My Favorite Garden Tool

Photo by Daniel Zanetti, Wikimedia Commons

Every now and then, I see a poll of some sort on a garden website that goes “What’s your favorite garden tool?”

This is almost always a ploy to sell me garden shears with special handles made out of synthetic unicorn leather and held together with composites first used on the space shuttle.

But while I am indeed fond of my garden shears—and my trowel, and my pokey pronged thing and the diggy rake thing and that one other thing with the metal bits—my absolute favorite garden tool is my smart phone.

I don’t even have any gardening apps on it. I have an inherent belief that gardening is so much a matter of individual circumstances that an app is unlikely to be all that useful unless I wrote it myself for my garden’s conditions, where “full sun” could mean either “full sun” or “For the love of god, don’t expose it to a North Carolina afternoon,” and my hardiness zones are defined as much by sweltering heat as by winter lows, and then you get the clay-resistant cultivars into the mix and at that point I have been playing Angry Birds for twenty minutes and am no longer paying attention.

But the ability to yank a phone out of my pocket and check the internet to see a plant’s origins has been unbelievably useful. I am a native plant junkie. You show me a native and I will give it a try in my garden. Unfortunately, as many of us have noticed, it’s not always easy to figure out where a plant is from!

Case in point—a few years back, I picked up a few leatherleaf viburnum. The cultivar was called “Alleghany.” The nursery worker told me it was native. How much clearer could it be?

Well, the damn things are from China, as it turns out. They aren’t an invasive here in the South, so far as I can tell,  so I haven’t ripped them out yet, but I’m still annoyed, and they’re living on borrowed time until I can find a good replacement.

This hasn’t happened since I bought my iPhone.  I see an interesting plant at the nursery, I whip out my phone, pull up the internet, and voila! It’s from Outer Mongolia, you say? Well, forget that.  Oh look, it’s invasive in my region? The Forest Service says it spends HOW MUCH MONEY eradicating it? Goodness.  Let’s just put that down, shall we?

It goes the other way too, of course—I found a plant labeled only with scientific name on the half-price rack and discovered via the phone that it was hyssop-leaved boneset,  a fairly obscure native that I had been craving for my prairie planting. The nursery people didn’t even know how it had gotten there (but were happy to sell it to me at half-price.)

It also provides opportunities for grass-roots activism that can’t be beat.

The other day, I was at my local Lowes and saw a big display for a company called “Botanical Wonders” which was selling wildflower bulbs. Virginia bluebells, trillium, jack in the pulpit, birdsfoot violet, bloodroot,  all sorts of wonderful plants, plants I’d love in my garden at a…really suspiciously… good…price…


Virginia bluebells and jack-in-the-pulpit aren’t too hard to come by, but you can expect to pay twenty or thirty bucks minimum for an ethically sourced trillium. These were going for about three bucks.

Well, as Grandma always said, “If it looks too good to be true…”

I whipped out my iPhone, punched the name of the company in, and promptly found that one of the company founders had apparently been arrested and served time for illegal plant trafficking here in North Carolina,* that the suppliers was notorious for wild-harvesting plants under circumstances of questionable legality, plunking them into the ground long enough to call them “nursery grown” (although not “nursery-propagated,” which is the important thing) and were in general one of the many reasons that rare plants continue to be rare.

Thanks to my smart phone, I didn’t buy unethically sourced plants, AND I was able to send a note to Lowes customer service on the spot telling them what I thought of the matter.

So that’s why the phone remains my favorite garden tool.

Now if they could just make an app that pops up a little fanfare when my tomatoes ripen…


*We have a really horrible problem with plant poaching out here, particularly Venus Fly-Traps, which are probably going to go extinct in the wild in my lifetime because of people like this.

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  1. says

    Yes! I also use my phone as a garden research tool. Mainly because I am a fairly new gardener and don’t know what I’m looking at when I pick up a nursery pot. And “beautiful / carefree / plant in well drained soil” on the plant tag is useless since they all say that. So out comes the phone, and a universe of info on height, sources, problems, etc. I can photo the plants I am considering and go back and sort through them and work out design. A great garden tool…. and entertaining post. But I don’t have Angry Birds on my phone, just hungry birds in my garden.
    Laurrie recently posted..My 2011 Resolution

  2. says

    Good stuff Ursula!! You are so right, these newfangled iphone thangs sure do have their uses in the gardening world! I wish I had been able to look up the apparent “typo” of Cimicifuga ramosa that I found in a nursery years ago… I snapped it up as a burgundy-leafed Cimicifuga native racemosa. Later I found it was not mistyped but a foreign import and not the native at all. It still remains here, it has a wonderful grape kool-aid fragrance in late summer that everybody loves, but when your plant buying budget is very small, it’s best not to make expensive mistakes like that. C.ramosa was $18 at the time, I recall!

    p.s. synthetic unicorn leather, LOL! I think I would buy an iPhone case made of that :-)

  3. says

    People need to support their local nurseries and use their knowledge. Big box stores are only about price and won’t help your local economy. We are so lucky to have a totally native nursery called project Native in Housatonic,MA.

  4. says

    Ursula, I don’t have a smart phone, but I do have access to the internet and use it heavily in garden planning. I would love to know what your favorite sites are for getting accurate information about plant origins.
    Jean recently posted..Still Winter in Maine

    • says

      Ooh, good question! I like the USDA PLANTS profile site myself–generally if I plug in a scientific name, it’s on the first page of google, and it can tell you it’s range in the US, along with where it’s native. The PlantFiles from Dave’s Garden are also awesome for general plant info and comments from people who’ve planted them.

      There are others, but those are the two I keep coming back to.
      UrsulaV recently posted..Me and My Mulch

      • says

        The USDA page is good…just remember to click “Native Range” at the bottom of the “Distribution map” on the first page to see the actual native range rather than just where the plant is reportedly growing. That’s caused confusion over the years…

        The William Cullina series of books about US native plants published by the New England Wild Flower Society is also my go-to source for finding out what plants are native to which region of N. America…

  5. says

    Ursula, I love your use of modern garden tools. I am still in the dark ages (my cell is akin to the type you crank up….like in WW II movies ☺)

    I shop the all native nursery so that my brain doesn’t have to “weed out” the subtle differences in species names but I do research plants I see around to determine whether or not they are native to Florida or not.

    In florida we have the Atlas of Florida Vascular Plants out of University of Florida, which I use to determine whether or not it is native to my area.

    I use the USDA database when I am trying to determine where else in the US the plants are native. You are so right, it is a great resource.
    Loret T. Setters recently posted..The Awakening – Giant Swallowtail

  6. Pauline Horn says

    I don’t have an I-phone, but if I see an unfamiliar plant that I like at a nursery, if they have any gardening books in their book area, I just look it up there. It’s saved me from a couple mistakes!

  7. says

    I use my Smartphone this way, too. I’ve got and Android-based HTC Evo Shift and love it because of just what you mention here. As an information junkie, I love having this as a tool. When I’m somewhere that has an obscure plant tag and can’t remember the botanical name, I whip it out to see if the plant is what I think it is.

    You know, I think I might have bought a few of those wildflowers at Lowe’s a couple of years ago. Carole and I had a discussion about it, too, as to what’s native and what isn’t. Well, all natives are native somewhere, aren’t they? But not all are native to OUR area and I now know that the trilliums that I bought aren’t native here in Ohio, where ironically enough, we have many different ones that are. So…they grow fine here, but they aren’t native here, in spite of what the label said.
    Kylee from Our Little Acre recently posted..You Cant Fool the Plants


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