Category: Lawn & Garden


Bob Vila Radio: Prepare Your Garden Tools for the Off-Season

The cold season has begun in many parts of the country. If you're don't plan on using your garden tools again until spring, give them a thorough cleaning prior to putting them temporarily out of service. Here's how.

Once you’ve put your garden to bed for the winter, why not clean your garden tools before storing them away? TLC starts with laying all your hand tools out on the lawn and hosing them down with a high-pressure spray nozzle.

How to Clean Garden Tools

Photo: shutterstock.com

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Listen to BOB VILA ON WINTER TOOL STORAGE or read the text below:

You may need to use soapy water in combination with a bristle brush in order to dislodge dirt that’s caked on. It’s important to get it all off, since dirt soaks up moisture and promotes rust. Dirt also harbors pests that could infect next year’s garden.

Air-drying is fine, but a cloth can speed the process. As you dry the tools, remove any rust you encounter using either sandpaper or a stiff brush.

Sharpening is next. Use a hand file, working in one direction, to create a beveled edge. If you’d rather not do the sharpening yourself, check with your local hardware store. Lots of stores offer that service.

Finally, apply a light coat of oil to the tools, including an extra drop or two on the hinges of clippers. And don’t neglect the handles: A little linseed oil will keep them from drying out and splitting.

Bob Vila Radio is a newly launched daily radio spot carried on more than 60 stations around the country (and growing). You can get your daily dose here, by listening to—or reading—Bob’s 60-second home improvement radio tip of the day.


Bob Vila Radio: Know the Signs of a Dying Tree

You can't always save a tree from demise, but happy endings begin with you recognizing there's a problem before it's too late.

It’s not always easy to spot when a tree is in trouble, but it’s important to keep your eyes open for problems. Here are a few red flags to look out for.

Signs of a Dying Tree

Photo: shutterstock.com

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Listen to BOB VILA ON TREE HAZARDS or read the text below:

Pull ground cover away from the bottom of the tree to get a better view of the trunk. Here, hollow spots or cavities indicate serious problems. So can the presence of mushrooms; these may suggest the presence of rot or decay.

While you’re at it, check the ground on the side opposite the lean of the tree. If you see roots protruding, it could mean the tree’s beginning to topple.

Another possible hint that the tree may be in trouble: patches of missing bark on the trunk. A long streak of missing bark usually means the tree was hit by lightning, an event that’s often fatal, if not immediately then in the long term.

If you’re in doubt about the status of a tree, it’s best to call in a certified arborist. Besides having the knowledge to spot problems, arborists also use specialized tools, which enable them to bore into trees and access more definitive answers about their overall health.

Bob Vila Radio is a newly launched daily radio spot carried on more than 60 stations around the country (and growing). You can get your daily dose here, by listening to—or reading—Bob’s 60-second home improvement radio tip of the day.


A New Tool in the Shed Promises to Replace All the Others

What if the key to an organized shed is simply to ditch all your tools? Well, all tools but one. Troy-Bilt's newest system can mow the lawn, blast leaves, throw snow and much more. It may be the last outdoor tool you ever buy.

Flex System's New Do-It-All Yard Tool

Photo: Troy-Bilt FLEX System

Next spring, one yard care system is going to revolutionize the way homeowners stock their sheds. We’re used to such things as the lawn mower, leaf blower, snowblower and pressure washer all being separate machines, but the FLEX line, from Troy-Bilt, unites them all in a single, first-of-its-kind outdoor tool.

At its heart, the FLEX is a single engine designed to power a suite of attachments, each designed for a specific purpose. Choose only the attachments you want, foregoing the ones you don’t need. In addition to the four that currently comprise the FLEX roster, the company plans to develop the following in 2015 and 2016:
- Power broom
- Log splitter
- Water pump
- Chipper/shredder
- Generator
- Aerator
- Dethatcher
- Brushcutter

Each attachment will be sold separately, in à la carte fashion. The only component all customers need to buy is the power base. From there, it’s a question of need. If you live in a warmer part of the country, the attachments you choose are very likely to be different from those chosen by a homeowner in the Northeast.

FLEX System Lawn Mower and Leaf Blower units

FLEX System Lawn Mower and Leaf Blower units

The real advantage of the FLEX is how it frees you from having to store a bevy of single-function outdoor tools, each with its own bulky motor. According to Troy-Bilt, the FLEX line takes up to 60% less storage space than a traditional collection of the same equipment. Plus, there’s only one engine to maintain.

FLEX System Snow Thrower and Pressure Washer units

FLEX System Snow Thrower and Pressure Washer units

When the FLEX hits stores in March, the power base is expected to retail for $399, with a four-year limited warranty. Attachments will range from $279 to $499, each covered for two years. It may seem like a long time to wait, but we’ve waited so long to fit the car in the garage again, we can probably hold off a little longer.


Buyer’s Guide: Chainsaws

Once the province only of horror movies and lumber harvest, chainsaws are becoming more and more popular among homeowners who like to do landscaping. Read our take on the best the market has to offer.

Best Chainsaws

Photo: shutterstock.com

As much as chainsaws hold appeal for tool geeks and aspiring lumberjacks, they are also quite handy for the average homeowner, particularly those who like to do landscaping. Likewise, if you heat your home with wood, you may in fact already own a chainsaw. There are number of types and sizes on the market today, ranging from light- to heavy-duty. Choosing the best chainsaw isn’t a matter of buying the top of the line (that’d be “too much tool” for most). Making the right selection starts with an honest assessment of your needs—that is, for what purpose are you buying a chainsaw? Keep in mind its intended uses, and you can dramatically narrow down the field of options. That’s not to say power and size are the sole considerations; factors like noise and fuel type are also worth weighing. Read on to learn what distinguishes different chainsaws, so you can understand the market and choose the best chainsaw for your specific purposes.

Related Galleries

Size/Power: The size of a chainsaw hinges on its bar length—that is, the distance from the cutting tip to the housing. In effect, the bar length is the cutting area; the larger the cutting area, the larger the jobs you can confidently tackle. Bar lengths run as short as six inches or as long as 20 inches (the former would obviously weigh less than the latter). At least in gas-powered models, another measure of chainsaw power is engine displacement—that is, the engine size. A higher number indicates a more powerful engine (but here, too, recognize that the larger you go, the more weight you’ll have to lug around while you’re working).

Best Chainsaws - Cutting

Photo: shutterstock.com

Fuel Type: Quintessential chainsaws are gas-powered, but there are now many quieter, lighter—and yes, less powerful—electric models on the market. Some are corded, meaning in order to operate the tool, you must be in range of an electrical power source. Cordless chainsaws, meanwhile, run on rechargeable lithium-ion batteries. Though most lack the brawn to take down trees, battery-powered saws are more than serviceable for many common applications.

Exhaust: While electric chainsaws obviously do not release exhaust, gas-powered models emit carbon monoxide and other pollutants. In fact, California residents are only legally permitted to use chainsaws that run in compliance with certain environmental standards set by the state.

Noise: They’re loud! That’s the most frequent complaint made against chainsaws, and with good reason. At full tilt, gas-powered models can exceed 100 decibels. And believe or not, some electric saws are just about as noisy. There are some electrics, however, which operate at about 85 decibels. So if you have neighbors close by, consider choosing one of those quieter models. No matter your choice, remember to always wear hearing protection when working with such a loud tool.

Safety Features: Chainsaws are dangerous, plain and simple. They cause thousands of injuries each year. Some of the best chainsaws feature such safety features as a trigger lock, which stops the cutting action the moment you release the trigger. Also, look for anti-kickback chains, which prevent snags and minimize jolting. Finally, there are double-acting chain brakes that protect the hand from moving toward the cutting area. Focus only on models whose design prioritizes your safety.

Accessories: A range of other miscellaneous features may be found in the chainsaw market. Some may be irrelevant to your needs, but others may provide a compelling reason to select one tool over another. Look out for side-mounted or tool-free chain tensioning, for instance; that makes it easier to adjust chain tension on the go. Also handy are see-through oil and gas tanks, self-oiling chains, and spring-assist starting. The latter reduces the pulling force needed to get the tool going—what a relief!

On electric models, built-in circuit breakers prevent the motor from burning out. Corded models need heavy-gauge weatherproof extensions and a ground fault circuit interrupter. Cordless models, meanwhile, are most convenient when they come with an extended-life battery (or an extra).

To help take some of the guesswork out of the shopping process, we’ve identified a few of the top-rated chainsaws available today. These recommendations are based on the criteria listed above, on ratings by leading consumer testing sites, and on reviews written by actual people. Check out the best chainsaws:

 

Husqvarna 450 18-Inch 50.2cc X-Torq 2-Cycle Gas-Powered Chain Saw

Best Chainsaws - Husqvarna

Photo: amazon.com

The Husqvarna 450 was rated by Consumer Search as the best chainsaw among gas-powered models. Amazon shoppers give it 4.2 out of 5 stars, reserving praise for its power and ease of use. Reviewers say it’s “easy to use,” “quiet,” and “powerful,” cutting through hardwood “like a knife through butter.” The Husqvarna 450 offers a Smart Start feature and is CARB-compliant. The unit has a 50.2 cc motor powers and a 20-inch bar. Other features include a Low Vib vibration dampening system; combined choke/stop control; a centrifugal air cleaning system; chain brake; and snap-lock cylinder cover. Price: $357

 

Black & Decker LP1000 Alligator Lopper 4.5 Amp Electric Chain Saw

Best Chainsaws - Alligator

Photo: amazon.com

The electric-powered Alligator Lopper excels at cutting branches up to four inches in diameter. For that reason, Amazon shoppers gave it 4.7 out of 5 stars. One reviewer calls it his “new favorite tool.” Another says it’s “ideal for 99% of the cutting I need to do.” With a 4.5 amp motor powering a six-inch bar, the Lopper boasts powerful clamping jaws that grab and cut in one easy motion. Plus, metal guards protect the cutting chain, allowing for safe use. Price: $79

 

GreenWorks 20322 DigiPro G-MAX 40V Li-Ion 16-Inch Cordless Chainsaw

Best Chainsaws - Greenworks

Photo: amazon.com

Designated the best cordless unit, receiving 4.7 out of 5 stars on Amazon, shoppers praised the Greenworks G-MAX as “comparable to gas-powered chainsaws” in power and importantly, “easy to use.” Powered by an interchangeable 40-volt lithium-ion battery system, the chainsaw delivers higher performance and a longer run time than other cordless options, with a single charge allowing for up to 100 cuts. Additional features include a 16-inch bar length, auto-oiler lubrication system, chain brake, and low-kickback chain for safety. Price: $194


Bob Vila Radio: Adding a Fire Pit to Your Backyard

Homeowners love fire pits, not least because they are so affordable and easy to add to outdoor living areas.

If you enjoy cozying up to the fireplace in your home, why not consider adding a fire pit in your backyard? Fire pits are just the thing to bring friends and family together on cool evenings, extending the outdoor season.

Backyard Fire Pit

Photo: shutterstock.com

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Listen to BOB VILA ON FIREPITS, or read the text below:

If you keep it simple, a firepit won’t break the bank. The simplest are essentially metal bowls with legs. They’re readily available at home centers. Some come with lift-off tops to keep the rain out (when they’re not being used). Some have screened covers to contain burning embers. Still others include grills you can set over the fire for cooking.

A do-it-yourself option is to create a ring of mortared stone at ground level. You can make the ring as tall as you want. To keep rainwater from accumulating in the middle, you may want to include an underground drain.

Some municipalities restrict or forbid outdoor wood fires; before finalizing plans, be sure to check local ordinances. And one more caution: Never put scraps of pressurized wood into your firepit. When burned, the chemicals in treated wood give off noxious fumes.

Bob Vila Radio is a newly launched daily radio spot carried on more than 60 stations around the country (and growing). You can get your daily dose here, by listening to—or reading—Bob’s 60-second home improvement radio tip of the day.


Top Tips for Identifying a Hazardous Tree

How to Identify a Dangerous Tree

Photo: shutterstock.com

It’s not always easy to identify a tree that’s in trouble. In part, that’s because while trees face certain knowable foes like drought and disease, they are also vulnerable to unpredictable dangers—strong winds, for example, or lighting. Still, a responsible homeowner ought to keep his eyes open for signs of a problem. Read on to find out which red flags to be on the lookout for:

Hide and Seek
To begin your inspection of a tree, head right to its base. If the lowest part of the trunk is obscured by ground cover plantings, pull them back to gain a better view. Here, either hollow cavities or the presence of mushrooms could indicate a serious problem. Move on to checking the ground around the tree’s drip line—that is, the circumference under its canopy. Look for roots protruding up from the ground. Visible roots are not problematic in and of themselves, but if there’s other evidence to suggest that the tree is struggling, then protruding roots might mean that the tree is on the verge of toppling over.

Lightning
If you encounter a tree that’s missing a long streak of bark along its trunk, it was probably struck by lightning. Being composed mostly of water, trees are excellent conductors of electricity. When lightning hits the canopy, the bolt careens all the way day down to the roots, boiling sap in its wake and creating explosive steam. If there’s damage to one side of the trunk only, the tree might fully recover. But if bark’s missing on multiple sides, it’s likely that the tree isn’t going to survive.

How to Identify a Dangerous Tree - Bark Detail

Photo: shutterstock.com

Branch Inspection
Since dead branches are the first to fall, it’s wise to remove them from trees growing close to the house. On deciduous trees, dead branches either have no leaves or brown leaves (in the winter, this is tough to judge). With evergreen trees, look for brown needles and the absence of bark. If you successfully identify dead branches—and if those branches are easily accessible—go ahead and prune. Otherwise, call in a specialist.

Two-Trunk Trees
When trees have two or more trunks, be sure to look closely at the point where they meet. U-shaped connections between trunks are usually not a problem. A tight “V” shape, however, suggests a weak spot. If you’re worried about a particular tree, you can have a steel or elastic cable installed to keep it from splitting apart in high winds. But to be clear, this isn’t a project for the do-it-yourselfer; hire an experienced pro.

Call in the Pros
If any of the red flags discussed leave you uncertain about the health of a tree on your property, it’s best to call in a certified arborist. Besides having training and hard-earned knowledge, arborists also have specialized tools they can use to make sophisticated diagnoses far beyond the scope of this article.

Additional Notes
If you have work done on a tree, don’t let any of the workers climb the trunk by means of leg spikes. With every step, they’d be punching holes in the tree that would make ideal portals for harmful pathogens. The damage done by leg spikes might not be immediately evident, but it could eventually prove fatal to the tree.


Bob Vila Radio: Quieter Leaf Blowers Are Here, Finally

Whereas noisy gas-powered leaf blowers were once the only option, homeowners may now choose from a wider selection of models, many of which boast quiet operation.

This time of year, the intrusive sound of leaf blowers is a constant presence in nearly every neighborhood. But blowers that make less noise—yet still get the job done—are becoming increasingly available.

Leaf Blowers

Photo: shutterstock.com

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Listen to BOB VILA ON LEAF BLOWERS or read the text below:

Although many of the newer gas-powered models are far less noisy than older versions, electrics remain the quietest overall. Cordless electrics with adequate power can be pricey. Plus, depending on the size of your yard, you may need an extra battery or two to get your leaves bagged in a single day.

Some corded electric models can sweep away leaves and loosen debris about as well as gas models. If you have a smaller yard and won’t have to drag around a lot of cord, a corded electric model may be your best choice.

Lower-noise electric options are good news, especially since many municipalities nationwide are enacting rules that either limit or entirely prohibit the use of gas blowers. Before heading to the store, check local ordinances.

Bob Vila Radio is a newly launched daily radio spot carried on more than 60 stations around the country (and growing). You can get your daily dose here, by listening to—or reading—Bob’s 60-second home improvement radio tip of the day.


Wait, Is It Actually a Mistake to Rake Leaves?

Don't rake 'em, mulch 'em! Your back will thank you, and you'll be able to spend your autumn mornings sipping cider instead of bagging leaves.

Mulching Leaves

Photo: shutterstock.com

Every year, fall reintroduces us to a raft of pleasures that we get to experience in no other season—hot apple cider, pumpkin carving, and so on. But fall also signals the return of one chore many of us dread: raking leaves. As surely as the seasons change, autumn mornings witness homeowners bent over rusty-tined rakes, endlessly scraping withered foliage onto tarps and into heavy-duty garbage bags. Imperfect though it may be, that’s the world I’ve always known.

Consider my surprise when I learned that, according to lawn care experts, leaf-raking is an optional exercise. Certainly, a thick layer of leaves should not be left to smother the grass growing beneath. But raking isn’t the only—or even the easiest—method of protecting your lawn’s health. It turns out that mulching leaves—that is, mincing them to shreds with your lawn mower—is what’s best for the health of your lawn. And compared with raking, mulching leaves is much less work.

Mulching Leaves - Close-Up Shot

Photo: shutterstock.com

There are plenty of mowers with mulching capability on the market today. As well, you can easily outfit a conventional, non-mulching mower with a serrated blade specially designed for mulching. But neither is strictly necessary. You can mulch leaves with any type of lawn mower, although it might take a few passes to do the job well. No matter what type of mower you own, prepare by setting the blade to its highest setting and removing the bag that collects clippings.

Proceed to mow the lawn just as if it were any other day, not the most exciting day of your life—the day you finally break free from the tyranny of raking. The goal is to cut the leaves into shreds that are about a half-inch in diameter (more or less the size of a dime). As mentioned, depending on the volume of leaves that have fallen on your lawn, it might take more than one pass to get the shreds to the desired size. When you’re done, the leaf shreds should have fallen between the blades of grass to reveal much of the lawn. A passerby might easily be fooled into thinking that you had raked!

If when you’re done you look at the shredded leaves scattered across your lawn and think, “I can’t see any grass whatsoever,” then do this: Reattach the bag to your lawn mower and go over the grass one last time. In the process, you’ll collect a surfeit of mulched leaves that you can add either to your garden beds or compost pile. Consider mulching on a weekly basis during the height of the season so there’s not enough time between mowings for a challenging amount of leaves to accumulate.

As the mulched leaves decompose, they enhance the soil with valuable nutrients that feed the microbes and worms present in any healthy lawn. Arguably, the nitrogen boost that results from mulching is such that you don’t even have to fertilize in the fall. This means that compared with raking, mulching leaves isn’t only easier and more lawn-friendly, but it’s also less costly, saving you both the money and time spent on fertilizing. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to look at leaves the same way again. It’s a shame for them to sit by the curb all wrapped up in tightly knotted plastic bags when they could be gracing your grass with nourishment.


Bob Vila Radio: Protect Trees from Lightning

This time of year, thunderstorms are inevitable. Before bad weather comes to your neck of the woods, consider taking steps to protect the trees that contribute so much to the beauty—and value—of your property.

Beautiful trees enhance the look and value of residential properties, so no wonder people spend so much time trying to keep them healthy. One step you can take to ensure trees stay healthy is to protect them from lightning.

How to Protect Trees from Lightning

Photo: shutterstock.com

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Listen to BOB VILA ON PROTECTING TREES FROM LIGHTNING or read the text below:

Trees attract lightning for a couple of reasons. One, they’re tall. Two, they’re filled with an excellent conductor of electricity—water. Protection usually involves installing a copper cable that’s affixed to a lightning rod at the top of the tree and runs down to a long copper stake that’s driven into ground beyond the tree’s drip line. The cable isn’t attached directly to the tree. Instead, it’s mounted with special fasteners that keep it away from the trunk.

Protection doesn’t come cheap. The tab for protecting a large tree can run into several thousand dollars. If that gets you thinking of installing a cable yourself, you’ll want to ensure it’s done right. Nailing a cable directly to the trunk of a tree can attract strikes and end up doing more harm than good.

Bob Vila Radio is a newly launched daily radio spot carried on more than 60 stations around the country (and growing). You can get your daily dose here, by listening to—or reading—Bob’s 60-second home improvement radio tip of the day.



Weekend Projects: 5 Low-Cost DIY Fire Pits

Even a do-it-yourself novice can complete a DIY fire pit for less than a hundred bucks—and within a single weekend!

After a summer spent out in the Great Wide Open, we hate to retreat indoors, but in most parts of the country, it’s only a matter of time before bitterly cold winter temperatures set in. For now, though, you can extend patio season and enjoy the fall season to utmost, with a DIY fire pit. Scroll down to see five different approaches, each of which involves a different material and a different level of skill to complete. Their s’more-making capabilities? Equally outstanding.

 

1. ROCK ON

DIY Fire Pit - Stones

Photo: spoonfulofimagination.com

Rocks arranged in a circle: If there’s an older, more tried-and-tried way of safely containing a fire, I’d like to know about it. No, you needn’t live near a quarry; Spoonful of Imagination built one from stones found on the property. Occasionally maintained, this is a zero-dollar DIY fire pit that’s bound to last a lifetime.

 

2. BLOCK IT OUT

DIY Fire Pit - Cinder Blocks

Photo: mustaddfabricsoftener.com

Cinder blocks lend themselves well to a variety of projects around the house. Here, Must Add Fabric Softener laid two courses of cinder blocks over a platform of pavers to create a $20 DIY fire pit. To more firmly secure the assembly, an optional step would be to put construction adhesive where the blocks join one another.

 

3. SEE IT THROUGH

DIY Fire Pit - Glass

Photo: theartofdoingstuff.com

Karen of The Art of Doing Stuff made what she calls a “personal fire pit.” A can of gel fuel situated in the base—a repurposed metal planter—delivers the small flame, while decorative stones lay over cut-to-size mesh. Framing the fire bed is a transparent box made of four glass panels connected together with silicone.

 

4. GRILL IT UP

Photo: instructables.com

Here’s a DIY fire pit designed and built around a portable charcoal grill. The concrete portions are pre-made and readily available in home centers, where the clerks would know them as “tree rings.” Perhaps the most difficult part is to design the inner ring so that it’s of the perfect size to support the lip of a grill bowl at center.

 

5. A DRUM, SOLO

DIY Fire Pit - Drum

Photo: houseandfig.com

I would never have thought of turning the drum from a busted washing machine into a DIY fire pit. House and Fig began by stripping the drum of all its plastic parts. Next, unsightly edges were removed (with a grinder), legs were welded on, and the entire thing was painted with high-heat black matte paint. Brilliant!