Fools for Tools

The Plot So Far

Bad workmen blame their tools, the saying goes. But good gardeners - and there are one or two down here on the allotments - develop a great and fond admiration for them.

Red, over the fence, says proudly: "You got a tool like this?" The challenge in his voice suggests that he who hasn't can't call himself a gardener. He brandishes a hand cultivator, with clawlike prongs. Prongs can be rearranged to suit particular jobs: a multiplicity to stir up a broad bed of earth for carrots and onions, a lone prong to zip out a narrow seed-drill. I don't have one. I've been using my hoe and a long-handled fork for most jobs. And my rake. But maybe I should go cultivator-hunting.

Monty even more proudly let it be known that she now owned a stainless-steel spade and fork. "Cost about 100!" Later, Red suddenly spluttered: "Have you ever heard anything so ridiculous? A hundred pounds! Look at this fork. This'll see me out." His fork had clearly been on the go for decades. It had a well-worn wooden handle. Dark, well-used, flat tines. "See?" he said, "it's a potato fork, for digging 'em up. Handle breaks, I fit a new one. What I always say," and he has a way of pausing before coming out with a proverb, as though it must be the first time you've ever heard it, "is Waste Not, Want Not."

Jean, a newish plot-holder who buses over from the West End, would agree. She has a new stainless-steel spade of immaculate German manufacture. She bought it on sale, dramatically reduced, at a supermarket. It cost between 6 and 7. She cleans it carefully after work, replaces its blade in its heavy plastic protector, and carries it home on the bus. When I praised its shining elegance, she almost purred.

One morning Big Ted arrives at the barricaded door to my plot. "I don't usually barge in," he booms (he always booms, this buoyant Englishman), "but I wondered...."

He pauses while I let him in. The barricades, I explain, are not to keep people out, but to keep the dog in. She is too keen on digging to be allowed to go visiting.

Ted is holding a piece of scaffolding pole about four feet long. Its purpose eludes me. "You going to be planting leeks?"

I admit I am.

"You can borrow this if you like."

He demonstrates. This is the Big Ted Big Dibber. You push it into the loosened tilth firmly with your boot on the round, flat height-adjustable disk provided. The carefully crafted point, somewhat the shape of a miniature bishop's miter, makes a very obliging hole. You can make a line of 25 holes in a few minutes. Drop your leeks in. Water them. And Bob's your uncle.

"The dibber, or dibble," explains author William Bryant Logan in his beautiful tribute to tools, "The Tool Book" (1997), "is to poke holes." But in doing so, this "simplest garden tool" begins "the transformation from bare dirt into a thriving garden." Just so. However, the seven fine dibbers his volume illustrates (but doesn't tell me where to buy) do not include Big Ted's homemade leek dibber.

"I had three goes before I got it right," he tells me.

His friend Dan says: "He's very inventive, you know." It's true. You should see his bird-scarers.

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