TRIED & TESTED: OUT ON THE PULL

Removing weeds is the bane of every seasoned gardeners' life. Is there a less back-breaking option? Our panellists take to the borders

GARDENING can be back-breaking work - and there is no more dispiriting task than weeding, which can, at times, feel like trying to run up an escalator that is going down. Manufacturers the world over are constantly producing new gadgets which promise to take the pain out of weeding, but can anything really beat getting down on your knees with a traditional fork?

THE PANEL

Declaring war on their weeds were: Bruce Jefferson, MD of garden designers Anglian Gardening Projects; Claire Blezard, consultant to the N1 Garden Centre in London; Anita Cameron, a keen amateur gardener; and Andrew Simpson and Donald Hudd - both successful allotment holders.

THE TEST

Of the products tested some offered an upright position for the weeder; some, speed and power; others promised minimal disturbance to surrounding plants and soil. We considered all of these to be a boon to gardeners, but paid most attention to efficacy and consistency. Removing one weed in three is a waste of time, as is leaving deep roots behind for regrowth - never bending down is little compensation in the long run.

*HEAT GUN ELECTRIC HEAT WEEDER

pounds 26.99

To be fair, the main purpose of this device which blows hot air, is to strip paint, but it is also sold as a "no chemical" solution for burning weeds out of patios. "The idea is to destroy the cell structure, you don't have to burn the weed entirely," explained Bruce Jefferson, but the end result is not very satisfying. The weed is still there after all. You can come back the next day and take the shrivelled debris away, but deep- rooted perennials like dandelions will simply grow back. "It seems to take an awfully long time," said Andrew Simpson. "You might as well just pull the weed out."

FLYMO POWER HOE

pounds 54.99

Powered by mains electricity and resembling an overgrown orange food mixer, this is the power version of the same manufacturer's Garden Claw which rotates in the soil, churning up weeds. It is controlled by the hand lever and push button speed control. It is quite fun, but it only turns over tiny weeds. "It's the easiest way to perfect borders!" according to the box, a claim which has also been trumpeted in television advertising. "It's great if you already have perfect borders," said Claire Blezard sceptically, as the machine whizzed itself into a tangled mess of trailing ground cover plants. "It's obviously not for use on an overgrown plot," Bruce Jefferson pointed out, "but I don't really see the point of this anyway. Unless you want to make souffles in the border. Or stir up the septic tank."

**THE WEEDKEY

pounds 18.95

The Weedkey is a simple, soundless (thankfully!), hip-height rod with a built-in plunger and T-handle. You position the base of it next to the weed, then pull up the plunger to remove it in a little pod of soil, which you then spit out to one side. It's a delicate operation and "depends greatly on the soil; it's good on clay, but wouldn't be much cop on light soils," said Bruce Jefferson. Anita Cameron saw the Weedkey's market immediately: "It's for someone who has a gardener, and just wants to wander around in a straw hat, taking the odd weed out," she said, "as long as you were selective about your weeds, because it doesn't work on perennials, it just tears the leaves off."

*****HORTUS ORNAMENTI

Jekyll Weeding Fork, pounds 26.95; Daisy Grubber, pounds 38.95

With so many comments from seasoned gardeners along the lines of "all you need is a little fork and lot of hard work", we thought it appropriate to include these traditional tools - and were vindicated when they were voted the winners. The two-tined Jekyll Weeding Fork is a replica of one designed in the 1890s for Gertrude Jekyll, and made for her by the local blacksmith. Like the Daisy Grubber, which features a sort of roll bar to give leverage as you hike daisies and dandelions out of the lawn, it has been hand made from stainless steel, and has a brass ferrule and super- smooth, beechwood handle. "They are lovely to hold and use," said Andrew Simpson, adding, "the weeding fork is great for onion beds, or borders where the plants are close together and the two prongs can get in between." Other panellists eulogised about the tools at length. "Of course you have to pay 40 per cent more for the name Jekyll," said Bruce Jefferson cynically, "but the tools are a thing of beauty and will last forever."

**ROOT MASTER

pounds 9.99

The hand-held Root Master was assessed as "quite useful" - but only once the panellists had managed to master the tool itself. You have to crouch down, plunge the tool's spike into the ground next to the desired weed, then pull hard to extract the whole plant, roots and all, out of the ground. "It works better with tap roots," said Claire Blezard, "- the large fibrous ones [like dandelions] are more difficult." Bruce Jefferson found getting the weed out of the tool "a bit of a pain. By the time you've got it out you could have forked the weed out."

****WINGED WEEDER

pounds 16.99

This American-made hoe which has a long wooden handle and an arrowhead- shaped blade was seized upon as "a great improvement on the traditional Dutch hoe" (Claire Blezard). "This is by far the most effective of all the stand-up, annual weed killing tools," said Anita Cameron. Donald Hudd said: "Any hoe is at its best when kept sharp, but this is particularly good because it has cutting edges both forwards and backwards, and it's smaller and lighter than a Dutch hoe so does less damage among precious plants." On dryish soil, using the winged weeder is vigorous work - but you feel you're covering a lot of ground quite quickly. Bruce Jefferson thought it a nice irony that this weeder - like the Hortus Ornamenti tools - is an adaptation of a tool in use for centuries. "All these other fancy gadgets are simply fuelling the myth of the low maintenance garden," he said. "If it's a real garden, you've got to work on it. If you hate weeding, use mulch and plants which give ground cover. But you'll still find yourself forking over the soil which aerates as well as removes weeds."

***PARASENE WEED-WAND

pounds 29.99

Fuelled by a small butane gas canister, the Weed Wand is like an extended magician's wand, with a piezo switch which ignites its gas flame at the end. "This would be very good if you have a lot of hard landscaping [eg brick paths and gravel driveways]," said Bruce Jefferson. The principle is the same as for the electric heat gun, but you don't have to trail a cable around on an extension lead and the flexible hose gives a certain freedom of movement. Its down side is the length: "It looks fine in the picture on the box," said Donald Hudd, "but the model is obviously extremely short and so doesn't have to stoop."

STOCKISTS

Jekyll Fork and Daisy Grubber, from Hortus Ornamenti on 01243 782 467; all products listed are available by mail order from Queenswood garden products catalogue, 01432 830 015.

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