Earthly pleasures

It takes centuries to design a garden tool

Gardening, at times, resembles couture: practitioners must demonstrate a delicate touch, and an exquisite sense of colour. But usually the job would seem familiar to members of the National Union of Mineworkers – a painful battle between a solitary individual and the face of the planet. For this heavy work gardeners need a large store of tools. Whooshing scythes, a set of nagging clippers, and spades that go shump as they sink through the earth.

To amateur gardeners – many of them city dwellers, possessed of little more space than a balcony, but sucked into horticulture by TV shows, glossy magazines and the inexorable rise of the local garden centre – the sheer range of tools used by professionals can seem overwhelming. A spade is a spade, obviously, but what about billhooks, hosepipes and beanpoles? Are those tools? And where can we buy them?

In The Tool Book, published in the US but available through, William Bryant Logan sorts tools according to their applications: digging, cultivating, propagating, planting, cutting, watering, composting, lawn care, holding and hauling, and raking and sweeping. He examines 26 types of shovels, 21 spades, 12 trowels, 16 hoes, 11 weeders, 18 hand pruners, 10 pruning saws, 24 forks, 21 hose accessories, 11 sprinklers, and 15 rakes.

Is there much to choose between them? Well, yes. Consider secateurs, one-handed clippers which come in several types. Bypass secateurs have a scissor action, for enhanced precision. Anvil secateurs, on the other hand, minimise the cutting effort. Then there are shears, which can be angled at the horizontal, or the vertical. And hoes: some you push, others you pull.

Tools are manufactured to suit practically every physical type – right-handed gardeners or southpaws, or people whose hands are uncommonly small. Ergonomic design is something manufacturers constantly stress, and on – a site for gardeners featuring “tool tips”, “tool reviews” and a “tool forum” – the spectre that hovers behind every contribution is backpain. Thus tall gardeners are advised to buy forks with long shafts; and the opposite also applies. But the working end of the tool is important too. A tiny difference in the angle of the blade can make a spade perform more like a shovel.

Garden tools have been with us for centuries, ever since medieval monks worried over their medicinal herbs – and probably longer still. Some tools have names that derive from Old English (dibble, lopper, rake, scythe and spade), others from Old French (hatchet, hoe, pincer, pruner and trowel). These have been complimented, in recent years, by hundreds of new gizmos, many of them American. For instance: the lethal “Clawdia”, manufactured in Virginia. Designed for weeding, digging and mixing, this resembles a comb in which the teeth have been replaced with three giant fish hooks. For safety reasons it also features a handle made of highly visible red plastic.

Other innovations include new versions of implements that have been with us for years: a patented hoe, crimson coloured and shaped like a heart (; a hoe with a hoop at its top, for dragging away weeds while allowing earth to pass through (, and trowels, in any of four bright colours, which the manufacturers consider to be unbreakable (“No Yard Too Hard!” asserts Then there are the entirely new inventions, such as the weed mop, available from, which is shaped more like a gun – a rifle – and filled with weed killers such as Monsanto’s Roundup. Or the seed spoon, a minuscule scoop for picking up and planting just one seed at a time (

Just possibly, these gadgets might one day become collectors items, up for sale at Sotheby’s. Twice a year – in May and September – the company auctions items for gardeners. Most of the lots are furniture, or statuary, but sometimes you might come across tools. Alistair Morris, managing director of the relevant division at Sotheby’s, is understandably keen to avoid being inundated with everyday tools of little worth, and stresses that saleable items must be particularly interesting or unusual. “There were all kinds of things made in the late Victorian, early Edwardian period – usually for the lady or gentleman owners of the garden.” Most recently, Sotheby’s sold a device for cutting and retreiving blooms which have grown otherwise inaccessible. That was sold for nearly £700. “A few years ago it would have been just £200 or so. These things have gone up in value considerably.”

Aside from producing these novelties, technology has dramatically improved the manufacture of the gardening standards. The life of shears begins with a strip of carbon steel, from which a blank is cut out by machine. The blades are then heat treated and induction hardened. A computer-controlled grinder smoothes the surface of the blades, and with pin-point accuracy machines the correct cutting angles on the bevelled edges to ensure a razor-sharp cut. The integrated blade housing and handles are then injection-moulded onto the blades and secured into place. After the shears have been assembled, the blades are set and carefully checked for correct alignment to ensure they cut correctly.

One leading British manufacturer, Spear & Jackson, manufactures garden tools at Wednesbury, in the West Midlands, and exports them to 115 countries on every continent. Its spades and forks are made of carbon steel, heat treated and tempered then coated in epoxy paint for rust resistance and reduced soil adhesion.

Of all tools, it’s the spade which gardeners value most highly, according to Fergus Garrett, head gardener at Great Dixter in Kent. “Gardening is heavy work. You might be digging for seven hours a day, three or four days a week, for two weeks. When you do long stretches of digging, you want the right tool.” Garrett’s favourite spade has been with him for 15 years, and he hopes to continue using it for just as long. “After you’ve had a spade for a while, it becomes really sharp. And you wear down the handle, getting rid of the shiny effect. Eventually, the tool becomes a part of you, like an extension of your hand.”