15 December 2014
The right tool for the job
There are a great variety of garden tools available, and as a professional gardener I have the opportunity to use a wide range of them and, I have to confess, get rather excited about finding just the right tool for the job. I'd like to share a few general observations about garden tools along with a couple of examples that I have discovered and loved this year.
The first thing to say is that I'm not talking about powered tools. I know that many people love a good engine, I'm no exception, and although some of the things I'm going to talk about below also apply to them, we will leave our petrol driven friends for another day.
There are two types of hand tool into which we can broadly split the vast plethora of tools used regularly by domestic and professional gardeners. They are; cutting tools and cultivation tools. I'll come back to the cutting tools later.
One of the first things I noticed when I inspected Arne's tool shed was the large number of traditional and well-aged garden tools he had. There were so many in fact that I've had to slim the number down to the few that are used on a weekly basis, the others are now safely stored away. But there is something to be said for having the pick of the bunch.
Old tools often feel 'right' in the hand. There is an ergonomic quality about a well made trowel, for example, that isn't necessarily present in even the most traditional looking modern tool. Balance and weight are another two qualities you often find differentiate good quality old tools from some of their modern counterparts. Some tools, like a digging spade, may require a bit of weight in order to help you through the task, others such as rakes are better if they are balanced and light.
Back in September I was planting bulbs through rough grass using an old long handled trowel. It was a beautiful tool but snapped at the weld between the handle and the blade. I went out and bought a quite expensive replacement from a well-know premium tool maker; it lasted less than half an hour. Many modern tools appear to be great quality but fail relatively quickly. I have found Sneebeor to be a manufacturer of great quality modern tools that should last for years to come.
But I don't want this to sound like a 'they don't make 'em like they used to' rant, and in some cases they still make them exactly like they used to! I recently became the proud owner of a traditional 'Dufton' hayrake, which have been made in the village of Dufton in Cumbria for over a hundred years. It's a great tool, and I feel really lucky to have one. I am also now the owner of a traditional birch besom broom, which to be honest I have slightly struggled to adapt to. It requires a lightness to use which is quite alien to those who have only ever used steel spring rakes for tasks like raking up leaves, but with use it will wear to suit your technique.
My view is slightly different when it comes to cutting tools. I have used old traditional pairs of shears and clippers and found them to be really heavy, especially for those of us who have only ever used modern steel tools. There are some fantastic modern cutting tools out there, but as with cultivation tools, there are also some, which look good but turn out to be disappointing. I'm afraid I have found that you get what you pay for with cutting tools, but when put into perspective they don't really cost a great deal. Investing in good tools not only means they should last for many years but a valued tool is much less likely to end up lost in a compost heap!
I have always used Felco secateurs, (they are pretty much the gold standard in professional gardening circles), but this year while searching for something else entirely I came across a Japanese manufacturer called Tobisho. Tobisho hand forge garden tools out of Japanese blue steel and once produced samurai swords. As you might expect, they are fairly expensive but they are an absolute joy to use. They have a good balanced weight and make a lovely satisfying 'snip' noise when you use them, which sounds a bit odd, but try them and you will love it too!
I have also fallen in love with Barnel hedge shears. When I arrived at Allt-y-bela, I cut almost everything with petrol hedge cutters but have slowly been won over by these shears. They are made in Portland, Oregon and are light weight with a razor sharp edge which never seems to dull. They have totally changed the way I look at hedge cutting.
With Christmas just around the corner it's a good time to hunt out something lovely for the tool shed. There are some really fantastic quality tools out there both new and old if you are prepared to look for them. Happy hunting!
Words: Steve Lannin, gardener at Allt-y-bela
Photos: Britt Willoughby Dyer