use whatever soil under them for bonus nutrients, and the crowded foliage keeps out weeds. There are disadvantages to this system of course, but this is a good way to start. Our garden today is a larger version of this. Our frames are 6 feet square and 12 inches high, and we have lots of them.

The information above is really all you need to do this but if you’d like more details about this approach read All New Square Foot Gardening, a book that’s been around for 30 years and is still helpful. The author is a relentless self-promoter (his picture is on every other page), and “his method” is actually an ancient one with many other modern interpretations (such as biointensive gardening). But Mel Bartholomew makes the process and logic of this food garden coloring-book simple. With grammar-school repetition he’ll get you going, and soon it will all seem obvious and trivial.

— KK

Sample excerpts:

Your garden doesn’t have to be all in one place. You no longer have to rototill or water one big garden area all at once. You can split up your SFG so that a box or two are located next to the kitchen door, while more boxes can be located elsewhere in the years. Small, individual garden boxes allow you much more flexibility in determining location. Now your garden can be located near where you walk and sit, or where you can view it from the house. It can even be located in a patio or pool setting, where you relax. Your SFG becomes a companion rather than a burden.





P.S. Older 1st edition with reviews


All New Square Foot Gardening
Mel Bartholomew
2013, 272 pages

Available from Amazon

Murray McMurray Hatchery

In addition to getting married this past September, my wife and I passed another milestone when we ordered twenty-six chicks from Murray McMurray Hatchery. Earlier in the summer we had moved to a small organic farm outside Baltimore City. With the farm, we inherited nine Rhode Island Reds used for small scale egg production (and slightly larger scale fertilizer production). It wasn’t long, however, before we were running out of eggs as they were a favorite among the CSA share holders. It only made sense to expand our brood.

Years ago, I had read the review for Murray McMurray here at Cool Tools and chuckled at the thought of ordering chicks in the mail. My wife will be the first to admit how surreal it is to hear the post-mistress coming in from the back room with a cacophonous box full of chicks. But our experience actually began much earlier with the decision about which chicks to order from the expansive catalog. After a fiercely contested debate about whether to go for fancier chicks, or to stick with the tried-and-true breeds we placed an order for their brown egg layer special (which includes 26-chicks of at least five different species). Now in their sixth month, we’re finally confident in declaring what breeds we ended up with: Barred Rocks, Rhode Island Reds, Araucanas (also known as Easter Eggers), Australorps, Buff Orpingtons, and a fancy Sicilian Buttercup rooster.

In addition to Murray McMurray we relied heavily on advice taken from the also previously reviewed Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens, wherein we learned to expect a certain mortality rate with any new hatch of chicks. However, to this day we have not lost one. This is more likely a testament to the quality of Murray McMurray’s chicks than our caretaking abilities.

Murray McMurray ships their chicks in a perforated cardboard container (which emits an incredible amount of noise). Due to the nutrient rich egg newly hatched chicks can survive up to three days without food or water (which allows them to be shipped via USPS, just beware of federal holidays when chicks might get caught in a dusty back room). Upon arrival, it’s critical to dip their beaks in a water or electrolyte solution to reduce stress, and have their home pre-heated. After that, you just have to try and keep up with their astonishing rate of growth. In the past, the smallest order from Murray McMurray was 25 chicks, however, as of April of this year it looks like you can order in batches of 15 (which makes it easier for households looking for a smaller brood). And for those looking for breeds other than chickens, Murray McMurray also carries rare breeds of pheasants, quail, turkey, ducks and geese. For a real treat, order a copy of their catalog if only to look at their wonderful illustrations.

Raising chickens presents a certain number of unknowns, but by ordering from Murray McMurray you can eliminate many of them by ensuring the quality and heritage of your flock.

-- Oliver Hulland  

[Note: Lloyd Kahn first reviewed Murray McMurray Hatchery back in 2009. --OH]

Murray McMurray Hatchery
Price varies per breed

Available from Murray McMurray

Bug Blaster

The Bug Blaster is a great insect control tool for the garden. It is completely organic–it only uses the force of water. I have used the tool for three years and love it. You just attach it to your hose and turn it on. The water is forced out a tiny hole and guided in such a way that it comes out in a fine spray that is a flat circle. Stick the nozzle in your plants and it knocks all the insects and eggs off, those below the leaves and those above.

Every gardener knows you can remove aphids by hosing the plant, but it is difficult to get the ones under the leaves. On delicate new growth, the hosing can injure the plants. But the Bug Blaster has such a fine, controllable spray that it cleans the plants of all the pests and doesn’t harm the plants. The good insects are usually hard shelled and aren’t injured. Since I bought this tool I haven’t used any other pest control method.

-- Terry Powell  

Bug Blaster
Available from Lee Valley

Sample Excerpts:

Seedling Heat Mat

I’ve owned one of these for a couple of years now. I keep meaning to use it for plants, but It keeps getting hijacked for other uses. Last spring, I put it under my chick brooder to keep my baby chicks warm. Right now, it’s warming the mealworms that I feed to those same very spoiled chickens. I expect it would be a total cat magnet if I threw a towel over it and left it out for them to lie on. And it’s great for encouraging the seedlings of heat-loving plants to sprout more quickly.

Basically, this is a rectangular black plastic flexible mat that plugs into a standard electrical outlet. It feels like a pleasant sun-warmed surface if you put your hand on it, maybe 80 or 90 degrees Fahrenheit. If you put it on an insulated surface it’s warmer than on an uninsulated one. Because they’re designed for greenhouse use, they’re waterproof, though I’d still use care, especially with the electrical cord.

If I were putting it under animals (especially baby animals) I’d keep the cord and the mat where it couldn’t be chewed on. I’d also monitor the animals for over-heating and make sure there was a part of their cage that wasn’t on the heat mat so that they could self-regulate their temperature.

If you need a precise temperature, you can buy a thermostat control. I haven’t used the thermostat, so I can’t report on its reliability. These heat mats come on a variety of sizes, from 9″ x 9″ inches up to 20″ x 48″ inches, with the price increasing according to size.

-- Amy Thomson  

Seedling Heat Mat
9″ x 9″, 20″ x 20″, 20″ x 48″

Available from Amazon

Heat Mat Thermostat
Available from Amazon

Manufactured by Hydrofarm

Black and Decker Alligator Lopper

First off, know that I’m scared to death of chain saws, so much so that I’d never used one until I ordered this puppy.

Why was I so leery? Because they strike me as portable mayhem machines, based on injuries I read about as well as those I’ve seen in the hospital and OR over the years.

But I finally decided to take a flyer on this one because clearing tons of brush and stuff out back has taken a toll on my delicate C3-4 and C4-5 interspaces, to the point where I have occasional numbness in both hands after long sessions using my trusty Fiskars lopper to take down the substantial unwanted growth — often 2-3 inches in diameter — out back.

All the stuff I read about this device extolled its safety features and it looked worth a shot, especially after I dropped nearly $200 for a highly praised manual ratcheting lopper that proved useless since I am evidently too stupid to figure out how to use it properly.

Anyway, this machine arrived and it is thrilling, to say the least, to see how easily I can take down substantial wood that would’ve required tons of effort manually.

The only negative about the lopper is its short battery life: It works about 20 minutes before the saw goes dormant, and the battery takes about 9 hours to recharge.

The good ole’ boy who tried it out a couple days ago while fixing up some stuff around the house thought the saw was exceptionally well designed and very safe, but noted that the first thing he’d do is buy a spare battery — or even two — so he could work as long as there was work needing to be done.

I wished I’d listened then ’cause after today’s abbreviated session I was vexed about having to quit till tomorrow for the requisite 9-hour recharge.

I just ordered two more batteries for so the next time can be an all-day chopfest. Highly recommended.

-- Joe Stirt  

[Note: We first reviewed the corded version of these Alligator Loppers back in 2007. It also appears that the battery operated model is frequently out of stock.--OH]

Black and Decker Battery Powered Alligator Lopper
Available from Amazon

Black and Decker Alligator Lopper (Corded Model)
Available from Amazon

Manufactured by Black and Decker

Leaf Scoops

We live in a city but are lucky to have a nicely wooded neighborhood. The trees provide plenty of shade and are a good resource for wildlife. However, every autumn we face a “leaf apocalypse.” We have found these leaf-scoops to be a really helpful tool for cleaning up a pile of leaves and getting them into bags. They are the best kind of cool tool as they are simple and effective, not to mention low cost.

-- Pat Terhune  

Gardex Leaf Scoops

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by Gardex