Archive for January, 2014

Tools the pros use as seen on Pittsburgh Today Live

Wednesday, January 29th, 2014


 Phil Gruszka, director of parks management and maintenance for the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy poses with his bypass pruners.

Phil Gruszka, director of parks management and maintenance for the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy
poses with his bypass pruners.


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.

Curt Pesanka, indoor display foreman at Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens poses with his metal shovel.

Curt Pesanka, indoor display foreman at Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens poses with his metal shovel.


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.”

Claire Dusak, outdoor display foreman at Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens poses with her soil knife.

Claire Dusak, outdoor display foreman at Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens poses with her soil knife.

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.”

Ann Talarek, horticuture specialist at Fallingwater poses in front of the famous house with her Korean hand plow.

Ann Talarek, horticuture specialist at Fallingwater poses in front of the famous house with her Korean hand plow.

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.”

Dave Will, garden center manager at Soegel Orchards poses with his stirrup hoe

Dave Will, garden center manager at Soegel Orchards poses with his stirrup hoe

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: doster@post-gazette.com or 412-779-5861. Visit his garden blog at www.post-gazette.com/gardeningwithdoug. Twitter: @dougoster1.

Growing Succulents in Small Containers as Seen on KDKA’s Pittsburgh Today Live

Thursday, January 23rd, 2014

Succulents are easy to grow and I think they are beautiful.

Succulents are easy to grow and I think they are beautiful.


I’ve fallen under the spell of succulents. Although they look formidable, only the tiny hair like spines of the white cactus pose a threat to fingertips. I think of them as friendly dinosaurs, rough on the outside, but happy to share a garden together. As the light changes throughout the day the plants transform with the angle of the sun.
They are the perfect choice for small containers. The moss like shoe and purse I used on the show came from Chapon’s Greenhouse in Baldwin along with the little frog and other container.
Not everyone enjoys their charm, but every once and a while a visitor will discover their merits. A friend came over a couple weeks ago and fell in love with the containers, pledging to create her own.

Planting Herbs Now, Keeps Gardeners Sane, As Seen On KDKA’s Pittsburgh Today Live

Thursday, January 16th, 2014

This is the perfect time to plant an herb garden on the windowsill.
As the days get longer the herbs will be happy in the light of a big window.

Windowsill herbs will make you happy in the winter.

Windowsill herbs will make you happy in the winter.


This time of the year, I always plant a windowsill herb box. But this year, with the help of Chapon’s Greenhouse, I’ve found some new varieties to try. I’m planting African Blue Basil this year. It will do better than most basils with the low light of the window. I’m also trying cumin and Jamaican thyme for something different.
Choose a container with good drainage so the soil can dry out. Water will also flush salts out of t1he soil.
These other herbs work well on the windowsill too-Oregano, thyme, chives, sage and rosemary are all good choices to grow.
It’s wonderful to pick them and use them in the kitchen.
It’s also great to grow something through the winter.

Feed The Birds! As Seen on Pittsburgh Today Live

Wednesday, January 1st, 2014

Black Capped Chickodees are a common bird around the feeder. Photos by Doug Oster

Black Capped Chickodees are a common bird around the feeder. Photos by Doug Oster

I love watching the birds, but there’s an advantage for gardeners to attract them now. They’ll stick around the food source in the spring and will hunt lots of bad bugs, which makes our gardening life easier. The main feed I use is black oil sunflower seeds.
But during the winter, I always like to give them something else to boost their energy. Suet is something that helps them thrive during the hardest part of winter. I love these little suet nuts that Cole’s offers, they also make a suet called Hot Meats filled with hot pepper. The squirrels won’t touch it, and the birds can’t taste the pepper. The company makes my favorite varieties of bird seed and suet and it’s easy to find in your area by using this link. If you can’t physically block squirrels and chipmunks from the feeder, they have a whole line of feed laced with hot pepper.

They also have a liquid hot pepper to apply to seed you buy in bulk. One year I did a segment on KDKA’s Pittsburgh Today Live and Jon Burnett thought it would be funny to taste some. Man was he sorry, live on the air he was dying! I told him not to try it. I just put out one of the Hot Meat suet cakes and forgot to wash my hands. I rubbed my eyes and now I was the one who was sorry. I feed the squirrels at their own feeder.

I also enjoy making my own suet. I usually make enough to last most of the winter and keep it in the freezer. Suet is a type of fat from a certain part of a cow; you can find it at the meat counter of the grocery store. If you don’t see it, just ask they’ll get you some.

Here’s everything you need to know about suet including lots of recipes for making your own.

This is one of my favorites-

1 cup suet

1 cup peanut butter

3 cups corn meal

1/2 cup sunflower seeds

Melt the suet in a saucepan at low heat; add the peanut butter while stirring until it’s blended with the suet. Add the rest of the ingredients and stir.

Anything that a bird likes can be added to the recipe. If I have raisins or peanuts, I’ll put them in too.

I use hamburger patty makers to form the suet cakes and also pack it into big pine cones and hang them from the feeder.

Bringing birds into the yard is not only fun, it will help you garden next spring.
Here’s where you can get Cole’s products.