Garden Equipment and Tools
I don’t think there is any area of gardening activity where more conservatism has been shown for so long by so many as in the design and use of tools. Hand tools like the spade and hoe are still recognisably the same as those used many centuries ago. Constructional materials have changed, especially in the past few decades, but the relatively unchanging nature of the designs should at least suggest that they are effective. Allowing for the basic principles, the individual style of tools is a personal matter and I would strongly advise you to sample and handle any tool before you buy it. The notion of giving a gardening friend or relative a new spade as a present is an appealing one; but do let them choose it themselves.
Although the basic design of many hand tools has not changed, the influence of the science of ergonomics has made us more aware of the need to match the tool to the user. As a result, longer and shorter handle lengths are available for those gardeners taller or shorter than average. Many manufacturers also now produce entire ranges of lighter and smaller tools, generally called ‘ladies’ ranges’.
The multi-change or detachable head system is valuable but nothing new. The same handle is used for a number of different tool heads which are easily interchanged. The system offers you a choice of handles so once having found one that suits you, all of your cultivating tools will be of the right length; and will be easier to store. If you are buying a set of tools from scratch, such a system should be cheaper and also has benefits for disabled gardeners. The only disadvantage that I have found is if you are undertaking a task that requires constant swapping of tools, from say rake to hoe.
It is an oft-repeated maxim that the more you pay, the better the product; by and large this is true of garden tools. But remember that you are not buying disposable merchandise but acquiring the means to enjoy your gardening for many years. Therefore, buy the best you can afford. For all hand tools, with the exception of forks, I’m convinced that stainless steel offers the ultimate in quality, although they are considerably more expensive than basic carbon steel models. They move more easily through the, they remain sharper for longer and require the minimum of maintenance (a mere wiping with a cloth after use).
The reason that I exclude forks from this general eulogy is that I find that tines on stainless steel tools bend far too easily – here carbon steel is to be preferred. If your finances are limited, however, your priorities for stainless steel should lie with those tools that most benefit from the smooth finish: the digging appliances like spades, trowels and the push hoe.
And so to my short list of essential cultivating tools for every gardener with open soil to till: a spade and fork (initially, I suggest that you buy small bolder varieties rather than full-sized versions as these can be purchased later if you progress to large scale vegetable growing); a hand trowel and hand fork; a push hoe; and a spring line rake (sometimes called a lawn rake). Lightweight, aluminium handles are to be preferred for cultivators while slightly pliable wood is best for spades and forks (where ash is the norm for long-handled versions and beech for the small, hand tools).
Cutting Tools: Among tools with cutting edges, secateurs are the most important and here the choice lies between scissor action or by-pass tools — with two blades working against each other — and anvil action models with one blade cutting against a solid surface. The former are more gentle with soft stems while the latter are valuable for cutting hard, woody tissue without being damaged. I am still unsure which I would choose if I could have only one but in less experienced hands, I think it would be the anvil pattern. Even more than with cultivators, quality pays in cutting edge tools but if cheap, poorly made secateurs are frustrating, then cheap shears are even more so.
Powered hedge trimmers (see below) mean, I’m sure, that the days of the short-handled garden shear are numbered but modern single-handed shears, based on the ancient sheep shear principle are nonetheless very useful for trimming into difficult corners or cutting back small bushy plants, such as heathers. It is extremely useful to be able to hold the shoots in one hand whilst cutting with the other. And for lawn edging, no power cutter in the world can give anything remotely like the finish of a long-handled lawn edge shear.
Lawn Tools: Apart from the long-handled lawn shear, the half-moon lawn edging knife is relatively inexpensive but gives a perfect straight edge at the start of the season so is well worth the investment. Lawn mowers themselves now come in an astonishing array of types but there remain two basic principles in lawn mower design: that based on a cylinder of rotating blades and that based on some form of slasher, which these days is more likely to be of nylon than metal. After years evaluating a large number of machines, my preferences are: large petrol-engined wheeled rotary mowers; petrol-engined cylinder and electric cylinder mowers (all with grass collectors); and small electric hover rotary machines. If I had one small lawn, I would use the electric cylinder. With fairly largeof good turf, you can find work for all of the remaining three, using the big rotary (which is really at home on rougher grass) early in the season when the surface is uneven, wet and littered with the debris of winter, the big cylinder machine during the summer to give a smooth finish and attractive stripes and the small hover mower to reach beneath overhanging shrubs and into difficult corners.
Rakes: Whilst I have suggested a lawn rake as your only garden rake, it will be of little use for one particularly laborious task: the periodic removal of moss from the lawn and it is here that electric or, better, petrol-engined lawn rakes are invaluable. At least one manufacturer offers a machine with interchangeable cassettes that can be switched from mower to rake. Their collection boxes, however, are all too small; much the best plan is to use the machine without the collector and rake the moss and ‘thatch’ into heaps afterwards.
For many years gardeners have managed solely with hand tools but the effectiveness and relatively low cost of modern powered appliances mean that they have a crucial part to play in relieving the more routine and tedious tasks. In all except the very, therefore, I rank some power tools as very important. I have already discussed lawn mowers and lawn rakes but other powered appliances have now joined my list of gardening indispensables.
Compost Shredder: I have chosen this for two reasons, the first being that my garden, as everyone else’s, benefits from as muchas can be provided. The shredding enables me to compost a great deal more coarse material, and more quickly and efficiently than otherwise. The second is that in enabling me to compost so much more material, I am spared the problem of transporting it elsewhere as rubbish. But I would also add that if a large and powerful shredder is invaluable, a small, under-powered one can be a frustration in other than for it will jam with annoying regularity. So while the debris from a small garden can be coped with by an electric shredder of around 1000 watts, larger gardens really will only be served by large electric or, better still, petrol-engined machines.
But there is one other feature of compost shredders that anyone who has any experience of them will know: they are very noisy. Do therefore be very careful in choosing the time for using any shredder to avoid disturbing the neighbours.
‘Vacuum Cleaners’: The second powered machine that I now find extremely useful is a device generally referred to as a ‘garden vacuum cleaner’. The effectiveness of these appliances has improved beyond measure in recent years and whilst I’m still not convinced that they can double up as municipal road sweepers, as the manufacturers seem to believe, they have one essential role. There is nothing quite like them for collecting hedge trimmings; even from gravel surfaces.
Cultivators: Powered cultivators (often called rotavators, although this is a brand name) are only worth considering if you have a large vegetable garden; even then they have drawbacks. Their weight and the action of L-shaped tines can encourage a hard pan to form, especially on heavy clay soils, and they can very effectively chop up and disperse couch grass and other perennial. Choose a petrol-engined machine of at least 25hp with variable handle positions and a good range of attachments; and check that you can handle the machine in operation as they are not easy to steer.
Trimmers: Grass trimmers (often called strimmers, also a brand name) are useful for trimming around awkward areas for which you should choose a model with an automatic nylon-feed. They can’t, however, cope with very long rough grass; for this you will need a brush-cutler with a rotating metal blade, a dangerous machine in inexperienced hands.
Hedge Trimmers: I’ve already referred to the widespread acceptance of powered hedge trimmers of which a large range of brands is now available. Assuming that you choose a modern appliance with all modern safety devices (two switches, short stopping time and so forth), the two practical considerations relate to length and quality. Cheaper (and longer bladed) models are more noisy and have more vibration. Rechargeable electric models are available but I find them heavy and with too short a running time.
Safety: Finally, having touched on safety, do be sure that you have a circuit breaker (popularly called a trip switch) with any electrical appliance and also use gloves and eye protection.