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A Pencil Is a Gardener's Best Friend

Friday, October 09, 2009

Did you know that a No. 2 pencil can do extraordinary things, especially for gardeners who are looking for the right tool to do the right job? It's true. Pick up a pencil and roll it in your fingers. Think potential here. Like paper clips, Q-Tips, and toothpicks, pencils have more than one life. And for gardeners, it's a dream come true.

While pencils can't pull weeds or help you lose weight, there are many ways they can make your life easier. This practical and fun tribute explains how a pencil is a gardener's best friend. Let's begin with sowing seeds...

A pencil lends a helping hand

Caffeine jitters, arthritis, and trifocal lenses are a nuisance when you're trying to sow a few seeds. Most seeds are small, very small, making it awkward to pick them up and, try as we might, plant them according to the package instructions. And then there's [ahhh, CHOO!] the occasional accident that sends them flying everywhere. The pencil is at your service.

Pencil tip and tomato seed
A tomato seed performs chin-ups

Seeding is Believing

Starting seeds indoors is a ritual that many gardeners look forward to as the official kick-off of the growing season. You browse through catalogs, order your seeds and then fill containers with potting soil. Yet, there's one little hiccup that threatens to dampen this near religious experience. It happens somewhere between tearing open a packet of seeds and transferring its contents to the waiting soil.

Making a pinch of seeds go where you want them to go is like trying to mobilize a litter of kittens. Or men, for that matter. It takes patience and persistence. Seed packets provide only basic instructions, such as "Sow seeds sparingly over the soil," or, "As seed is very fine, they should be barely covered with soil." I'm afraid it's easier read than done.

For example, have you ever tried to pick up three--count them--three lobelia seeds? They're so tiny, one ounce of them contains 400,000 seeds. How about the Cycnoches chlorochilon orchid? Each pod produces an amazing 3,700,000 seeds.

The dust-like seeds are so light, the wind often carries them miles away from parent plant. Tomato seeds, like the one pictured above, are monsters by comparison, yet they also create problems by clinging together like Velcro to a sweater. Here's how a pencil can solve your seed-sowing problems.

One pod from this orchid produces 3,700,000 seeds

With your containers filled with moistened potting soil, take a packet of seeds and empty it into a dish or the palm of your hand. Pick up a pencil in your other hand. If the tip is sharp, round it off a little. Touch the soil with the pencil to moisten the tip. Now, bring it over to the seeds in your hand and connect the tip to one or more seeds, depending on what you're aiming for. Try it a few times to get the hang of it. You'll be amazed how easy it is to pick up just the right number of seeds.

Now, roll the pencil tip on top of the soil to wipe off the seeds. Cover them with soil if necessary and mist them with water. This little trick makes short order of sowing seeds. In fact, it works so well, you'll find yourself carrying pencils and seeds to parties so you can show all your friends. For a step by step guide for growing your own seedlings and bedding plants visit my article, "How to grow from seeds".

More than 14 billion pencils are produced every year--enough to circle the globe 62 times. And, one pencil will draw a line 70 miles long.

With the touch of a surgeon

After seedlings have formed their second, or true set of leaves, it's time to transplant them into larger containers. Here's where a #2 pencil works better than a dinner fork, chopstick or spoon. It's a trick I learned years ago while visiting a local garden nursery. After wandering past the perennials and shrubs, I stopped at a greenhouse out back. I watched in amazement as the owner deftly separated out perfect clumps of pansies using a wooden pencil. In fact, at transplanting time, all of her employees use pencils. "We've tried everything," she said, "and pencils work the best."

Pencils, which were invented more than 400 years ago in 1565, don't really contain lead. That gray stuff is graphite and clay.

When permanent markers aren't so permanent

One day, while talking on the phone, I accidentally leaned against a topless Sharpie marking pen. After hanging up, I spotted the large black mark on my yellow sweatshirt. Washing didn't help. The spot was there to stay, and the sweatshirt became garden wear.

When it comes to ink permanence, laundry is one thing and gardening is another. Which means there are situations where permanent ink markers don't work as promised. I'll give you an example. Though my garden contains copper tags, aluminum strips cut from pie tins, and oversized scallop shells painted with "blue poppy," I prefer white plastic tags for the bulk of my plant-marking. It took some experimenting however, to figure out what writing tool to use.

I tried crayons, ballpoint and permanent ink pens, all with mixed success. One time, I made tags for 20 kinds of salad greens, writing the names with a black marker pen. I dutifully poked a tag at the end of each row. Weeks passed, the plants grew and I harvested greens. The family loved the frilly kale and spotted lettuce leaves. Trouble was, we didn't know what we were eating because all the names had faded to soft, gray smudges.

The next season, I went back to basics and used--you got it--a No. 2 pencil. I'm happy to report that every name survived the rain, sun and snow (I left some out over the winter). The best thing about labeling with a pencil is that you can change a name by simply erasing it. With permanent ink pens, you have to bring out the thinners and solvents. The pencil scores again.

A good-size tree will make about 300,000 pencils.

Pencils didn't have erasers on them until 100 years ago because teachers felt they would encourage children to make mistakes.

Adapted version of an article written by Marion Owen
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