Friday, November 13, 2009

Boutique or box store: the old debate

I think an old Chinese saying goes "Buy the best and you only cry once."  I didn't understand just how true this saying could be until I acquired my first pair of Italian leather shoes.  It was foot heaven:  they looked great and felt great.  Expensive, yes.  Worth it, yes.  And none of the aggravation of poor quality coming apart at the seams after the second use.  But do you need high shoe quality if you are going to the beach in flip flops or slogging in the mud in galoshes?  In other words, does the purpose justify the price?  In one camp you have the highly crafted, rather expensive item you only want to buy once versus the convenience and affordability of just buying a disposable and cheap item repeatedly as you need it.  Just how am I going to relate that to some kind of Alaskan gardening experience? 

Tools.  Because I take atrocious care of my tools (occasionally rinsing the dirt off is about as far as it goes), I usually don't buy the best.  I have a shovel in the "better" category, and it's my favorite shovel out of the four or five in my collection.  Sturdy, no sliver handle, and a thick blade that has moved more earth than I care to admit.  Has withstood outside storage in our sub-zero winters with a shrug.  My hand pruners are Felco's (pictured above), a gold standard in the gardening industry and for many gardeners that name is enough to guarantee good performance.  I have the rare left-handed pair, normally a small fortune when compared to hand-pruner prices at the home improvement store, but picked up on clearance at Alaska Mill and Feed.  They have lasted when the others broke or went dull.  Enough said.  I have a short pitchfork, the kind with wide tines, in the "good" category.  Still going strong but rusting, and the plastic coating on the handle has become gooey so gloves are a must.  Hand trowels.  How many do you own?  I must have a dozen of varying quality.  The very best of the bunch is still rust-free and unbent, the worst, long since broken and consigned to the trash. 

Conclusions: better tools last longer and better tools are more expensive.  A good pair of quality hand pruners at least is a necessity.   

I put gloves in their own category.  I must buy three or four pairs every year.  The best I've ever had were a red pair of West Country Gardener landscape gloves.  They cost quite a bit more than the grocery store 3-pack, but lasted a good deal longer.  They also were better tailored and warmer to wear, a real plus for an Alaskan woman sick of bulky, thin gloves tailored (I'm guessing here) for men that garden in warmer climes.  Those quality gloves were my faithful gardening companions for three years of really hard manual labor before finally developing holes in the fingers.  They can occasionally be found at some of the nurseries around town.  I would pick up another pair in a heartbeat.  Also good for tasks requiring dexterity (in other words a really well-fitting glove), Foxgloves brand gloves.  I have tried on many pairs and they feel really comfortable.  You can find them at many nurseries around town.  Another somewhat spendy glove.  I don't shun the cheap gloves, but I seem to go through them like it's going out of style.  The coated, waterproof ones come in many cheerful colors (I have purple this year).  They are useful for many garden tasks, such as weeding, muddy tasks, and planting perennials, but they wear out pretty quickly. 

Conclusions:  Have a good pair (pictured above) and several cheap pairs. 

Plants.  Best in this category does not necessarily go hand in hand with expense.  Some of my best specimens were had for a song, and even free, from generous Alaskans.  Conversely, the very newest, most hyped plants (for example a variety of hosta just released for sale this year) will be expensive, sometimes extraordinarily so.  Do plants live up to the hype?  Often in zone 3 and 4, not so much.  I like to let the very new varieties kick around for a few years before I try them.  By then there is a better idea of zone hardiness and performance.  When I was a greenhorn gardener, I took published zone hardiness as gospel truth.  These days I'm a zone cheater.  Sometimes my own experience contradicts the published literature.  I keep seeing feather reed grass (Calamagrostis x acutiflora 'Karl Foerster') listed as zone 5.  It drives me crazy.  I would try it in zone 3 and even recommend zone 2 gardeners take a chance on the guy.  But sometimes cheating zones with expensive plants can be, well, expensive.  So with the really new plants, or those not known to grow here, caveat emptor, let the buyer beware. 

Conclusions: If you're wondering about the hardiness and performance of a plant, new release or old standby, head to the Alaska Botanical Garden, off of Tudor and Campbell Airstrip Rd.  That will provide a starting point.  Also, utilize any neighbors that garden.  Most gardeners I know are more than happy to blab about plants if you have any questions.  Another of my favorite resources is the Master Gardeners Association.  They often have a booth at the spring home and garden shows around town.  This is a group of people that collectively have hundreds of years of gardening experience in Alaska.  If you don't catch them at a show, they can often be found answering garden questions during the summer at the Cooperative Extension office.  Call 'em up: 786-6300 in Anchorage.

So what's it going to be for you?  I have never regretted buying high quality items for my (feet and) garden.  The choice is yours: buy once and cry, or buy over and over on the cheap. 


  1. You are so right. Although my biggest problem right now is finding a shovel that my husband won't snap in two (admittedly it might not be the shovel's fault as he likes to use them when he should really be using a pry bar) or a spading fork that's handle won't crack after a week of use. Earlier this year I bought the most expensive one I could find and already it's hard ash handle is cracking. The fiberglass handled one didn't even last a day before I took it back due to failure. The saddest part is that we don't even have heavy clay soil. I'm finding that a lot of tools just aren't made like they used to be.

  2. Amen, sister on the tools. I have 2 pairs of Felco hand pruners, the second pair I snapped up at a tag sale for $1 -- what a deal! I just bit the bullet and bought a pair of Felco 22" loppers, they are amazing! So light, yet the solid aluminum handles I doubt will bend. I am sorry I suffered so long with the old heavy wooden handled pair that cam with the house.

    I have found a great sharpener for the pruners you might like. It is from Lee Valley tools, a small pocket-sized diamond sharpener:,54322,54326&ap=1

    This works great on my Felcos so thought I'd share the love.


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