The pandemic’s severe restrictions on staying at home have sparked a golden age for gardening. Many of us have sought distraction, reassurance and tranquility in nature, be it as a hobby, for wellbeing or as a means of growing food.
The look of our green spaces and the way we work in the garden have also changed noticeably. Both are rapidly evolving to reflect a wider awareness of environmental degradation and the overwhelmingly negative effects of pesticides. These can easily be avoided altogether, and clever craft tools can help bear the burden.
As a well-traveled botanical writer with a magpie eye for hardware and years of experience as a head gardener (currently at a certified organic private gardening and cut flower company in Wiltshire), I have developed an extensive but carefully curated collection of international procured gardening tools. These reduce the physical demands of chemical-free gardening, are aesthetically pleasing, and age gracefully next to me.
It feels good to invest in well-made ergonomic tools. It was during one year spent as a Daiwa scholar in Japan that I first noticed the ingenious detail of superior garden tools, and many of my capsule collections are of Japanese origin. When you’re ready to move on from the dark underbelly of horticulture and start working organically, it may be time to update your toolkit and reevaluate your property’s green credentials.
Newtimber Forge Broadfork from Blackberry Lane
The size and uncomfortable appearance of this wide two-handle fork prevent it from being sold out right away. However, I urge you to hold on, watch an online tutorial (quite entertaining, actually) and give it a try. The wide fork makes easy work of lumpy, rough ground and neglected edges. A low steel crossbar holds long tines with a parabolic curve that allow easy rolling movement. When the handles are pulled down, the tines rise through the ground.
While this is a very physical process, the width of the fork and ease of movement make this a convenient way to prepare the ground. It is ideal for use in heavier soils, loosening and aerating compacted areas before planting, and can also be used for lifting root crops. This is a good alternative to a rotavator because it does less damage to soil structure, organisms and microbial life. It’s also less polluting and less expensive.
Bronze oscillating like
Gardner with her broad fork and an oscillating bronze hoe © Britt Willoughby Dyer
Also known as a stirrup or vertebral hoe, this is the most efficient tool for weeding vegetables or cut flower beds and gravel areas. Newly germinated weeds are the easiest to handle, and a sharp hoe worked flat through the surface sends them out with ease. A blade, sharpened on both sides, swivels at its pivot point and cuts through the roots as it moves forward and backward. This makes this lovely tool a clever combination of the Dutch and the hoe.
The flat sides of the box-shaped design protect the foliage of the surrounding plants, the vortex aids accuracy and mobility. It is believed that copper tools that are used regularly will deter destructive slugs and snails.
Silky Fox Pocketboy Pull Saw
These are precision pruning tools that are critical to well-manicured, healthy trees and shrubs. The blade was developed for cutting during the pull stroke and is under tension during the cutting stroke and therefore does not get stuck and bend. Clean, smooth cuts encourage plants to heal quickly, reducing the risk of disease entering through a cut.
I prefer silk saws that are made in Japan and sold worldwide. The Pocketboy series is compact and lightweight and can be easily tucked away in the pocket for convenient storage and easy portability. They are ideal for light pruning. Teeth with four cutting angles ensure clean and fast sawing, so that less vibration and less effort are required.
Pocketboy curve 170
Ho-mi from Blackberry Lane
A sturdy, simple hand tool that originated in the farming villages of Korea. Mainly suitable for growing and weeding, but also for breaking up lumpy soil and mixing in compost. Used on the pull stroke, it consists of a short wooden handle and a wide hand-forged steel blade. The curved blade has a sharp point which (with practice) is very useful for thinning seedlings and rooting out tough weeds.
The sharp edge is good when working on heavy soils. However, you can also keep them dull if you are gardening in sandy soil. It’s compact and sturdy, but surprisingly easy to pull through the ground so it’s easy on your joints.
Niwaki hori hori
Sometimes referred to as a floor knife, this is a versatile, sturdy, and must-have update for a trowel. Essentially three tools in one – knife, pick, and trowel – it’s much easier to use even on the heaviest clay floors. In Japan, hori means digging and the thick steel blade has been used to dig for food for centuries. True to its name, it is particularly suitable for effortless weeding (a recurring theme in organic horticulture) and for planting.
The combination of the semi-blunt point and sharp sides expands its use to cut through difficult roots and to mark furrows for sowing. Traditional styles have a wooden handle and holster to secure it at your waist.
Mini sickle with 6cm blade from Niwaki
Think of a sickle as a compact scythe. Used with just one hand, it has a short, curved blade, which can be smooth or serrated, and is attached to a medium-length handle. It is a pan-global tool of ancient origin and is suitable for cutting through blackberries and tall herbaceous material such as nettles. A short handle model is invaluable for pruning grass. Take dry stems and cut them with a single slice. A mini sickle is best for fiddly weeding between cobblestones and for harvesting vegetables.
Razor-sharp snippets are suitable for delicate gardening work. Light pruning, cutting flowers, harvesting fruits, and the endless task of deadheading require skillful hands and narrow blades. These with longer, pointed blades come in a variety of designs and are good for reaching tight spaces and cutting off soft stems. or choose a blunt curved blade for a quick harvest with limited crop damage. The most popular Japanese scissors are forged from high quality Izumo Yasugi steel, which is high in carbon and traditionally used for samurai swords.
Sharpening and cleaning
When you’ve invested in tools you love, making maintenance a regular habit is easier. Add tools to your hygiene rituals and clean them after each use. This prevents the disease from spreading. Sharpening takes practice and concentration. However, if you sharpen regularly, only a few strokes should be required. A soaked whetstone is the best choice for fine blades, a coarser diamond file is ideal for rougher or slightly damaged tools.
Biodegradable pots © Getty Images / iStockphoto
When tidying up, consider the problem of plastic waste. Biodegradable seedling pots make it easy to plant out, and there are many eco-friendly alternatives, including terracotta clay pots and sturdy plant fiber pots that will biodegrade in five years after composting.
Where to buy your scissors, scissors and secateurs
Blackberry Lane Tools is a small family company based in Devon with an impressive catalog of tools with international origins. It imports the Korean Ho-Mi and carries a British-designed, hand-forged broad fork with ash handles that comes in two lengths.
Newtimber Forge Broadfork, £ 197.60; small ho-mi with wooden handle (available for right or left handers), £ 11.40; blackberrylane.co.uk
NiwakiThe slogan is “Great stuff from Japan”. It has a brilliant selection of tools and work clothes.
Niwaki hori hori with linen holster, £ 24; forged Hori Hori with laminated carbon steel, £ 89; Mini sickle with 6 cm blade, 12 lbs; niwaki.com
The online provider Implementations sells a range of artisanal bronze gardening tools made by coppersmiths in the EU. The handcrafted tools are durable, practical – and glamorous.
Bronze Hydra Hoe (available late June), £ 106; implementations.co.uk
Okatsune is the right place for high quality Japanese snips, scissors and secateurs. They have red and white handles, an optimistic combination that symbolizes “happiness” in Japan.
Harvest Snips 301, £ 11.94; Flower scissors 304, £ 12.86; Whetstone 412, £ 12.86; okatsune.co.uk
Founded in Herefordshire in 1995, Silky fox imports a premium selection of Japanese hacksaws, hacksaws and hand saws. The website is good for researching which saw best suits your needs.
Pocketboy folding saw with 170mm center teeth, £ 30.40; silkyfox.co.uk
Follow @FTProperty on Twitter or @ft_houseandhome on Instagram to catch up on our latest stories first
House & House unlocked
FT subscribers can sign up for our weekly email newsletter, which includes guides on the global real estate market, distinctive architecture, interior design and gardens.
Register here with one click