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Essential garden tools

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Jim McColl Jim McColl | 09:12 UK time, Wednesday, 13 October 2010

From time to time in the Beechgrove Garden series, we shine the spotlight on garden tools. It is usually as a result of some ‘new answer to our prayers’ being launched on the market, claimed to be the greatest thing since sliced bread. My first reaction is often to question whether any consumer research and user trials have been carried out beforehand.

Jim McColl's forks and spades

My original fork and spade are both over 50 years old!

We have asked the question: what are the most essential pieces of garden equipment you need to till the soil, plant and care for your fruit, vegetables and decorative border plants. The first thing to highlight is that most of the tools you acquire will be with you for the rest of your life, if you buy wisely, look after them properly and avoid losing them.

These thoughts came to me as I watched the wonderful volunteers help with our last Community Garden project to be recorded this year. It was located behind the recently completed Small Animal Hospital at the Royal Dick Veterinary School a few miles south of Edinburgh. We had children in various groups, people who were clients of the hospital, retired people wishing to be helpful.  I could see straight away that some knew exactly what they were about to tackle and others had no tools with them and had to be supplied with something appropriate.

Let's get down to the essentials. For a planting job, the first vital implement is a digging fork to slacken up the soil to a reasonable depth. On a new site where there may be some surface compaction and large stones, bricks etc just below the surface – a favourite trick of builders keen to get a new house completed, the fork is invaluable. Where a spade will hardly make an impression on a compacted surface, the fork can be eased through it. When a spade hits a stone it will most likely come to a sudden halt whereas using a fork you will readily find an edge or a corner to start the job of prising the offending piece out of that spot where you have chosen to plant something.

I still have my original fork and spade – both are over 50 years old now but in recent times I have turned to the almost exclusive use of a border spade and fork, I wonder why?  The border spade is made of stainless steel but the other three are more traditional, they are cleaned and oiled before being stored away after use!

trowel and hand fork

My trowel and hand fork are over 40 years old!

My next pairing is the trowel and hand fork, they are certainly over 40 years old and there is nothing I have seen since to match them, particularly the trowel.  Why?  The handle and the blade are close-coupled, there is no extended swans neck in between to make the implement longer, heavier and more unwieldy.

Finally the hoe, I use an old-fashioned push hoe but I have to confess that I think the most successful modern equivalent has been the stainless steel Swoe.

Is there a garden tool you couldn't live without? Or something you discovered recently that you wished you'd discovered years ago? Tell us in the comments below so we can all learn and make life easier!


  • Comment number 1.

    Having spent a year and a half battling with digging out the blackberry roots on my new allotment and gone through two pairs of trainers destroyed by jumping up and down on the spade, my best buy ever is a "digging spade" (sic). The blade of this has a turned over top making a comfortable footplate for hard digging and the sharp edge is slightly more pointed enabling it to cut through dense soil and roots. Digging has got a lot easier and I am finally winning over those brambles - and it cost less than the price of a new pair of trainers!

  • Comment number 2.

    My Dad (87) who finally got an allotment this year, is like many elderly people in that today's prices stick in his craw. So he won't fork out (sorry) for decent tools. After buying a disappointing plastic rake for a fiver, and a cheap fork with prongs that bent every time he used it, he has decided to make some of his own tools. His first triumph is a rake, made by hammering twelve four inch nails, evenly spaced, into a strip of wood and then attaching the whole thing to an old broom handle. I was cynical at first, but it's a great success and lovely and light to use because the head's made of wood, not metal.


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