A 'tool man' in the garden

For an enthusiastic gardener, having the right equipment is all-important.

Help! Shearing time has come around again.

But I'm not talking sheep. I am talking about grass – and dandelions, docks, willow herb, and all those other ferocious, burgeoning weeds that presumably have given spring its name. A few weeks of global warming here in Glasgow, Scotland, followed by a good drench – a global wetting, one might say – and all these previously dormant growing things behave suddenly as if they are on springs. They spring up and having sprung, they continue relentlessly springing with endless abandon.

So I am going to have to dig out my hand shears. I am going to have to dust them down, oil them, and deliver them to The Saw Centre for the good services of their expert shear sharpener.

My shears come back from this annual honing rejuvenated and crisply ready for action. By the end of last season, they were starting to bend the grass rather than slice cleanly through it, sometimes requiring several attempts at each scissoring.

Two or three years ago, I bought a new pair of shears. I was beginning to feel sorry for the wooden-handled pair I had been using since 1970. The handles were loosening and revolving around their steel cores. I glued them, but they weren't convinced. Perhaps, I thought, this favorite tool was due for a gentle retirement at last.

And yet ... the new shears, even though they are top of the line, simply lack the sturdy character and effectiveness of the old ones.

They may have poly-something-or-other handles, and they may be lighter, but there is something spare and thin about them that doesn't quite mean business. The steel of the blades looks suspiciously like tin. Costs were cut in their manufacture, I suspect.

You might ask why I don't use a mower like other gardeners. I have my reasons. One is that I have planted in our grassy areas bulbs and flowering plants – narcissus, fritillaries, snowdrops, aconites, scillas, and starry blue anemones.

Shaving them to the ground is one sure way of discouraging them from returning.

Even more vulnerable are the primroses, violets, and cowslips. With shears, I can be more careful than I can with mechanical tools. I also prefer to think of our "lawn" as a rough meadow rather than a smooth billiard table.

But I am beginning to suspect that my less obvious reason for using them is simply that I like shears.

Indeed, I like hand tools. For one thing, they are more directly connected with my fingers and wrist. For another, they make very little noise.

For yet another, there seems to be something of the sheep about me. I like the slow munching process of working away at the green sward, of smoothing it intimately rather than flattening it mechanically into a monotonous uniformity.

Hand tools extend manual dexterity. They also exercise you. Why would a gardener go to a gym? His work keeps him svelte (well, fairly svelte) without that being its sole point. There's another reward at the end of it – thriving plants.

As a gardener I stare agape at the enormous and weird instruments of self-torture for which gym enthusiasts pay good money to subject themselves to – yet with never a potato, bean, or penstemon to show for their pains.

I will begrudgingly admit to the inventiveness of these pacing, pulling, pushing, lifting instruments – but give me a spade, fork, or hoe any day. Or an Italian grubber, such as arrived weightily one morning, a chunk of cast iron painted black and wrapped in corrugated cardboard.

It is somewhere between a mattock, an adze, and a hoe. It was a surprise gift from a friend who has pulled up roots and moved to Italy, and she said in her note that it made her think of drawings of peasants working the soil on medieval calendars. Me, too. She obviously considers me that kind of gardener.

The problem was that (because of the difficulty of shipping) this promising tool lacked a wooden handle to be hammered through its hole.

Eventually I took it along to the place where I get wood and cement. The man shook his head doubtfully, but then he remembered that he had a broken broom handle that I would be welcome to if it was any good.

It was "any good," and with a degree of spoke-shaving and a greater degree of mallet-walloping, this handle was driven home and wedged in place.

I tried my grubber out the other day in my allotment garden plot. I found that it is particularly effective as a soil churner and weed dislodger – a kind of hand-held plow. It is going to be very useful.

On my way out of the gate heading for home, a fellow plotter saw my new tool.

"I watch history programs on TV," he said. "They showed a tool just like that the other day in an episode about the ancient Greeks."

I surreptitiously hid my shears behind my back – in case he thought that they, too, harked back to the Hellenistic or other archaic period.

One doesn't want to be thought a complete oddball.

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