Monday 25 December 2017

Tool story

Not Peter's tool shed
 More like it
Nothing like
Peter Williams tells me he wrote this down in frustration the day of the debacle. Don’t ask me as a none digger why he wanted to fluff up his soil!
The article has been published in the journal of our local group of the Hardy Plant Society. Peter has published many fine pieces for this blog This is a long one but it has tickled my fancy and I know you will have nothing better to do than read it this Christmas day!

Old tools for new by Peter Williams

Early this year on the day before we opened our garden for a small group of retired professional gardeners, I was madly rushing about trying to do all the jobs I had intended to do much earlier
The final job was to lightly scarify the soil between the plants and I went to the tool store to find my cultivator.  This old friend belonged to my late father-in-law who used it for at least 50 years before I became its keeper. He used it throughout his garden but especially in his immaculate vegetable plot.  I opened the door of the tool store to reveal the total jumble of tools thrown in at the end of the previous day’s panic gardening.  The cultivator was nowhere to be seen.  I guessed that I must have left it somewhere in the garden and began looking for it. Initially I looked in the likely places, then the unlikely places, then the shed another couple of times until finally, I remembered that I had last seen it lying on top of the front hedge a couple of days earlier. Unfortunately it was not on the hedge when I went to look and soon convinced myself, after looking in the shed yet again, that someone had seen this lovely tool as they passed by and just couldn’t resist walking off with it. 

Now the obvious thing to do was to get a fork and use this instead of the cultivator, but of course, I didn’t.  My mind was set on a cultivator so I drove to my local agricultural store that stocked quality tools, replacement handles and all sorts of wonderful bits and pieces used by real farmers and growers. I was dressed appropriately for this visit, mucky jeans with holes, old wellies, and a general tramp-like scruffiness that passed as entirely normal in the agricultural store.  To my horror, there were no cultivators in stock but the helpful assistant suggested that I might get one at the local garden centre

Now this up-market garden centre is of the ‘cafe with plants’ variety and I knew that in my current state of dress, I would look as out of place there as would a single bedding plant in a three litre pot selling for £7.50  in a real nursery. But I decided this was an emergency – I needed the cultivator and I would just rush in, get one, rush out again and not embarrass the gentle folk there for coffee and cakes. I ignored the bedding plants which seemed to be on on the fertiliser equivalent of steroids that greeted me on entering the store, and went directly to the rack of shiny tools.  I selected a cultivator with a nicely varnished handle and three gleaming stainless steel tines.  It was expensive, but it looked well-made and after all, this was a real emergency.  I bought it and returned home. It took only one attempted stroke to see there was a problem! 

Instead of nicely disturbing all the soil, the cultivator merely produced two scratches on the soil surface. I tried a few more times with the same result and then made the sort of inspection that I should have had in the garden centre.  The realisation came instantly. In the words of my father-in-law, “You have bought a pup”   

The three tines were all the same length and bent to the same angle instead of the usual configuration where the central tine is longer (or shorter) than the outside ones. No adjustment was possible because the tines were welded together. This meant that the only way the points of all three tines could engage with the soil at the same time was when the tool was parallel with the ground.  Now I know that I am getting old and spend  more time on my knees than I should, but the idea of having to lie flat on my stomach in order to use the wretched tool was going too far.  In addition, the three tines were generally round in section with just a slight horizontal flattening at their tips, so even if I did adopt a prostrate position, all I would achieve would be three scratch marks rather than two.  
My inherited cultivator on the other hand, had adjustable tines so that it could be made comfortable to use for gardeners of all heights. In addition, the tines had spoon-shaped, flattened sections that almost overlapped and hence created a fine tilth across the entire width of the tool as it was drawn along. I used it as a three tine cultivator but it was possible to add two additional tines when a wider cultivation was required or the middle tine could be removed to cultivate either side of a row of seedlings.  This configuration was widely used by farmers who grew sugar beet and hand weeded, before modern selective herbicides were introduced. My father-in-law used it in this configuration to weed either side of his laser-straight lines of seedlings in his vegetable garden. 
I thought about putting the new cultivator into the vice and bending the middle tine to a more appropriate angle but I remembered the occasion when I used the gleaming stainless steel gardening fork that I was given as a retirement present. A tine broke the first time I used it.

Stainless steel is a wonderful material but probably not to make digging forks. I took the cautious approach and a few days later, dressed rather more appropriately, returned to the garden centre. I had prepared my opening statement just in case they were reluctant to refund my purchase and it would go along the line “ It’s beautifully made but just not fit for purpose, it just doesn’t work” .(Rather like my modern ride-on lawn mower that has a comfortable seat, lovely paint work and brilliant lights but has three basic faults, it’s hopeless at cutting grass, even worse at picking it up and makes as much noise as a low flying Chinook helicopter)

Whose toy?
I had no need to worry about returning the item, on entering the garden centre the greeter (yes that’s right - just like the Disney store) looked at the tool I was carrying and said Oh dear, the return desk is on the left”.  The assistant hardly looked up as I approached and before I could get the first part of my story out said “Did you buy it with cash or card”. He just took it off me, turned around and put it on a shelf where I noticed a small collection of tools clearly from the same manufacturer.  I asked what was wrong with the tools that I could see on the pile and the assistant replied that the shafts of the hoes had bent and the teeth on the rakes snapped at their first time of use. This was clearly a case of tools being designed for appearance rather than performance which was a pity because they were actually well made with good materials.  Unfortunately, the designer had obviously never gardened or had his or her designs field-tested.  
On a subsequent visit to the garden centre about a month later, I visited the tool section and noted that the same range was still being stocked. Even the totally useless three tine cultivator!  

A few days after the garden visit I decided to tidy the garden shed.  I felt the only way forward was to take out all the tools and other items I had hidden in there just before our visitors had arrived (old barbecue, empty plant pots, broken seat, half-dead pot plant, tray of cat litter) and start again. During this operation I found my cultivator actually hanging on a peg near its intended home – how had I not seen it?   The answer lies I guess, in how I look for things, especially when I am in a panic – quick scan and then try somewhere else.  I believe this is a male trait and one so well known in my household that whenever I say to my wife “I’ve looked everywhere for item x and it is definitely not there”, she replies – “yes but that’s just a man’s look – I will go and have proper look”.  Minutes later she invariably returns with the missing item and hands it over with a deep sigh

Unlike the modern cultivator I purchased in haste, tools made in the past by high quality manufacturers were very much made for purpose. Catalogues advertised a wide range of spades, shovels, forks and a bewildering array of specialist weeding and cutting tools. Since hand tools were usually the only ones available it was important that they worked well. I was reminded of this just recently when I helped my elderly neighbour with his hedge cutting. He had farmed all his life in the village. I trimmed the hedge with a very effective but noisy petrol hedge cutter and then set about the longer task of clearing up the debris by forking it into a wheel barrow. My neighbour watched me work and then shuffled off and came back a few minutes later declaring “ Now lad, try this one” – he had brought a beautiful old fork with nine broad, flattened tines with rounded rather than pointed tips.  The inner tines were bent to make a shallow scoop and it was designed for moving potatoes and it worked brilliantly at picking up hedge clippings. When we finished he asked if I would like to see his other old tools and I was amazed to see a long row of beautiful spades, shovels and a range of forks all immaculately clean and well oiled.  He explained that whenever a farm worker finished with his tools he always cleaned and oiled them before they were put away. This task took only a few moments and was always considered worthwhile because the tools were expensive and highly valued items that only worked well when they were bright. If a young farm labourer ever forgot to clean his tools his foreman or the farmer would certainly let him know about it!  It is a pity that most museums and National Trust properties with collections of old farming and gardening equipment invariably display them as sets of rusty items in poor repair.  Since they faithfully conserve the house artefacts surely they could do the same for the gardening stock and display it how it would have been in the garden’s heyday - clean and in good working order  

Many of my own tools are hand-me downs and I love the fact that they were used by previous generations. My favourite is a ditching shovel that I inherited from an old uncle. The shovel has a small rectangular blade with the edges turned up and a very long swan-neck handle.  It was designed to skim the bottom of ditches and the design meant that the worker could stand almost upright and still use the blade in a horizontal plane.  The tool is very light and the long handle is quite narrow making it unsuitable for any heavy work. 

Unfortunately my shovel has a crack in the ash shaft just where it extends from the blade and it is now impossible to find a replacement steam-bent shaft.  However, I still use it on a daily basis for light duties and always when I mix my potting compost ingredients 

The shovel was made in Sheffield and is marked ’C.T.Skelton. The fact that it is marked only with ‘Sheffield’ (a sure sign of quality in the early 20th century) indicated that it is old and certainly made before 1916 because after this date tools usually carried the ‘Made in England’ stamp. Skelton together with other Sheffield companies like Hardy’s and Brade of Birmingham and Elwell of Wednesbury were the top makers of the day and their tools are now actively collected by vintage tool enthusiasts. 
Anna Pavord writing in The Independent suggested that Skeltons were the Rolls Royce of tool manufacturers and in their day workers were proud to own them

All of these companies have now disappeared but at plant fairs their products can still be purchased from  ‘old tool suppliers’.  The cost of many fully restored old tools is comparable to buying new tools but the quality, history and usability of the old tools make them much more appealing.  Alternatively, you can often buy excellent old tools from junk shops or local auctions. They might look rusty and unloved but with just a little care and attention can be fully restored.  So next time you want a ‘new’ spade, trowel, fork or even cultivator, don’t automatically rush to the local garden centre. Have a day out at a plant fair and see the lovely old tools on display, talk to the enthusiast selling them and think “old tools for new”. 

 Anna Pavord, Tool Story : Heard the one about the couple who set up a company repairing beautiful old trowels and spades?  The Independent, 11December 2010. 

If you enjoy old tools and garden ephemera (thank you for the word Anna) then plan a visit to the garden museum in the new year

If you enjoy recreated historic gardens visit The Geffrye museum

Despite my being snooty about scarifying the soil surface I sent down a request to Peter to take a picture of the tool in his story. Fortunately he again was unable to find the said implement! He did send me this image of this more delicate relation. Regular readers may wish to look away.

Psst.... this is more like it!

Tuesday 19 December 2017

Garden gifts for the tool shed (6), Felco secateurs

Proper pruners

Hang on to your Felco secateurs
Over six days before Christmas I make some suggestions. They are tools that I regularly use. I cannot claim that there are not better ones and if you have your own personal favourites please let me know

Felco secateurs
Professional pruners
We bought Brenda’s big sister Joyce a pair of Felcos for Christmas several years ago. Her enthusiasm was hardly deafening. One might even say she looked somewhat deflated.
That was before she used them. She now claims to have been ecstatic when she realised how It transformed her gardening.
Too many gardeners put-up with next to useless cheap secateurs. They do not know what they are missing. Good secateurs cut cleanly and tackle thick woody shoots with ease.
At one time I always carried Felcos in my car when I visited friends and relations. Too often had I carelessly offered to prune a shrub for them and my anticipated five minutes turned into an hour because their own secateurs were so pathetic.
You can choose several models of Felcos including special ones if you are left handed. My own hand span is small and I buy number sixes

An ambitious Felco cut. Perhaps Jack should take the strain?
All Felcos have red handles and I still manage to lose them!

This is one of many sources of Felcos. Shop around for a good price

My pruning posts are the least read ones! Too many gardeners fear having a go. Get out in the garden this Christmas or gain confidence about pruning by clicking the link in my theme column!

Reply to HELENE
Peter Williams' reply to Helene's question in the comment column

Dear Helene,
Felcos are always good when new but I find that they do blunt just as quickly as other makes despite their very high initial cost.  The cheaper Felcos are just that - rather inferior in all ways to the expensive ones. ​
I do resharpen the blades but never manage to get them quite as sharp as when new.  Replacement blades are available but I believe that they cost as much as the disposable secateurs mentioned below. 

The disposable secateurs that I have used for a number of years are really excellent (grey/silver pair below).   They have cost £5.99 for the last couple of years and I get them from a discount store in York called Boyes.  They do not have a brand name but simply state that they are made from High Carbon Japanese steel SK5.  They are superbly sharp (better that Felco) and will cut thin paper beautifully.   They remain sharp for a long time and their relatively small size just suits me.  The catch cannot easily be released with the holding hand and that is the  only slight disadvantage to the model.  Last year's pair are shown at the top of the photograph.  I have seen them on sale at Chelsea and other flowers shows for £10 - still a bargain.

Since last Spring I have also been using a simple pair of Japanese secateurs that I purchased at Harrogate Spring  Flower show from a Dutch stallholder.  They cost £17 and are the best small secateurs that I have ever used.  Wonderfully sharp and a delight to use.  They are labelled Chikamasa PS-7.  I have looked them up on the web and unfortunately most suppliers want Felco prices for them. 


Monday 18 December 2017

Garden gifts for the tool shed (5), Jack Saw

Prune alright Jack

Over six days before Christmas I make some suggestions. They are tools that I regularly use. I cannot claim that there are not better ones and if you have your own personal favourites please let me know

Irwin 880 Universal saw

I found Peter Williams up a ladder sawing a very large branch. He was using the kind of saw that rusts in my garage, is never used and would not cut butter. Surely he knew that a bow saw refreshed with a new blade was what he really needed?

Wrong yet again! Modern blades are sharp and long lasting. I took an Irwin back home and prune with a bow saw no more.
The jack saw is strong, light and flexible. It is so easy to guide into awkward angles and cut close and cleanly to a trunk.(But remember you always need to cut to a neat shoulder for large branches).
Pruning trees and sawing logs for the fire is now pure pleasure.

The more I use this saw the more I like it and find myself using it in circumstances where I might have otherwise used loppers, secateurs or even my hedge trimmer. Here is a list.
1. Removal of copious water-shoots that sprout on such as apples and pears heavily pruned in the previous year. Similarly cutting back dense bundles of woody shoots from the ground on shrubs such as spiraea
2. Cutting out larger branches normally taken out by loppers. Those in awkward places or needing to be cut close to a trunk.
3. Dividing herbaceous plants with tough bases such as bog irises or those with wiry roots like Lathyrus vernus.

Ideal for dividing my dwarf bulrush to give pieces to friends
4. Cutting back certain ornamental grasses such as miscanthus when their leaves sometimes clog up the teeth of the preferred hedge trimmer.
5. Cutting back tough large petioles on such as phormiums or whipping out a gunnera leaf that has strayed. I preferred it to cut back thick clumps of asparagus this year.

My felco could not wait for tomorrow

Sunday 17 December 2017

Garden gifts for the tool shed (4), Berthoud sprayer

A good knapsack sprayer
Berthoud Velmorel
Sparkle  approved
Over six days before Christmas I make some suggestions. They are tools that I regularly use. I cannot claim that there are not better ones and if you have your own personal favourites please let me know

The basic model is sufficient. Best to buy it ready assembled
Knapsack sprayer Berthoud Velmorel 1800 and 2000
The only time I have ever needed to spray insecticide using a knapsack was on a hundred metre long two metre high hedge infected with box caterpillar in France. With its high pressure spray it evenly covered and penetrated. It paid for itself in one go in preserving this valuable feature. The last time I sprayed insecticide or fungicide in my own garden was in 2016 when I sprayed my brassicas using a two pound hand sprayer. I go from the ridiculous to the sublime and poo poo expensive sprayers for trivial jobs in the garden.

In contrast when it comes to spraying for weed control only the best will do if you want long lasting speed and essential accuracy. I estimate that in my life I have emptied a full or (more recently) partially filled fifteen litre knapsack ten thousand times (Until this year I have looked after up to six acres). My current Berthoud has been filled more than a thousand times. At a price of about £150 it will when it needs replacing have cost ten pence a go. I could not garden without it. Any gardener who is serious about using glyphosate should use no other than a proper professional  sprayer. Anything else will lead to disappointment. For most gardeners a good sprayer will last lifetime.
PS If your garden really is pocket handkerchief use a hand sprayer and not a cheap knapsack! or hand weed!

There are several sprayers made by Berthoud and Cooper Peglar and all are good. My most recent experiences are with the two Berthouds in the title. My own is the all singing all dancing Velmorel 2000 although by now it has lost its special accoutrements and is no better than the cheaper model. Peter in France bought the £100 one and when I go over  and use it to spray his weeds and his hedge it fulfils all my needs. (If you do change from one chemical to another make sure the diaphragm has been sprayed dry)

This seems to be a suitable source if you do not wish to use the sponsored adverts on your search engine. Use this firms's search box and you might find some of the other suggestions in this series

Link This is my most recent post on using a knapsack sprayer
Links to tools in this series

Saturday 16 December 2017

Garden gifts for the tool shed (3), Plastic scarifier

A plastic scarifier for grandad
The grim sweeper
Over six days before Christmas I make some suggestions. They are tools that I regularly use. I cannot claim that there are not better ones and if you have your own personal favourites please let me know

Plastic lawn rake

Draper 31069 550 mm Large Head Plastic Leaf Rake

I was annoyed. Not so much that my new lawn rake appeared to be so flimsy, more at myself that I should expect more for a fiver. I thought I might make an unfavourable comment to the vendor but was too lazy.

A bit like a fairy
I was going through one of those phases when I wanted to attack the coarse grass in my lawn by raking it high to be chopped by my mower. Not a very successful management strategy and my metal scarifier had lost too many tines. Hence my parsimonious buy.

I was wrong. My thoughts were a slander. It is a wonderful gadget. What I thought flimsy is light, strong and whippy. After several years it still holds together - although Cathi’s one is now somewhat dog eared. The strong plastic blade really is rather durable.
It’s no good for heavy aspects of lawn scarification such as raking out moss but for my original purpose works very well. 
It is superb for raking up light litter such as leaves on the lawn or debris on the border or collecting hedge clippings. It is a pleasure to use. I love it when I flip out the flotsam from the lawn edge and  - in my case - mulch the border.
It is my first port of call when I need to sift out water weed and filamentous algae from my two rather large ponds. It is not as strong as my metal scarifier but is so much lighter to use and scoops better

It deserves better 

Friday 15 December 2017

Garden gifts for the tool shed (2), Black and Decker lawn edger

A fine edge to your lawn
A new toy
With six posts before Christmas I make some suggestions. They are tools that I regularly use. I cannot claim that there are not better ones and if you have your own personal favourites please let me know

Black and Decker strimmer
30cm 36V 2.0Ah Lithium-ion Strimmer® Grass Trimmer

Light and easy to handle but a bit big for the tree
I like perfect lawn edges but have always failed to attain them. The best edges I know are in two gardens that belong to former hairdressers! They know something I don’t.
I had come to the conclusion that long handled lawn edgers are best and had got by edging a miserly once a month. With 750 metres of edge it took as much as three hours. I have tried gimmicky alternatives but they just could not cut muster.

A former colleague visiting on open day delicately enquired whether I had ever considered Black and Decker’s electric strimmer. He offered to bring his own as a demo. It has transformed my life. I have never spent a hundred quid better.

Although a long time ago I used employer's heavier petrol driven stimmers I do not have happy memories and have been prejudiced against them. Not this one, it is very light and a pleasure to use.
Modern battery operated tools are so much improved. Mine is not a great roaring monster. It might not scalp down a thick grass sward to its roots but it is proving useful for light cutting in unanticipated situations. For the lawn edge it is absolutely superb.

The battery always sits ready in the garage. (One that has no room for the car)
With a little practice the strimmer is precise and speedy. I soon will be sufficiently proficient to get round on one charge which set on ‘eco’ keeps going for half an hour. At present I go away and play for the ten minute recharging time I need. Each new time I want it, it is sitting there ready to go.
It is a light and sturdy machine. The battery stands on the bench in the garage on its charger which is very similar to the one for Brenda’s itinerant ‘hoover’. The battery clips on with ease. The strimmer head self winds with no need for adjustment and with a flick of the wrist flips horizontal to vertical.
Although not suitable to cut a new edge out of soil I do find on my own very sandy soil the line of my edge is gradually improving. 
After each cut my lawn edge is getting closer to the quality of my hairdresser friends.

30cm 36V 2.0Ah Lithium-ion Strimmer® Grass Trimmer

Although I have not used this supplier they also sell electric hedge cutters. No doubt some of the batteries will be compatible for both tools. Make sure your strimmer is supplied with its battery as it is from this featured source. Although the cord lasts for very many hours it might be a good idea to order an extra reel - it will be most frustrating to run out half way through a job. (I wish I could remember where Brenda has put my spare)
I had no sooner wrote this when I  received a sponsored ad - a good offer!

This link to one of my earlier Open Day posts gives some idea of my old edges
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