Tales from the tool shed

From the haemorrhoid-healing Patron Saint of spades to the Anglo-French battle of who could make the best watering can, Bill Laws encourages you to ponder the trusty mud-caked tools piled up in the corner of your shed, and explore their fascinating, if not rather strange, history...

Every tool has a tale to tell, it seems, none more so than the rather unremarkable looking gardening tools gathering dust in your shed. Author, gardener and busker Bill Laws has compiled 50 of these tales into one book RHS Tales From The Tool Shed and has given Ernest a peep at some of the good stuff.

The spade

Gertrude Jekyll (1843–1932) offered no-nonsense advice on the spade: “Watch a man digging: then take a spade . . . and do it.” 

During Northern Ireland’s troubles, digging was dangerous. The whisper “Watch out: he digs with the wrong foot" signalled the debate over which foot you used: the right (ostensibly a Protestant preference) or the left (supposedly favoured by Catholics). 

The spade’s patron saint is Saint Fiacre. Offered all the land he could dig in a day for a new monastery, he turned over nine acres at Saint-Fiacre-en-Brie, his digging eclipsed only by his reputation for curing haemorrhoids.

The hoe

The ground is dug, the seeds are sown: now the weeds begin to grow. 

The great outdoors man, Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), celebrated the hoe as he worked his bean patch beside Walden Pond in Massachusetts: “Daily the beans saw me come to their rescue armed with a hoe, and thin the ranks of their enemies, filling up the trenches with weedy dead.”

Whether you opt for a thrust or a draw hoe, (the first is pushed through the soil, the second drawn back), pay for quality and regularly run a sharpening stone along its leading edge. 

The secateurs

When the first beans come to fruition around June, the gardener hand picks her crop or employs that sensible 19th-century invention, secateurs. 

Count Bertrand de Molleville (1744–1818) escaped the guillotine during the French Revolution and fled to England where, in his spare time, he developed the secateurs. He designed them as an aid for the vigneron pruning the grape vines, but they soon made their mark in the garden.  

Today’s secateurs, essential for trimming roses or cutting hazel wands for peas sticks, range from Swiss-made Felco and Finnish-made Fiskars to Japanese Okatsune snips. 

The watering can 

The French and the English were separated by more than a stretch of water – the English Channel, or as the French say, La Manche – during Victorian times. They were also at odds over the best watering can. 

Matched against the Englishman’s stout, galvanized two-handled can was the French gardener’s arrosoir, its swan-neck so finely balanced that watering required only a light shift of the index finger. Former civil servant John Haws liked the balancing act of the French watering device and began manufacturing his own version at Clapton, London in the 1880s. It turned the watering can into a gardening icon.  

Bill Laws is the author of Tales From The Tool Shed: The History and Use of Fifty Garden Tools and Fifty Plants That Changed the Course of History. Since he started busking with his soprano sax three years ago, he’s been working on a history of street music.