Bodgers, scrapers and whittlers are among the 19th- century tools which shaped Lutyens's famous gardens at Great Dixter, the Sussex country home of gardening writer Christopher Lloyd. And, as Nicholas Roe reports, they're still used. Photographs by Steve Pyke
Fergus Garrett has been talking calmly about his work as a gardener until the moment he picks up a fork to emphasise a particular point. "Hang on," he says, in sudden excitement, "I'll get some more..." He dashes across the lawn, to return with an armful of old tools, clunk, clunk on the grass. Then he's off again. Soon, this corner of Great Dixter in Northiam[chk], Sussex, is covered with old-fashioned rakes, spades, trowels, sprayers, forks, edgers, trimmers, bodgers, scrapers and whittlers. And, as the implements pile up, there emerges a revealing little tale of our times.

How peculiar, in a disposable age, that these beautiful old garden tools exist at all, especially here in Great Dixter, home of the gardening writer Christopher Lloyd. Thousands flock here every year to tour the 15th-century manor house (restored by Lutyens at the turn of the century for Lloyd's father, Nathaniel), and to observe work in progress on the beds and borders.

Lloyd uses his garden as a living notebook, so you might expect cutting- edge technology in the tool shed, but not a bit of it. Many of the 19th- and early 20th-century implements pictured here are still in use because they still do the job best. They were built to last. Can we say the same of the garden-centre stuff most of us buy nowadays? Not really. "Older tools are made in a sturdier fashion," says head gardener Garrett. "I don't think many of the modern garden tools will be around in 40 years."

Just look at the picture. Second row up from the bottom, the middle two images connected by string. This big, dagger-like contraption is an old iron edge-marker, a joy to hold, made perhaps a hundred years ago, yet still used by Garrett and his colleague-on-the-borders, Perry Rodriguez. Why?

"They make them out of plastic now," sneers Rodriguez. "I did see some a while ago made of steel, but they were very short, and, if you're working in loose soil, the spike has to be driven in firmly for a tight line and a straight edge. Smaller ones just fall over, or the line bends in the middle." The legacy, in these circumstances, is wonky edges.

Now grab two spades, one new, the other over 50 years old. The modern one flips over, irritatingly, when you let go of the handle; the old one stays upright, docile and obedient. Modern designers require you to use a constant wrist pressure to keep the blade at a useable angle. "Look," says Garrett, doing it again and again.

Something else. The metal joining the head to the shaft shoots further up the wood on the old tool, which may seem a waste, yet a glance at older Dixter hoes again demonstrates the virtues of building to last. Many of these hoes have prodded the hard earth so long their blades are worn and small - a bit like old gardeners. Far from being pensioned off, however, these grand old implements have found new careers doing jobs for which other tools do not exist: breaking soil in crowded beds where bigger hoes would cause damage. They have matured. Grown up.

Garrett and Rodriguez think that this nation of amateur gardeners may be about to do the same: "People are going to get fed up with replacing their trowel every year," says Rodriguez. If that's so, then what happened 20-odd years ago to the mass-produced motor car might be repeated in the garden shed. The growth of companies selling replica antique tools, and the popularity of glossy, upmarket gardening magazines - green porn, say some - are indications.

Dixter's gardening team cannot be called Luddites. About half their tools are modern, though they tend to pay top prices more than the rest of us do. Modern design can be superior, they insist, holding out as proof a brand-new pruning saw. It is preferable to its older equivalent (bottom row, third from the right) because it's designed to cut on both the push and pull, rather than in one direction. It also has a handle which allows it to hang from branches, and a changeable blade. Solid, reliable, effective - and made in Japan.