Gardening: Digging for victory

The better the garden, the more important the tools. Eddie Peeling, head gardener at Grimsthorpe Castle in Lincolnshire, is charged with keeping some 30 acres flawless. He shares the secrets of his shed with Nigel Colborn
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The Independent Culture
AS THE season of outdoor work slows down for winter, are your spades and forks hung up neatly on their hooks? Has the lawn mower been cleaned and serviced? How long are those tools lasting? Are there any ancient, worn but serviceable tools left hanging in your shed? Modern implements tend to be designed for easy use, rather than a long life, but they lack the venerability of classic tools. Handles bend or break, and plastic degrades, but rather than make do and mend, the temptation is to to discard and replace them.

Professional horticulturists, though, take more care. Eddie Peeling, the head gardener of Grimsthorpe Castle for the past 26 years, is responsible for some 30 acres of fine lawns, trees and borders that surround this Vanbrugh gem, near Bourne in Lincolnshire. (Or mainly Vanbrugh: he added to a building that originally dated from the 13th century.) Grimsthorpe's grounds are particularly special, because they are so well-preserved. Most of the original formal gardens survived the revisions of the landscape artist Stephen Switzer in 1711. More importantly, they escaped being too severely ravaged by that 18th-century vandal Capability Brown, who destroyed the superb parterres and pleasaunces of so many stately homes in order to make way for labour-saving Arcadian landscapes. Brown did provide drawings for Grimsthorpe in 1771, but these were adapted by local engineers, and many of the formal pleasure gardens were left intact.

Eddie and his team of three have been working on lengthening and restoring Grimsthorpe's formal vistas by replanting trees and turning rough grassland into mown rides. They have also been renovating borders and expanding the areas that are maintained as fine lawn rather than rough pasture. Much work goes into the ornamental kitchen garden, which was designed in the Sixties by the late Peter Coates. There is also a series of intricate parterres, adjacent to the castle, which are marked out with box hedging.

Head gardeners of the old school can tend to be pompously omniscient or grumpily secretive. Many of them are manacled by tradition, swearing that the old ways are the best and that modern tools are useless, but Eddie, who is 57 but looks 20 years younger, exhibits none of these egregious qualities. His breezy manner and boyish enthusiasm disguise a surprisingly pragmatic approach to the daunting task of taming so much nature with so little help. He's in control, and he knows it. When it comes to tools, he is not hidebound, but simply selects the most suitable kit for the job - whether traditional or new-fangled - and gets on with it. "I like to get the hardworking, hands-on stuff done in the mornings, while we're still fresh," he says. "Then we can ride on mowers and things in the afternoons." He makes it sound like playtime. A gentle but persistent rain has begun to fall on us as he speaks, but Eddie seems oblivious. "Do you know, when I applied for this job, the specification was that I had only four acres to look after? It's nearer 30 now."

A big responsibility, I observe. "It is when you realise there are only three gardeners and me to do it." Eddie estimates that a staff of around 20 would have run things in former times. "The four of us couldn't do it with the old tools," he points out. "Imagine cutting a mile of yew hedging with hand shears." With yew and box together, there are 2315 metres of hedging to cut each year. "Then there's all the topiary," he adds. My eye sweeps over a menagerie of green birds - peacocks? - poised atop the faultless hedges. "All done with electric trimmers," he says, "powered by a petrol-driven generator." The Romans, who invented topiary, would have done them with knives, I suggest - or at least their slaves would have. "Well, we do use the old-fashioned shears for finishing off - for getting into the corners and tidying up," Eddie says.

What about the other gardening? As much as possible is done using a John Deere mini-tractor, which pulls implements such as giant rakes for combing the gravel, Rotavators and trailers. There's also a huge leaf gobbler and a regiment of ride-on lawn mowers - their latest, a monster from Ransomes, cost a cool pounds 28,000. The big Ransomes would do my lawn in roughly 7.5 seconds, if it could fit through my gate. Between March and November, Eddie and his team will be trimming fine lawn somewhere on the estate virtually every day. "Then there's all the rough grass; that has to be done too, though not quite so often." A huge Allot cutter does that, crunching thistles and slashing hay stems as it goes.

Impressed as I am with all this machinery, it is hard to imagine it in the context of a suburban plot or a small country gardens. Gardening is about turning the earth with a spade, surely, and hand-hoeing soil to a fine tilth, rather than tractor-driving. "What about proper gardening tools?" I say. "Follow me," says Eddie. We pay a brief visit to the potting shed and apple store. Old clay pots are scrubbed and stacked according to size, ready for use. A well-worn potting bench carries compost for pricking out, and, although autumn is in its stride, there are trusses of tomatoes and aubergines in the neighbouring greenhouses, as well as flowers of every hue. It's as though winter is nothing but a false rumour. "Modern biological control helps," Eddie says, evidently gratified at my reaction to his growing skills. He hands me a pot which holds a young myrtle plant with silver-edged foliage. "I'll bet you don't grow that one," he says. He's right. "Take it," he adds: "I've rooted plenty more." I thank him, and observe that instead of modern, soil-less compost, the young plant is growing in a traditional soil-based mix.

We enter the outhouse in which the tools are kept. A brick-lined building - no shed, this - with spades, rakes and hoes hanging in neat rows on all sides. "My personal spade," says Eddie, proffering a venerable specimen. The blade is almost rounded from the steady wear of patient toil, but apart from a couple of nicks in the hardwood haft, it seems almost new. "I've had it man and boy. More than 40 years." The spade's appearance, likes its owner's, belies its age. "I didn't know they made stainless steel tools that long ago," I say, marvelling at the gleaming blade. "Good Lord, that's not stainless!" he barks. "I've just looked after it." He strokes the blade and runs his hand up the haft. "Those nicks were made when someone borrowed it to dig out a cable. Can you imagine such carelessness?" I could, and thought of the myriad scars and blemishes on my own spade, a mere stripling of 8 years.

He pulls down a hoe, so worn that the blade is smaller and thinner than a child's six-inch ruler, attached to the wood by a gracefully curving swan neck. "An old sugarbeet hoe. Also seen more than 40 years of service. You've got to have a good hoe," he insists. "Something that cuts through the soil effortlessly." Has that blade simply worn away through use, I wonder, watching his thumb test the cutting edge. "It's worn through constant sharpening," he replies. A flat file is best for sharpening the hoes, but you should use a carborundum stone for knives or secateur blades.

"This is the best of the modern hoes," Eddie continues, pulling down an ergonomic gizmo made by Wilkinson Sword, and called a Swoe. It's as light as a feather, with an aluminium shaft and a stainless steel blade. "You can do no end of work with that, and not get tired." The cutting end is set at an angle to the handle, to reduce the bend in the user's back, he informs me.

We proceed on our tour. "Now here's another interesting tool," Eddie says, wielding a peculiar weapon with a batch of swan-necked blades, each with a flattened, widened end. It looks formidable, like an iron Hydra, and he eyes it as if one of the blades might bite. "Not sure about gimmicky things, but this one's made by Wolf and it works quite well." I imagine it helping to work down a flawless seedbed in Grimsthorpe's ornamental kitchen garden. "Wolf make detachable tool heads," I remind him, "so you could fix a rake or broom to the same handle." "Hmm!" says Eddie, sounding unconvinced.

On we go, pausing to admire a five-tined fork for picking up hay, an unusually designed Dutch hoe, and what looks like a brand-new, but damaged, turf cutter. The blade, shaped like the spade in a pack of cards, has been scored over. "That's to remove the blasted Teflon," mutters Eddie. "Why manufacturers insist on coating their tools with the stuff, I cannot imagine." Silicon may make saucepans non-stick but, according to Grimsthorpe's Head Gardener, they make the local soil cling to the surface like glue.

What other hints for choosing tools, I wonder. "They must feel good in the hand," he insists: "must have the right balance." And although they need to be robust, tools should be light enough to be easily handled. He indicates a selection of very small border forks and spades. A large man might look foolish yielding one, but they are ideal for getting in between plants in Grimsthorpe's vast herbaceous borders.

Care is paramount. All the implements are cleaned and dried after work - every specimen in the tool room gleams - but not always wiped down with an oily rag. Moving parts are lubricated: Eddie shows me his traditional shears, to make the point. They snap open and shut effortlessly, and their blades are clean and true, just glancing together, as they should. Wear is evident, but there's not a trace of damage. But they're no substitute for electric trimmers when there are miles of hedges to cut.

"Come to the office for a coffee," Eddie suggests. I must have looked incredulous, because he says: "Oh yes, I've got an office. But not a computer - I do draw the line at that." Clearly, the soil is his preferred workplace. "Which part of your job gives you most pleasure?" I ask. "Working in the ornamental kitchen garden," Eddie replies, without hesitation. "That's real gardening, you see."

Grimsthorpe Castle, near Bourne, Lincolnshire (estate office: 01778 591 205), is open between Easter and the end of September. Travelling north-west from Bourne to Colsterworth on the A151 you pass the Black Horse pub on your right. A sharpish bend to the right leads up a hill, and the estate office entrance is on the left towards the top