Phil Gruszka digs through a yellow 5-gallon container, looking for the one tool he can’t live without. He pulls a distressed orange hand pruner from the depths of the bucket.
“This is the baby,” he says with a smile. “It’s been in the family since 1963.”
He has a sentimental attachment to the weathered Sandvik bypass pruner he inherited from his father, Stanley.
“He never had a lot of money in his life, so for him to spend more money for this than the cheaper tools, he certainly saw the value in having a quality tool.”
Mr. Gruzska started working with plants and trees as a teenager in the street department of his hometown of Downer’s Grove, Ill. He worked for the U.S. Forest Service and Longwood Gardens, then eventually landed here as director of parks management and maintenance for the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy.
“I’m a tree pruner. I love pruning trees,” he says with the worn tool in his hand.
But that’s not all this pruner does for him. In the field and sometimes in a bind, he uses it as a knife, screwdriver, trowel and bottle opener. “I hate to admit that I’ve cut wire with it, too, but if you’re out on a job site and you don’t have a wire cutter with you, this tool will work.”
It’s comforting to hear a professional uses his tools the same way we all do.
The pruner still has the original high carbon blade, and it is constructed with case-hardened bolts and locking nuts, which have never slipped in half a century. “The beauty of a bypass pruner is you can sharpen, sharpen, sharpen and you continue to have an effective cutting surface.”
Besides keeping an edge on the blade and oiling it, he’s done nothing but use it daily in his job.
Mr. Gruszka advises gardeners to buy quality tools; they have a good chance to last for decades or longer. “I believe this hand pruner is going to go to one of my sons and I wouldn’t be surprised if it ends up going to one of my grandchildren,” he says.
In the Fruit and Spice Room at Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, Curt Pesanka lifts a bright silver shovel above his head and plunges it into the ground, sinking the blade deep into the soil.
This all-metal shovel has hung on a tool rack at the Oakland conservatory for as long as anyone can remember. While holding the shovel, he says: “You cannot break the handle. You cannot break the shovel.”
Mr. Pesanka, who is the indoor display foreman at Phipps, often uses it to pry out huge plants that must be moved from one room to another. He originally thought this shovel was fabricated by hand because its welds are visible. Only one of its shoulders has a rubber foot pad, which he thought was odd and led him to believe one was missing. Then several years ago, Mr. Pesanka discovered the same exact tool in catalogs, sold as either a left- or right-footed model. An extra rubber pad can be ordered for an additional cost. This shovel even has a name.
“When we are in another room and I send someone to get this shovel, [I say] ‘Go get Ironsides,’ and they know exactly which shovel to bring me.”
Mr. Pesanka sharpens the blade often with a file. “You put a nice edge on this shovel and it will go through roots like butter.”
Because it’s so heavy, it’s easier on his muscles; the shovel does the work. With a smile, he warns: “When you throw this shovel, keep your feet out of the way.”
There’s only one like it in the conservatory, but he’s thinking it might be time to buy another. It will need a different name.
“This is Ironsides. Maybe we’ll name the other one Thor.”
Sitting on a brick wall in the Serpentine Room at Phipps Conservatory, outdoor display foreman Claire Dusak holds a scary-looking soil knife.
“It’s not sharp enough to hurt you, but you could pull up a perennial and divide it right there with one swoop,” she says.
The tool, also called a Hori Hori, has a 6-inch-long blade that is serrated on one side. “It does 1,000 things,” including digging, scooping, cutting, weeding “and it also scares anyone who wants to mess with you,” she says, laughing.
The cracks in sidewalks are no match for this formidable tool, Ms. Dusak says, and because it doubles as a measuring device, it can help determine how deep to plant bulbs.
For seven years, it’s been her favorite tool. Ms. Dusak first tried one that was slightly larger with a wooden handle. As the rivets holding the wood loosened, her hands would be pinched between the two pieces of wood. When she noticed ones in catalogs with one-piece plastic handles, she ordered a few for the staff.
“It’s an all-purpose tool, and the nice bright orange handle makes it easy to find when dropped in the grass.”
At the overlook, one of the best spots to view Fallingwater, Ann Talarek holds a strange-looking hand tool with a swan like head called a Korean hand plow or Ho-Mi digger.
Ms. Talarek, horticulture specialist for the historic house in Bear Run, Fayette County, discovered her favorite tool seven years ago. “I gave it a try, and it’s been in my tool bucket ever since.”
She says it’s great for weeding, loosening soil, cultivating, seed sowing, transplanting, dividing plants and more.
“The fact that I can do many things with this tool instead of having to switch out for something else is my favorite thing about it.”
Ms. Talarek has never had to sharpen the forged steel blade. There’s a version with a longer handle, too.
“I’ve lost more of these in the woods than anything else. I found one I had dropped in the spring, and other than a little rust, everything was intact. I had another Ho-Mi digger.”
Soergel Orchards garden center manager Dave Will is an organic specialist who won’t use chemical sprays to get rid of weeds. Instead, he uses a long-handled tool called a scuffle or hula hoe. It differs from a conventional hoe in that its business end resembles an open rectangle and it is used in a back-and-forth motion.
He first saw one in catalog and thought it was too good to be true. Two decades later, it’s still his favorite tool. “It makes weeding so much easier and I’m all for easy,” he says.
“You slide it back and forth; it works in both directions. It really reduces the time and drudgery of weeding.”
Its smooth motion and long handle is easier on his back and joints, Mr. Will says. And because it cuts just below the surface, it barely disturbs the soil. “You’re cutting the roots right underneath the soil, so you’re not exposing weed seeds to sunlight.”
Leaving the soil intact also cuts down on evaporation, he says.
Mr. Will says he has never had to sharpen the tool, which he uses only in his home garden.
Laughing, he says: “We use the high school kids here to weed.”
Note: A.M. Leonard: www.amleo.com, 1-800-543-8955 carries soil knife, Korean hand plow, stirrup hoe and all-metal shovel.
Doug Oster: email@example.com or 412-779-5861. Visit his garden blog at www.post-gazette.com/gardeningwithdoug. Twitter: @dougoster1.