The growing reputation of the hori hori trowel has cast a long overdue spotlight on historic and artisanal gardening tools. Appearances on TV and radio call-in shows have raised the stock of more classical gardening tools and their uses in modern gardens.
Artisanal tools like the hori hori trowel are not simply for show, after all. They have survived this long because of their versatility and consistency. For some, though, gardening tools are bought more for flair than function. Collecting tools isn’t the worst of hobbies for the passionate gardener, and certainly there are enough variants to please all manner of collectors. Granted, you’re not likely to find any golden tools at your local garden centre, but there’s no reason to believe you can’t find some glorious little collectibles.
So today, let’s take a look at just a few classic tools that, for their beauty, history or timelessness, could adorn your shed wall.
Hori hori trowel
Let’s start with the aforementioned, then; the hori hori trowel. The name of the tool has a simple and enjoyable root; hori not only means “dig” in Japanese, but it is also considered onomatopoeic for the sound of digging (I can’t hear it, personally, but perhaps I just don’t dig enough).
Many of these sorts of Japanese tools were created using similar forging techniques to those used by the Samurai; they were built to get the job done. The trowel has survived for as long as it has because of its enormous versatility; with a serrated edge, a concave design and a depth scale etched on either the handle or blade itself, the trowel can be used for digging, cutting and weeding, among others. It is a true one-stop-shop for jobs in flower beds and other small areas of your garden.
Prime amongst its pros are its durability, too; given the wide variety of tasks it can be employed for, the workload demands that the blade stand up to the rigours of its usage. The best hori hori trowels are forged from a high-quality stainless steel that resists rusting and blunting, unlike some cheaper variants. The hori hori is a gardening tool for nearly every occasion, and takes pride of place among many a tool shed.
Copper & bronze tools
Copper and bronze tools are wonderful things. For a start, when you polish a bronze tool, it breaks out in a golden sheen that mimics the look of a true golden tool. Now not everyone wants their tools to look shiny and lovely, of course, but for collectors that you can be dazzling pieces of art when hung on a shed wall.
The best part about bronze and copper tools, though, is the effect they have on soil. A biomimicry experimenter by the name of Viktor Schauberger conducted a series of experiments to prove that copper tools were would be more enriching for soil and plants than iron tools, which were the preference of his day. His three main hypotheses were simple: it did not follow that using a tool so prone to decay and rust, as metal tools were, could help plants grow; that heat could not cultivate, only kill, and the soil friction created by metal tools would only hinder plant growth; that iron, as a sparking metal, would deplete the electrical charge of rising groundwater, which would leave less for the plants to feast on. Copper and bronze, he argued, were not so prone to rusting, caused less friction and would allow a strong electrical charge to reach the roots in rising groundwater. Bronze tools would even leave enrich soil with copper-trace elements, which created the conditions for valuable micro-organisms to develop. His experiments proved him correct; plants treated with copper tools yielded stronger, healthier crops with fewer pests than their iron counterparts.
What copper tools offer, then, is not only a classy aesthetic that shines like gold, but a number of subtle, practical advantages over iron and steel that help cultivate plants and encourage growth. Not bad for something usually dismissed as all form and no function.
The kunai has a rather colourful history; first designed as a farming tool, it was later adopted by the ninjas thanks to its strength, shape and versatility.
Kunai are forged from soft iron and only sharpened at the tip, since the edges are used to break and smash softer materials such as wood or plaster. A fair comparison would be to a crowbar; the kunai is perfectly capable of prying open gaps and its strength has spawned a number of ulterior uses. The most notable, as previously mentioned, was its adoption by the ninja. It was used at times a weapon, but its true use came in more practical forms. The ninja used it to gouge holes in walls, smashing through softer material just as it did in the tranquillity of the garden. Its shape and strength also made it perfect for climbing; it could be reliably driven into trees or into pitons (a crack in a climbing surface which can help anchor you to a wall) thanks to its strong, compact design. The pommel at the top the handle was perfect for tying a rope to, which allowed the kunai to be tied to a stick and used as a spear, thrown like a Chinese rope dart or simply tied around the handle to give the user more grip.
In spite of all of this, the kunai was never primarily a weapon. It was a tool, used by farmers and warriors alike. It, too, has withstood the test of time thanks to its strong, simple design, and while the kunai has lost some its popularity as a garden tool to the ninja connotations, it is an excellent example of how an ancient tool can find new niches.
What a wonderful word that is, too – dibber. Most us are familiar with them any many of us will own one already, but in terms of its history, many underestimate the years in which the dibber has been a staple of the gardeners tool belt.
Its first recorded appearance was during the Roman Empire, and its design has remained consistent ever since. Dibbers, as I’m sure most us know, are pointed sticks used to make holes in which to plant seeds or bulbs. Over the years a few variations of the classic variant have evolved; t-shapes curved handles, straight dibbers that look a little more like the stakes one would employ to slay a vampire.
It was only during the Renaissance that dibbers became manufactured items; some moved away from simple wooden designs and made the tool from iron, perfect for penetrating harder surfaces like clay. The dibber was also a time-saver for farmers; one would walk with a dibber making holes in the soil, and another would follow behind planting seeds in each and fill them back in. Classic wooden dibbers are a vintage little addition to a tool shed, and many prefer the feel of smooth wood to modern plastic or metal handles. As another little nugget for you, it was revealed on an episode of the BBC’s “Would I Lie To You?” that comedian Lee Mack has donated his dibber to the British Lawnmower Museum. Proof that any old tool can become a collectible if marketed properly, I suppose.
I can’t write that word without thinking of the Two Ronnie’s “Four Candles” sketch. “No no, o’s! O’s for the gate, mon repose, o’s! Letter o’s!”
So you may be thinking “why no Earth are we discussing something as common as a garden hoe in a blog that features hori horis and kunais?” Well, dear reader, that’s because the hoe has a rather brilliant historical backstory. The hoe actually predates the plough and may only have been preceded by digging sticks. As one of the oldest tools in our shed, it has evolved to accommodate developing technologies and has seen its head redesigned to meet a wide variety of needs. The hoe is even divinely inspired according to some myths and ancient colonies. In Sumerian mythology, its invention is credited to the chief council of the Gods, Enlil, and Shennong (“The God Farmer”) in ancient Chinese culture. The hoe was even depicted in predynastic Egyptian art, and mentioned in ancient documents like the Book of Isaiah and the Code of Hammurabi from the Babylonian Empire. And here’s another little fact for you, fellow hoe enthusiasts; the short-handled hoe is banned in the US state of California, who deemed it an unsafe hand tool after farmers developed crippling lower back pain after years of usage. The more ya know, eh?
So there we have it – just a smattering of the classic, historical or artisanal tools that could and perhaps should adorn your shed wall. Quite uplifting to know your hoe may be divinely inspired, isn’t it?
Ross works in the Product Loading department and gets to see all the weird and wonderful products that pass through Primrose. Ross is a life-long Southampton fan and favours jazz music, reading and a quiet place to enjoy them.