I went off on a mission with my friend Ray Baker the other day, and clearly he had the upper hand. We were cutting evergreens for swagging, and I’d come ill-equipped for the task. All I had on (besides several dozen layers of sweaters, coats, woolens, and leggings) was a pair of cotton gloves. Ray was armed with a well-worn pair of rubber-dipped painter’s gloves. Bright, glow-in-the-dark blue, they looked mighty strange, but he could handle the spruce without pain. I, on the other hand, was defenseless.
Have you noticed that there’s a certain machismo surrounding the wearing of gloves in the garden? For many years, professionals claimed that real gardeners don’t wear gloves. Real gardeners will ruin their fingernails, shred their cuticles, and bleed their knuckles before they’ll put on any sort of protection.
I’m not sure exactly when that changed. Gardeners still stammer a bit before confessing that they wear gloves. First, they’ll explain—at length—that they still plant seeds, weed, and do meticulous hands-on work bare-handed. But then, when it’s clear that they’re speaking to a sympathetic party, they’ll admit to wearing gloves for the really heavy work. All of the gardeners I spoke with, even the toughest no-nonsense professionals, wear gloves when working with roses, rocks, or anything with barbs. Beyond that, most gardeners don gloves when doing repetitive work that might cause blisters, such as digging, transplanting, raking, or hoeing. And an increasing number of us wear gloves whenever we go into the garden.
I see the day, in the not-so-distant future, when gloves will garner the same respect as sunblock. As Harriet Zbikowski, designer of Foxgloves, points out, “Hands are the gardener’s most important tool, and gardening is really tough on them.” As with any tool, it helps to know the options available. Gloves come in all styles, materials, and sizes. The trick is to find the glove with the strength and design that matches the job at hand, and to hit upon a comfortable fit for you. Needless to say, a glove is no good if it doesn’t fit properly. In fact, I’ve found that ill-fitting gloves can cause worse blisters than going bare-handed.
According to Dorian Winslow of Womanswork, a company that specializes in gardening products designed for women, “women have thinner hands than men; their fingers are proportionally longer, but more slender. Men have squat, square hands. Most companies just downsize men’s gloves for women, but women’s gloves should be based on a woman’s bone structure.” With those points in mind, Womanswork puts out a line of gloves of all styles and materials: cuffed and uncuffed, gauntlet or over-the-wrist, made of close-fitting goatskin (‘for maximum tactilityrsquo;), deerskin (‘extremely supple, great for yard work and horseback ridingrsquo;), pigskin (‘for hand dexterityrsquo;), cowhide, and suede, with or without palm patches (‘for extremely hard work, like wood splitting and tree workrsquo;). The catalog leaves no stone unturned when it comes to leather gloves. Not to discriminate, they also carry gloves for men. But men still stubbornly shy away from wearing hand protection.
Men have a wide variety of excuses, but most voice frustration about the lifespan of the tool. A friend of mine turns to a box of old mismatched ski gloves and avails himself of whatever he can fish out when he has a tough job to do. “There’s no point in buying gloves for gardening,” he complains; “no matter what I put on, my fingers break through the end by evening.” One solution is to buy gloves in bulk. Several gardeners that I spoke with pick up cheap cotton painter’s gloves or something similar, wear them until they sprout holes, discard them, and then work their way through a pile of widowed right- and left-handed versions.
Still, it makes sense to keep a pair of leather gloves around for really nasty encounters between briars and tender skin. Pigskin is the toughest leather, with cowhide a close second, followed by goatskin and deerskin, which can’t withstand sharp thorn pricks. Sheepskin is not nearly as strong, and will actually tear in a skirmish with a bramble patch, but it’s gentle on the hands.
The problem with leather is that it seizes up when wet. There’s nothing quite as cumbersome as trying to stuff your fingers into a pair of tightened, hard gloves after they’ve been through a day of postrain weeding. The solution is to put them There are alternatives to leather beyond those cutesy little printed canvas gloves that your mom used to don when puttering around in the petunias. Tamsin Goggins, a professional gardener who often works in rock gardens, prefers to leave her fingers exposed for maximum dexterity. “I need direct contact,” she explains. But that doesn’t necessarily mean going naked-handed. She opts for 100 percent wool gloves with tipless fingers. “They’re warm for planting bulbs in autumn, they’re not scratchy, and they can be found at any camping store,” she says.
Debbie Munson, a garden designer in northwestern Connecticut, doesn’t always wear gloves, but values them for certain activities. An altercation with a rosebush, for example, calls for leather gauntlet gloves to protect her wrists and lower arms. And when her hands become dry and chapped from overexposure to cold, wet soil, she goes out armed with rubberized Mud Gloves. She’s not the only fan of Mud Gloves—people have left gifts of these cotton, rubber-dipped gloves at my doorstep. They’re about as flexible as dishwashing gloves (in other words, they have a grip all their own, no negotiation possible), but they do resist heavy thorns and brambles.
Robin Zitter, the gardener at the Bellamy-Ferriday House in Bethlehem, Connecticut, bemoans the fact that her favorite type of oiled cotton gloves no longer seem to be on the market. Instead, she now uses heavy-duty insulated rubber gloves or gauntlet-type dishwashing gloves when wrangling roses, although she doesn’t find them as satisfactory as the oiled cotton that has vanished from her life.
For those who want to protect their hands fashionably, there’s Foxgloves. Made of Supplex nylon and Lycra spandex, they fit snugly, allowing you to perform precise tasks such as repotting with maximum dexterity. They don’t retain water, they’re comfortable, and the long fit ensures that they don’t ride up on your wrist. Coming in colors that include periwinkle, iris, tulip, delphinium, and fuchsia, they may be more of a fashion statement than most men can handle, but comfortably masculine shades like moss and compost are available as well, and the larger sizes do fit a man’s hand. Priced at $25 a pair, they can’t really be bought in bulk, nor are they meant for really tough jobs—Foxgloves are best kept for the precision work.
Although there doesn’t seem to be a glove that can tackle every situation in the garden, the possibilities are expanding. Your best bet is to keep several pairs of gloves for a variety of tasks. Buy leather gauntlets for rose pruning, rubberized gloves for wet work, and nylon gloves for transplanting seedlings. That way, you’ll have any garden situation well in hand.