An Uncommon Tool for the Garden

By most measures, garden tools are not expensive. Only a few dollars are needed to own a satisfying tool like a sturdy trowel or the right kind of shovel for the day’s gardening task.

There are very costly garden tools, including any that uses gasoline or electricity, or are so narrowly specialized that finding where you left it takes longer than the time it saves.

I recently discovered a garden tool that combines exceptional value and very low cost: the marker flag.

Marker flags, typically, are squares of colored plastic on a wire “mast” about twenty inches long. They are available in several colors that could be used to represent various categories of items. In a garden environment, for example, the colors might be used as codes for different kinds of irrigation devices or plants.

Marker flags often are seen in collections arrayed on a landscape in development, e.g., on the banks flanking a new highway, where a landscape architect placed them to guide the installation of plants by a worker crew.

I have come upon a novel application of marker flags in the renovation of a garden bed.

Sometimes, when a gardener creates a new planting bed, or changes an existing bed, he or she plans the project to feature specific plants and selects the plants before beginning work. In such situations, the usual procedure includes a typical sequence of steps:

  1. Clear the existing vegetation.
  2. Loosen the soil and evaluate the need for amendments (this could include an assessment by a soil laboratory, or the gardener’s informal assessment).
  3. Install the selected plants and water them in.
  4. Place a drip irrigation system in the bed, with a manual or automated controller.
  5.  Cover the bare earth—and the irrigation lines—with mulch to conserve water, suppress weeds and add to the overall appearance of the bed.

For a small planting bed, this “by the book” process could be completed during a weekend or two. Some projects, however, might be larger in scale and intended to include plants that the gardener has not yet located for purchase.

In such cases, as gardeners know, life doesn’t always proceed in such a tidy manner.

My recent experience includes the renovation of several larger garden beds to contain collections of plants from each of the world’s five dry summer climate zones: the Mediterranean basin, coastal California, the central coast of Chile, South Africa, and the southwest coast of Australia.

With this ambitious goal in mind, I cleared the plants that didn’t suit the theme of each bed, and prepared the soil, following the first two steps of the standard sequence. Plants that are native to California are fairly easy to find: retail nurseries often reserve an area for the more common California natives.

I soon discovered that acquiring a desirable selection of plants from the other dry-climate zones would take time.

A gardener who is developing a bed with any particular theme in mind could encounter similar challenges in acquiring the preferred plants. For example, finding the right plants for a white garden (one of the classic themes), or a rose garden, or any other thematic planting could require weeks or months of searching for plants to comprise a satisfying design.

Patience is a virtue in gardening, as it is in other activities, but to delay the planting of a garden bed invites an invasion of weeds. The best practice, summarized above, is to plant, irrigate and mulch in short order, but that timely process might not be workable in all cases.

Here is where the marker flags can be helpful. When the selection, purchase and installation of plants must proceed slowly for any reason, use marker flags to indicate where plants will be located in the future. The gardener can then proceed to install irrigation tubing and cover the bare earth with mulch.

The immediate benefit of this strategy is to discourage the growth of weeds.

An additional benefit is that it allows the gardener to focus on the number and spacing of plants in the landscape design. If desired, the gardener could use flag colors to indicate the intended kinds of plants: ground covers in the front, mid-size perennials in the next tier, with taller shrubs (or perhaps small trees) in the background.

This approach could support thoughtful design and purposeful shopping for plants, and replace the too-common practice of impulse buying that can result in a hodge-podge collection of plants.

Although marker flags have potential value in planning and developing a garden bed or a larger landscape they are rarely found in garden centers or mail order catalogs, which typically encourage impulse purchases. To find marker flags for uses in your own garden, visit an irrigation supply store or search for “marker flags” on the Internet. These reusable tools sell for less than twenty cents apiece, usually in 100-flag bundles, making them a great bargain in the garden.

You might not want to leave these flags in your garden for long periods (visitors eventually will ask what they are about), but when the flags support the timely use of mulch to suppress weed growth, they earn their reputation as the least expensive garden tool.

Our seasonal rains are slow to arrive this year, so there is still time for a new or redesigned garden bed to establish roots before the spring. Marker flags could ease the process of planning and mulching the bed.

Enjoy your garden.

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