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Mary Lowther column: The gardening essentials nobody tells you about

I learned the necessity of carrying a pocket knife years ago
Essential gardening tools the books don’t talk about. (Mary Lowther photo)

By Mary Lowther

My mother used to carry a little clutch purse she carried everywhere; as a child I spent a fair amount of time wondering what was so important that she could never be without one. My curiosity was finally satisfied many years later when she left one at my house after a visit, and I looked inside to see if anything of import needed immediate return. It was a bit of a disappointment: nothing Earth shattering leapt out, just a lipstick, one tissue, a crossword puzzle and pencil. Mom never was given to frivolities, and the clutch purse was a fashion statement. Given the absence of pockets in women’s couture my dad carried the money and car keys, yet neither one of them carried what I consider to be the most important items: a pocket knife and a rag to clean it with.

My parents were wartime Britons who gardened of necessity, but I guess they never grew to love it. Old time farmers knew the value of carrying both items and in fact, 50 years ago Murray McLauchlan depicted the typical farmer carrying “old dirty hankies.” They may have been soiled and sweaty by the time the songwriter saw them, but I bet they started freshly laundered each morning when the farmer left the house. Of course he had a rag in his pocket! Never mind mopping his shoe-like face, how else could he clean off the notebook he kept in another pocket to keep track of farm chores? He also needed it to clean his glasses, wipe off his tools and hands and to cover his nose and mouth to keep out dust. A serious agriculturist must go through a dozen handkerchiefs a day. I suspect that farmer also kept a pocket knife in his front pocket, but I haven’t come across any gardening books that mention the need for a rag or pocket knife; they must assume we know enough to do this already.

It’s not just a garden tool, either. I learned the necessity of carrying a pocket knife years ago when a Good Samaritan saw a burning car upside down in the ditch with the driver still strapped in her seat. The guy pulled out his pocket knife, cut the seat belt, pulled out the driver and saved her life. After that I bought one for every member of my family and keep one in my pocket all the time.

It’s an essential tool, but there’s a snag: when I used it in the garden, I either cleaned it off on my pants, risking cutting them and myself, or on the grass or weeds that are usually a bit damp or dirty, so I’d leave it on a rock or somewhere to dry off. Later on when I needed it again I couldn’t remember where I’d put it, but if I had had a rag in my pocket, I could have wiped the blade clean and put it back into my pocket. Hence the dirty old hankie.

Why don’t any gardening books mention this? I’ve gardened for decades and thought I was pretty smart carrying a pocket knife, except for the fact that I kept losing them. If my garden is ever developed (God forbid!), enough hardware will certainly be dug up to resupply the Swiss army, but I digress. I have learned why farmers keep a handkerchief or three in their back pockets and I’m going to do the same. I have lots of clean rags and can use a fresh one every day, but now have to sew back pockets into my summer gardening pants. That way I’ll always have a clean one to wipe my hands in case the King drops by for tea.

As for Murray McLauchlan, you’re welcome to the meal. Thanks for the song!

Please contact with questions and suggestions since I need all the help I can get.