Guest post: Is there a place for power tools in the garden?

by Farmer Liz
One of my regular readers and commenters offered to write a guest post about a horticulture course, its quite a funny read, with some serious insights into our technology obsession.  If you'd like to submit a guest post, email me at eight.acres.liz {at}  While I am always happy to share links back to your blog or website, this contributor preferred to remain anonymous.  I hope you enjoy their story....

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Just a few days ago our daily horticulture classes were interrupted by an invitation to review some new gardening gadgets. The idea was to open half a dozen of electric hand trimmers , test them and fill in some review about their goods and bads. As nothing is more dear to a student – even a “hort “ one - to escape routine and mess around till lunchtime, we opened the boxes and got down to business.

What did we have there? Eight toys ranging qualities from the very cheap to the smart looking. We unpacked them, read their instructions, fixed in their blades, batteries and extensions, and set out to give an unexpected fright to all surrounding bushes that didn’t manage to make themselves discreet in time. An hour later, with the novelty exhausted, we sat in a circle under the sun and gave a thought to the need and usefulness of the tools at hand.

eight acres: power tools in the garden?
I prefer my hand tools!

So, did they really work?

As expected, expensive outperformed cheap, but not always. Some models were definitely more useful than others (that is more powerful, more precise, more umf! ). Some could hardly brush through the outside leaves while others awakened a new sense of topiary skills. Some uses and adaptations stood out as plainly ridiculous, as an extension bar on a 10 cm wide trimmer to cut the lawn. Good luck with that one! Most were easily defeated when an unexpected obstacle –one of those you expect to find in the average garden, like a twig or a bump - were confronted. And some were as addictive as bursting bubble wrap

But laying there in the sun, my first thoughts went to Joel Salatin when he quotes “we have become a culture of technicians, we are all into the how of it but nobody steps back and says... but why!?”. Although the tools we had tested were clearly able to do their job, did we ever need them in the first place? Are we right to ask that question?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating here for a full return to the ox and roman plough under the scorching sun. A degree of mechanisation of the rigours of farming has no doubt transformed the lives of those dedicated to growing our food, and although the image of Mr Fukuoka may look appealing to the romantic view of nature, it’s also fair to leave room for other lifestyles and approaches.

But farming isn’t gardening, and the size of these tools is directed for the later, or the amateur gardener, as the publicity on the boxes will put it. Of course there is as many definitions of gardening as gardeners, but most of us would agree potting around in the garden is about retreating from the daily rush and noise to our own little realm of peace. Gardening is an intimate slow hobby were the pleasure is about the time spent working more than the amount of work achieved. A place to hum and mess around while caring and observing, more than a benchmark of productivity.  A moment of quiet meditation, perhaps even daydreaming a little, occupied in our inner thoughts. Or time to chat about the day with your partner while you work the flower bed together. Yes we will glee at our handsome dahlias and pride at our huge tomatoes, but as bonus not as a goal.

But if productivity is not the main reason to introduce this buzzing range of freaks to our garden, What about easing our chores? Again, let’s define chores. Yes, to the outsider there are some monotonous jobs like mowing the lawn or weeding that may seem a pain that could need addressing.  But in the gardeners eye a chore is the very reason of his or her pleasure. I’m not arguing that we don’t all have a particularly dreaded job or a day were we stop five times at the garden gate only to retreat with another excuse. But in a world were pleasure is something you are meant to buy in an endless succession of experiences, finding pleasure in working – especially working manually - seems a certain contradiction, a faulty philosophy. We are lost to understand that for some there is joy in an afternoon's pruning giving our hands a chance to caress the bark and put our skills at test, even if it’s cold or our hands ache a little. There is no need to hurry, no rush, so that kneeling, wandering, reaching, gathering ... are all parts of a familiar and welcome exercise. If at any point the garden gets reduced to a set of chores we should finish as easy and fast as possible, then maybe gardening isn’t for you. And a dozen electric buzzing machines will never make it more amicable.

Ok then! So what about those people in need of a hand like the disabled or the elderly? Now this is emotionally appealing, our feel good factor. Surely they shouldn’t be left out just because of my all hands approach to the garden? Well... its a good marketing strategy, but I’m afraid not so much of a fact!

Portable electric gardening tools aren’t necessarily designed for the handicapped, that’s much more of a sales afterthought. When we say disability, what disability? Certainly not something like autism and its common fixation for engine buzzes! Did we mean physical disabilities? But then, which one in particular? There are as many disabilities as people, each one with their one specific needs, and I have yet to see any of these tools designed for a particular disability in mind. Besides, factors like weight and vibration may easily defeat the grip and strength of the handicapped user.

If there is something I have learnt working with those of diverse functionality is their ability of working out their own solutions. Creative seems to be the second name to disabled, following the old saying “when there is a need there is a way”. Can´t bend down? I’ll raise the bed or hang the pots up! A second lesson you learn is the ability to adapt. Any good gardener knows the key to success is to find the right conditions for the right plant and let it thrive by itself, not fight a losing battle just to make things work were they shouldn’t. But this very notion is alien to the industrial mind that believes any obstacle can and must be overcome by yet a new ingenious gadget to be sold. (remember Salatin?) . So gardening is not about sacrosanct freedom to impose our will on nature, but more about learning to nurture and cooperate with it. If the hedge is too high to trim, how about planting something different? Or starting a sharing scheme with your garden where as the older may exchange experience and tricks of the trade for manpower of the young neighbour that can’t afford a garden of his own? Again, there are so many ways around it!

So what’s left? Why would we ever need to get one of these electric hand held tools? My belief is that the gardener doesn’t need them to garden, but the tools need the gardener to be sold to. Or as someone put it, they make a great present as soon as your birthday comes up, only to end up more often than not on the back shelf. Hand held portable electric tools are the logical step of industry to solve a problem they weren’t really invited to. Drilling a hole for the shelves? Ok, maybe I can see that. Trimming the hedge with an overgrown shaver? Was there ever the need?

Now let’s talk disadvantages. Price comes to mind too often, especially when talking over a hundred English pounds for a hand held trimmer. That’s not cheap, but commercial prices rarely reflect the true cost of the object sold. They don’t account for the thousands of new batteries that will be built and wasted, the raw materials dug out for them, the water and waste in their manufacturing, the plastic casing or the boxing they are presented in. And once sold they certainly aren´t bothered about where they will end up!

Furthermore, were are these things built and assembled? Did those people earn a fair wage for their work, did they do so in safe conditions? Was their homeland polluted as a result? Where did the earnings go to? Although mainstream consumerism may find these secondary and laughable questions, they are a big part of the current state of our world. There is little point of talking about sustainability and grow-your-own while filling up the world with much unneeded gadgets.

Ideas like programmed obsolescence – designing the tool with a specific lifetime after which they will cease to work and be dumped in some Indian beach – is a major crime in an unsustainable model. Not convinced? Ok, how many of these tools would you find ok to buy if the world dumped them by the hundreds of thousands in the outskirts of your home town?

My bottom line? Yes, in some few specific cases maybe a hand powered tool will make a difference, but to the common gardener with his small plot and leisure afternoon... this is one of those cases when the salesman needs you much more than you need the tool. In a small scale private gardening, it’s hard to find an excuse to justify their waste.

So before you run out to buy one think twice, then thing again. Borrow one and try it out for a week. Rent one for the day. Buy one between neighbours and share it out. And if you find it really useful, consider buying second hand.

And don’t forget to put the kettle on. Now that’s one useful electric gizmo!

What do you think?  Is there a place for power tools in the garden?

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