Country & Garden: Paradise is only six feet wide

Nothing surpasses a good toolshed, even if it's also your vegetable store, strimmer repair centre and flower-pot shelter
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The Independent Culture
My ideal toolshed exists only on paper. The plan came, unsolicited, from an architect, Tim Leese, who had read in this column about the loss of my first, lean-to toolshed and sent the drawing with his condolences. It is a palace, 12ft square, with the whole of one wall taken up by a big, arched brick fireplace. On the opposite wall is the potting bench, 8ft long, filling a projecting bay, with a window over the bench.

The wall opposite the entrance is for storage, with the first shelf 54in from the ground (room to hang tools on pegs underneath), and two more shelves over it. It is sublime and the drawing hangs over my desk as a promise. One day, when I have picked enough slugs from lettuce leaves, when I have carted enough muck, pulled enough weeds and swept up enough fallen leaves, this potting shed will be my reward, my nirvana.

Most toolsheds, of course, are smaller than Tim Leese's, typically 8ft by 6ft with a square window carved into one side. The most sensible designs have the window on the same side as the door, so that the other three sides are left free to use as you want. Before you kit out a toolshed, you need to be clear in your own mind what it is for. A toolshed might house tools, but it can function in other ways, too: it can be a retreat or an operations room. It can be a vegetable store or a stripping-down dock for mowers, strimmers, hedge-cutters and other such gadgets.

Mostly, sheds are for shedding, which is an honourable activity (and a great deal less troublesome than gardening). Shedders shed in different ways, the only constant being endless cups of coffee. But you need a certain amount of stuff around you, to give gravitas to the exercise. Make it good stuff. A well-made spade becomes an ally, a battle companion in your forays outside the comforting four walls of your retreat.

The most basic starter kit should contain a fork and a spade. The ones I find easiest to use are called border forks and spades, one size down from the bigger tools you will need for serious allotment work. Having chosen the size, you then need to decide on the style of handle, D-shaped or T-shaped. I've always had Ds because they hang on a single hook. Ts need two nails to sit between on a wall.

I'd also go for stainless steel spades and forks, rather than ordinary steel. But that is because we have such heavy, sticky ground and I need tools that will cleave through it with the least possible effort. Some gardeners reject stainless steel because it will not take an edge. But since I cannot use a whetstone, that's not an issue. Stainless steel tools used to be expensive but Yeoman make both forks and spades for pounds 24.99.

In any garden centre you will find ranges of switch-head tools. You buy one handle and then bolt on to the end of it a whole range of different heads: hoes, rakes, daisy grubbers, mattocks. Though the principle may be sound, in practice it wouldn't suit me.

The tool I wanted to use at any time would never be the tool to which the handle was attached. The fittings would seize up, or else would have been previously tightened by my husband, who has a grip like a gorilla's. Then I wouldn't be able to find the monkey-wrench to unscrew the thing. And so on, until the spare half hour I was going to spend raking leaves had ticked away.

So, look for two rakes: one with long springy tines that you can use to rake up leaves and gently scarify the lawn. The other should have short blunt tines, a rake you can use to make a seedbed, draw soil over drills, or to tamp down earth over seeds.

Do you need a hoe? Only if you grow vegetables and grow them in straight rows. I have got an armful of hoes, but I only ever use one of them, a small-headed Dutch hoe (that's one with a D-shaped head), which is useful for worrying the earth around rows of young vegetables. None of them was bought. The most fearsome of them came from my great-uncle's shed: two hefty mattocks, a pronged cultivator and a massive hoe that could only be used by a gardener with forearms like Desperate Dan's. I feel I must keep them, because my great-uncle was a magnificent gardener. His tools are talismans.

The purpose of a hoe is to cut through the stems of seedling weeds before they are big enough to do any damage. It's quicker than weeding on your hands and knees. But in a flowerbed or border, many of the seedlings will be things you want to keep, and a hoe is too blundering an instrument to use. Only hand-rogueing will do.

You will certainly need hand tools: a trowel, a small hand fork and a good, comfortable pair of secateurs. My trowel and hand fork are stainless steel and I have had them most of my gardening life. They are the tools you are likely to use most, so they must feel comfortable when you pick them up. Some have handles that are fatter than you can easily grip. Some have metal handles that are much colder to the touch than wood (I never wear gloves in the garden).

For secateurs, read Felco. Expensive, yes. But worth it. Provided you don't strain them, by setting them at tasks that are more suitable for loppers or a saw, Felco secateurs will last a lifetime. And you can send them away to be serviced, or fitted with new blades if necessary. The standard Felco No 2 costs about pounds 34.95, the No 6 is pounds 36.95 and the No 8 is pounds 38.95. The No 7 has a swivelling handle, which is supposed to make pruning easier if you haven't a strong grip. I have never got the hang of them. But Felcos are Rolls-Royce machines, a joy to use.

If you have more than half a dozen medium-sized shrubs in the garden, you are likely to need some long-handled loppers or a small bow saw. I have both, and both are made by Sandvik. The Sandvik loppers (model P140) cost about pounds 38.15, substantially more than, say, Spear and Jackson's version (pounds 21.99). But I have faith in Sandvik, and I like the fact that their tools are bright orange. You don't lose sight of them in the undergrowth. The most useful shape for a garden saw is not the standard bow, but the bow with a pointed end. With this, you can manoeuvre in tight spaces.

This, I would say, is the basic kit, to which you can add all kinds of extras: wooden sieves (from pounds 13.95), rounded pot brushes to clean the insides of your pots (available mail order from Lord Roberts Workshops, 6 Western Corner, Edinburgh EH12 5PY - 0131-337 6951), or capacious bags to haul around your garden waste (Gardman make a 100-litre bag for pounds 6.99). You will need balls of twine (Andersons from 85p) and you will always remember to pull the twine from the centre rather than from the outside of the ball.

You will also acquire little hanks of wire, broken bamboo canes, piles of old newspapers and Pisan towers made from used plastic pots. These are the things that really make a shed feel like home. A good assortment of bits, whether you use them or not, is like protective clothing for a gardener. Golfers always have far more clubs about their person than they can possibly need. Rock musicians barricade themselves behind a phalanx of guitars. Gardeners, too, must have their toys.

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