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
$70
Available from Amazon

Black and Decker Alligator Lopper (Corded Model)
$80
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
$8

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by Gardex



Nature’s Garden and The Forager’s Harvest

Samuel Thayer’s field guides are bar none the best available resource for those interested in learning more about the foraging, preparation and consumption of wild plants. Unlike other guides, Thayer’s books, The Forager’s Harvest and Nature’s Garden, describe fewer plant species in greater depth–the kind of depth that is capable of inspiring just enough confidence when out foraging for a particular plant for the first time. Each species receives several pages of detailed descriptions and color photographs, with a specific focus on identifying characteristics, habitat, harvest, and preparation.

Prior to reading Thayer’s books my experience foraging was mycological in origin. For the past few years my nose has been stuck in various mushroom field guides that ran the gamut from awful to excellent. With that being the case, it’s immediately obvious just how valuable Thayer’s guides are. They are written by someone who has become an expert on every single plant featured, and by an author who knows how to convey critical details in text. It also doesn’t hurt that Thayer knows how to write something that is eminently readable.

The only downside to these two books isn’t really a downside. Thayer is a Wisconsin native and as such his expertise extends to plants native to the midwest. Luckily, most of these plants have a wide range. Living in Maryland, I’ve found many of the plants he mentions in both texts except for the truly regional plants like Wapato and Wild Rice. Those living west of the Rockies may have to look for more regional resources.

-- Oliver Hulland  

The Forager’s Harvest
Samuel Thayer
360 p, 2006
$15

Available from Amazon

Nature’s Garden
Samuel Thayer
512 pages, 2010
$16

Available from Amazon

More information available from Samuel Thayer's website.

Sample Excerpts:

From Forager’s Harvest:

The first time you talk to a certain landowner, ask permission to harvest a specific plant that can be seen from the road; make it something like elderberries or butternuts that the landowner is likely to have heard of before. Offer to share your harvest with him. (Don’t worry, he won’t want any.) If the landowner was kind and the property seemed like a promising one that you’d like to return to, bring a gift of some foraged product, such as a jar of jam or jelly, as a thank you at a later date. After feeling assured that foraging really is a hobby of yours and that you’re not up to anything else, the landowner will trust you more.

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If you substitute a single wild ingredient in a familiar recipe and the result is disappointing, you may consider the recipe a failure but don’t give up on the plant – it may be perfect for another dish. Be patient – it can take a while to figure out how to cook with an unfamiliar vegetable, especially those for which we don’t have culinary traditions to guide us.

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The Five Steps of Identifying Edible Plants
1. Tentative identification: You have located what you think is a certain plant.
2. Compare your plant to a reliable reference: Do this carefully, thoroughly, critically, and reasonably.
3. Double and triple check: Compare to several more reliable references
4. Find more specimens: Do this until you can effortlessly recognize the plant: it may take minutes, hours, days, or even years.
5. Assess contradictory confidence: Do you relay have it? Are you sure? Are you willing to bet your life? Would you proclaim it in front of a group of botanists?

Here’s another good rule to follow: if you need to use a book to identify a plant, you are not ready to eat it.

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The first time that you eat the plant, exercise some restraint. Cook it by itself and taste a small portion carefully. If it is bitter or otherwise distasteful, spit it out. This is an extremely important secondary line of defense. The tongue was designed to tell us which foods are safe and which aren’t, and it does a remarkably good job of this. Most toxic plants taste terrible.

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Most of our common spices and seasonings are toxic enough that consuming a few ounces would make a person very ill; in large enough doses they could be fatal. But who eats a few ounces of rosemary, mustard, or nutmeg? Who slurps down a glass of horseradish? What person, given alternatives, would choose to eat maize gruel as the main course of every meal for months on end? And who in the world gets locked in the chicken truck?

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Riverside grapes in late August, just getting ripe.

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Tartrate is present in all grapes but is highly concentrated in riverside grape and some of the other small-fruited species. Fortunately, it is easy to get rid of. Just let the juice sit in a container in the refrigerator or some other cool place for a day or two. The tartrate will settle to the bottom; you will recognize it because it forms an ugly grayish sludge. Pour off the good juice and then discard the tartrate sludge, which is usually about one-third of the volume of the grape juice. Never make anything from fresh-pressed small wild grapes without subjecting the juice to this purification process.

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From Nature’s Harvest:


Stinging nettle is a tall and elegant perennial herb that grows in dense colonies connected by a network of narrow rhizomes. The stalks rarely exceed .4 inch (1 cm) in diameter. They are hollow and squarish with four deep grooves running their length, and rarely branch except where the plants have been injured. The stalks are typically 5-8 feet (1.5-2.5 m) tall at maturity. The bark of the stem is composed of strong fibers, which can easily be noted when the plant is broken. The main stem, petioles, and leaf surface bear stinging hairs, although these are generally absent from lower parts of the main stem after the plants reach full size.




Florian Ratchet-Cut Pruning Tools

My wife and I have used Florian tools for 12-to-15 years including their hand pruners, brush loppers and pole-pruner. What makes Florian tools so excellent is the ratcheting mechanism. It lets you bite down with the jaws, then as you release the handle (or rope, in case of the pole-pruner) the jaws stay set. The ratchet then moves up a notch for a better mechanical advantage on the next stroke. Very powerful and very fast. And you don’t wear yourself out cutting super-size stuff.

Here’s what my wife has to say: “I can cut fat stuff that I can’t cut with any other loppers, and I don’t get tired doing it.” That’s it in a nutshell.

We first found them in a booth at the North Carolina State Fair, and now stop by every year to see if they have anything new.

-- Chuk Gleason  

Florian Ratchet Cut Pruners
$32

Available from Amazon

Florian Maxi-Lopper
$188
Manufactured by and available from Florian Tools

Sample Excerpts:


Florian Ratchet Cut Pruners




Fiskars 12′ Pruning Stik

We’ve got a line of trees standing over an old fence line covered in grape vines. For pretty much the last 10-years, I’ve been keeping the trees healthy and vine free with the help of my Fiskars Pruning Stik.

I’ve had some of the traditional long handled pruners, and they all broke or something, I don’t have them anymore – no reason to remember anything other than disappointment. When I found the Stik, I knew I had the right thing.

The telescoping version gets well into underbrush, up into trees, all over. The angle-adjustable head helps too. It’s easy to use, reliable and easy to maintain (a little WD40 on the cutter, occasionally). The only hair to split is that the locking lever on the head catches on stuff now and then and unlocks, but no big deal.

The “tape” line (not a rope) that transfers your effort to the head lays flat, and is very hard to tangle. The head separates from the pole (but stays attached by the line) when you ask it to bite more than it can chew and it locks up on something or gets tangles in brush. The “tape drive” and the telescoping stick work perfectly without any adjustment other than your extending the stick. All very slick.

Our trees have grown very nicely with the vines taken out of them, over and over. Maybe some day we’ll get more to the root of the vines, but so far this thing truly helps our trees.

-- Wayne Ruffner  

[Note: We first reviewed the Fiskars Pruning Stik back in 2010!--OH]

Fiskars Pruning Stik Telescoping Tree Pruner
12′
$73

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by Fiskars

Sample Excerpts:




DR Trimmer Mower

Twenty years ago when I moved from the city to the rural acreage I now inhabit, I started researching all kinds of tools. I came across a small ad for a strange-looking contraption called a DR Trimmer/Mower. Picture a rotary lawn mower with an oversize weed whacker instead of a blade, and you’ll have it. I ordered one and was VERY glad I did. Nothing else comes close in keeping vegetation under control, even in tight spots like under fences. If I could only have one yard-maintenance tool, this would be it, hands down. In a pinch, it can even serve as a conventional lawn mower.

My original DR served me faithfully, and in fact still works well though it’s showing its age. But recently the manufacturer made an offer I couldn’t refuse to us early adopters of the original, so I updated to this new model. It has a few nice refinements but isn’t fundamentally different from my 1992 model. Highly recommended for people with lots of weeds, grass, and even brambles to keep under control.

Tips: the optional bigger engine in the 8.75 model is nice but not essential. Electric start is an optional luxury; my engine starts easily with a pull cord. I don’t think the self-propelled option is worth the money and added weight and complexity (YMMV). Don’t be afraid to experiment with different cutting line sizes and types: the stock line lasts a long time but I don’t think cuts as well as Oregon’s Nylium Starline.

-- Rob Lewis  

DR Trimmer/Mower Pro 6.75
$800

Available from DR Power Equipment

Oregon’s Nylium Starline
$15

Available from Amazon
Manufactured by Oregon

Sample Excerpts:




Red Pig 2-Tine Hand Weeding Fork

Jekyll Weeder.jpg

The 2-Tine Hand Weeding Fork (also called the Jekyll Weeder after prominent gardener Gertrude Jekyll) is the best tool for hand weeding whether you are getting out dandelions, clover, grass or what have you out of your flower bed (I also use it to remove dandelions from the lawn). It is strong, won’t break the root before your ready, and is aesthetically pleasing (one of my friends considers it art in her home).

I’ve been using one for 4-5 years, and have bought many as gifts. I enjoy the fact that not only is it durable and well-made, but that it’s also handmade in Boring, Oregon. In fact, Red Pigs website points out that they are the only producer of hand forged garden tools in the country. Very cool!

-- Sharon I.  

Red Pig’s 2-Tined Hand Weeding Tool
$31

Available from and manufactured by Red Pig



Stihl FSE 60 Trimmer

FSE60.jpeg

I have used several borrowed models of both electric and gas powered trimmers. The electric plug-in Stihl FSE 60 is my favorite by far. It is quiet and strong. The only concern is that when used continuously for half an hour or more, it gets very hot. I find that it is better to use it in shorter intervals.

It works better than other models and is easier to clean. While I have to wear earplugs when using it, it is far from the teeth-shaking monstrosities that disturb the neighborhood. I couldn’t see going to a gas powered trimmer unless I were very far away from an electric outlet. It is a bit more expensive than big box electric trimmers, but way better. The only reason to buy something like a Black & Decker or McCullough electric model is if you were only going to do a few light jobs one season and never use the thing again.

I was surprised that this dealer distributed model was so much better than the big-box online-marketed alternatives. In value, it’s one of my best tool purchases ever.

— Bill Owens

I initially bought my Stihl FSE-60 reading a review at Consumer Search. The Stihl FSE-60 is not available at big boxes. They are only available at stores who function as local Stihl dealers. Presumably, this makes customer service a more personal experience and does a positive service to those smaller hardware stores trying to survive the big box onslaught. In any case, I bought mine a year ago in Kearny, NJ.

The balance is a bit weird. In your hands it has a bias to the rear, which is helpful, but necessary because it is powerful. VERY powerful. It uses a two-string configuration, and it’s a bump-feed. I found it to be efficient and effective. I may have only bumped it twice during a day’s use, whereas the Black and Decker it replaced was more bump than trim. It’s heavy, but not so heavy as to make it a terrible chore. It’s solid and quiet for a trimmer. Cleaning is easy after use as well. I suppose in comparison to the old B&D I had it’s superior, but I don’t do enough yard work to say definitively that it’s the best. I like it a lot, and I’m glad I bought it from a local dealer.

— Christopher Wanko

 

Stihl FSE 60 Electric Trimmer
$110 (varies with dealer)

Available from Stihl



Earth Ponds

earthpond.jpeg

Ponds can be used for swimming, wildlife magnets, irrigation, iceskating, fire protection, water gardening, landscaping, and fishing. You can build your own pond in your backyard, farm, or wherever.

Tim Matson is the established guru of building ponds with an earth-seal, rather than with a plastic or concrete lining. For 30 years he’s been creating, advising, and collecting knowledge about pond-making. His classic Earth Ponds (2nd ed.) is the basic how-to, and comes with a DVD. It supplies the needed lessons in siting a pond, building it, maintaining it, enjoying it, and also restoring old ponds. This is not your average how-to; it’s beautifully written and a joy to read. If you find the basics to your liking and need more, Matson has an updated Sourcebook with plenty of resources, and an illustrated encyclopedia of pond variations and building techniques. Finally, Matson has a helpful website with more videos and sources.

-- KK  

Earth Ponds: The Country Pond Maker’s Guide to Building, Maintenance and Restoration 
Tim Matson
2012 (Third Edition), 152 pages
$17

Available from Amazon

Earth Pond website: http://www.earthponds.com/

Sample Excerpts:

earthpond1.jpegScraping bottom in the pond basin Ray searches for flaws in the earth seal–clusters of pervious stone or gravel that would be the source of potential leaks. He carves out these patches and substitutes watertight soil. A good seal is the best defense against seepage. Pond makers who claim they can waterproof impossible sites with chemical additives and underwater dynamite blasts should run out of town. Like a potter’s bowl, the earth pond is molded with a  blend of materials. In addition to drawing a sufficient supply of water, this site consists of good watertight soil: about 10 to 20 percent clay and an even mix of silt, sand, and gravel. Preliminary test holes in the pond basin are crucial in evaluating the worthiness of a site.

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The sand drop is another well-esteemed pond keeper’s trick that takes advantage of the ice deck. It’s an upkeep technique well suited to older ponds in need of restoration, particularly where aquatic vegetation or mud get unruly. To set up a sand drop, the pond keeper spreads a two-to-four inch layer of sand–not salted road sand–over the ice. In spring when the ice thaws, poof! The sand falls in a uniform layer over the basin floor. Sand works like an inorganic mulch, shading out weeds and, like the finings in a beer crock, holding down sediment. In muddy ponds, it’s a good carpet material for the basin floor. One of my neighbors was able to use a sand drop to eliminate the slimy bottom in her family’s pond, along with snakes and leeches. True, the sand drop does fill in the pond to a minute degree, but it’s not often done, and it sure beats herbicides.

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Trout have a reputation as fussy feeders, picky as spoiled Siamese cats; yet for three years I’ve watched my brook trout gain weight without an ounce of supplemental feed. I see them feast on the bottom as much as in the air: the water is as transparent as an aquarium. I recall my neighbor’s drawdown and follow-up trout stocking: clearly, the fish were pitching in to keep it clean. And I recalled an old Vermont tradition: to keep the farmhouse water clean, a trout was dropped in the well.

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Fixing low-tide ponds begins with a search for leakage. Ponds with piping often leak around the outside of the pipe or through seams, gaskets, and valves. In most cases, unless a fitting can be easily replaced, pipe repair involves digging up the line to repair joints or to implant anti-seep collars.




Brome Squirrel Buster Bird Feeder

brome birdfeeder.jpeg

During the summer, the yard may have held flowers and been bathed in bright sunshine, but the winter can be cold, dark and barren without birds to fly around and liven things up. Wild birds are lively and colorful, and the seed you supply will keep them around and help sustain them through the winter. They are endlessly fascinating to watch and hear, and they really don’t eat very much.

Squirrels, on the other hand eat quite a bit. You don’t need to feed them, but if they can get to your bird feeder, they’ll empty it in no time at all.

Here’s where the Brome Squirrel Buster Plus comes in. The endless battle of wits between Bird Feeding Man and Squirrel is won most of the time by Squirrel. You will start off grossly underestimating the squirrel’s athleticism and sheer persistence. They can jump, and hang, and climb better than you can ever imagine. Happily, the human’s superior intelligence is manifested by many models of “squirrel-proof” bird feeders.

The best of which, especially for the price, is the Brome, made by a company in Canada. Birds, having evolved to be light for ease of flying, perch on the bottom and eat at will. Squirrels, being larger and heavier, weigh the bottom down and close off the openings (thus keeping them from just trying to shake the food out). The quality is high, the pressure is adjustable (to keep out starlings, grackles and other possibly large, unwanted birds) and all the parts are replaceable. It also has a lifetime warranty against squirrel damage. Your bird seed supply will take a long time to run out – the feeder has a large, 3 quart capacity and there will be no thievery.

Brome Squirrel Buster Bird Feeder
$87

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by Brome