Gardening tools: All you need is a spade, a fork, a trowel and some common sense
Saturday 17 July 2010
It is a wonderful relief to leaf through gardening magazines and realise that there are so many things I don't want. No, it's stronger than that. There are things that, even if they arrived free, shining, and with a five-year guarantee, would still be put straight in the boot of the car and driven to the nearest Oxfam shop. Gadgets and me don't have a long history. I expect them to go wrong and, obligingly, they do.
Multi-task tools seem to me the worst. Does it really make my life easier to have one stick and three interchangeable heads, each of which do different things? I don't think so. If I want a rake, I like to reach out my hand and pick it up. I don't want to scrabble round with levers and locks, fiddle with clip on-clip off devices to build my own rake from what had previously been a hoe.
The tools you really need in a garden are so few and so well-defined, that you can understand why manufacturers get frustrated. It doesn't give them much opportunity to expand their markets. The basic kit is the same one that John Evelyn described in the 17th century: spade, fork, trowel, line, hoe, rake, something to cut with. For him that would be a beautifully made pruning knife. For us, it's a pair of secateurs. Now that was a breakthrough.
Do I want a gas-driven Weed Wizard, with a butane gas cylinder fastened to a long handle? Fire up the flame. Burn off the weed. No I don't. The thought makes me feel sick. Not because I have sympathy for the weed (I'm battling against them all the time) but because the method speaks of industrial estates, ugliness, harsh environments, techniques from a factory world that have nothing to do with the world I am trying to pull together round me in my garden.
And why go to such a lot of trouble for a weed? With a decent knife, you can quickly hook even long-rooted perennials such as dandelions and docks out of paths or paving. You haven't consumed any energy, except your own. You couldn't use a butane killer on a lawn, or anywhere else where the weed was growing close to something you didn't want to kill.
Garden Vacs? No. NO! "Take the effort out of tidying up, just zip around with the latest in garden gadgets," trilled an advertisement I read recently. Why turn gardening into housework? Vacuuming the carpets is a sad necessity, given the amount of feet that tramp about our place, but the stuff that lies around outside is not dirt displaced. It's what is meant to be there. It is potential humus, the lifeblood of your soil.
The Vac is noisy, too, but perhaps that could be forgiven (though not by me) if the contents of its bag were tipped on to a compost heap or used to build a leaf clamp. But it seems they are mostly not. They are bundled up and driven to the tip; two lots of energy needlessly consumed. And think of the poor beetles, the ladybirds and other insects sucked into that undiscriminating maw.
Legs broken, wing cases smashed, they hurtle through the maelstrom, their poor bodies shattered in the vacuumed debris that they so trustingly thought was home. The environment? We've never heard so many people blabbing about it. And we've never been surrounded by so many people who think that if they put a bottle in a bottle bank once in a while, they've done their bit for the planet.
I feel myself getting cross. That isn't what I wanted. Light-hearted, I said to myself at the beginning of this piece. But having got the Garden Vac out of the way, I think I'll be all right now. To me, it represents the worst of the wrong directions that gardening can go in. Crushed car windscreen – the new-style gravel – raises the blood pressure too, so I'd better not write about that. How can you look at that stuff and not think of crashes, ambulances, police sirens, anger and anguish?
Gloves? No, never. But then I've never kept a pair of Marigolds under the kitchen sink, either. My skin is still there. So are my nails, sometimes. The fact that nifty Japanese inventors can mould textured latex palms on to elasticated polycotton gloves does not make my heart sing. Having rotten circulation, I'd like to find a way of keeping my hands warm while gardening in winter, but gloves just get in the way.
A hand-painted stone table? "Unique and elegant," its Italian makers assure us. But heavy, too, I should think. And the thing about outdoor tables is that you are always moving them to catch the sun, or miss the wind, or escape the smell of the next door neighbour's barbecue. They need to be portable. And if I was looking for a painted table, I'd be thinking wood, not stone.
Yippee, an irrigation system, another thing I don't need. "An automatic irrigation system is no longer a luxury. It is an absolute necessity." That is salesmanspeak and it is bunk. Water IS a luxury. It has been expensively sucked out of rivers that might have had better things to do with their offerings, and has been even more expensively purified and piped to our door. Great waterfalls have been silenced so we can turn on a tap.
And we are fortunate in living in a country where enough rain falls to give our gardens all the water they are likely to need. Yet it takes just one dry summer to put us into a state of complete lunacy about the stuff. The end of the world as we know it, we are told, if we get more than a month without rain. Then we had two summers when it never stopped raining and the doom merchants' torrent of articles on Britain – the new Sahara – came to an end. June this year was exceptionally dry, but it took just one night's rain in early July to green up the lawn again.
Think, before you put in that seep hose, that pop-up irrigation system, or install those catheters in the borders, that more things die from drowning than they do from drought. Unlike us, plants have mechanisms to cope with thirst. Think, too, of what watering systems are doing to your bulbs (especially your tulips) which depend on a dry, hot summer baking to initiate the flower buds for the following season. By irrigating all summer long, you are murdering them in their beds.
Oh! How heady this all is. No to Butyl pond liners, no to "How to" garden videos and apps, no to striped patio awnings, plastic compost bins, battery-operated wheelbarrows, Father Time weather vanes, soil cables, polytunnels, HT roses... You might think that this has been a story of negatives, all noes, no yesses, but not for me. I'm so pleased to find all these things that I don't need, I'm going to order a case of more than usually nice claret to celebrate. Wine – now there's a real necessity.
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