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Dig into gardening with quality tools

John Elsley, whose reputation as a horticulturist of unusual ability preceded him across the Atlantic, recently scored another gardening first: In a few weeks he wore one-third off the blade of a stainless-steel spade that is supposed to last a lifetime - several lifetimes, in fact.

Mr. Elsley, a plantsman with the Geo. W. Park Seed Company here, accomplished this feat by double-digging the entire stone-and-root-filled lot, almost an acre in extent, that came with his new home. Even so, he is delighted with the spade's performance. His effort exceeds several times over what most gardeners will require from a spade.

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A spade of this type doesn't come cheap (from $60 to $90), but once you have it you will never again have to invest in another spade, even if you leave this spade outdoors all year long. As long as your neighbors aren't the types who borrow things indefinitely, the spade should still be around when your great-grandson needs it, Mr. Elsley believes.

The need for a spade with class developed in Britain when royalty and other dignitaries became regularly involved in tree-planting ceremonies. A spade that shone resplendently in front of the onlookers, and particularly in front of the TV cameras, prompted development of the stainless-steel spades.

Those who used the spades in a more conventional way once the ceremonies were over quickly found that the stainless instrument not only looked good but outperformed the more conventional spades as well. It was more durable; cleaning was simply a matter of hosing it down at the end of the day; and most important, heavy clay soil did not cling to it as tenaciously as it did to ordinary steel. In short, the professional gardener found that he could accomplish more with the stainless-steel tool in a given amount of time. It became, you might say, his ace of spades.

Soon a stainless-steel spading fork was introduced, so that a matching pair of these most basic gardening tools would be available. Tubular metal-alloy handles, coated in polyvinyl chloride were later added so that the implements can be left outdoors with no obvious deterioration. But, as one new spade owner states: ''At $80 a throw, there's no way I'll ever leave it outside at night.''

As gardening has increased in importance among North Americans in recent years, the appreciation of quality tools has also risen. We have learned that a good deal more can be accomplished with quality hand tools than we in this motorized society had been led to believe. Blade angle, balance, and, especially in cultivating hoes, a handle length appropriate to our stature rather than one arbitrarily set by the postal service, have become important to us.

David Tresemer, who has toured much of the world in the past decade researching hand-tool use in various cultures, has found that individual nationalities tend to be better than others at producing a particular tool.

The Austrians, for example, produce some of the best garden scythes; the Dutch, the best cultivating hoes; and the English come out on top with spades and spading forks - which makes it appropriate that the English should be the first to introduce the stainless-steel varieties. On this side of the Atlantic, the need to build thousands of miles of railroad track in the last century saw the development of a quality shovel that no one else has yet been able to improve upon.

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Even the mass-marketing department stores now find it important to carry quality gardening tools, such is the increasing American taste for quality. But the top lines are almost exclusively sold by speciality mail-order companies. Not all of the items offered are worth the money, but many decidedly are if you are a serious gardener.

If you're in the market for some of these tools, do some comparison shopping. Prices on the same item can vary by quite a margin. Stainless-steel spades, for example, range widely in price even though only two companies make them under several different trade names. I believe the lower end of the price range more accurately reflects the current strength of the dollar relative to the British pound.

Here are some of the mail-order companies specializing in quality hand tools:

Brookstone Company, Vose Farm Road, Peterborough, NH 03458 - (603) 924-7181.

Clapper Company., 1121 Washington Street, West Newton, MA 02165 - (617) 244- 7900.

Gardener's Eden, P.O. Box 7307, San Francisco, CA 94120 - (415) 428-9292.

Gardener's Supply Co, 133 Elm St., Winooski, VT 05404 - (802) 655-9006.

Green River Tools, Inc., P.O. Box 1919, Brattleboro, VT 05301 - (802) 254- 2388.

Kinsman Company, River Road, Point Pleasant, PA 18950 - (215) 297-5613.

Geo. W. Park Seed Co. Inc., Greenwood, SC 29647 - (803) 374-3341.

Smith Hawkens, 25 Corte Madera, Mills Alley, CA. 94941 - (415) 383-4415.

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