Tools of the Trade


There is nothing quite like moving to re-evaluate what is important in your life. In boxing up and rifling through the drawers and cupboards, you have to question everything you own. Does it have importance, be it for practical or sentimental reasons, and should it come forward into the next chapter? And so it was in the garage at the "old house" in Peckham. Digging deep in the dusty recesses I found things I hadn't touched in a decade – I could have supplied the whole of the borough with couplings and hose attachments. Anything I didn't need – an excess of plastic pots, an old pump and the couplings – were put out on the pavement, and in customary fashion were gone by the end of the day.

Over the course of a month, I distilled what I would require in the new life and, now that I am there and living it, I can see that I will need to augment the tools and machinery that I already own. I want a mower to cut the paths into the meadows, a petrol-driven hedge cutter and an orchard ladder to work on the slopes. Though I am hand digging this year to alleviate a pan that developed in the vegetable patch through repeated use of a rotovator, I'll still be going to the auctions to find one for myself. When I extend the plot, I'll need one to turn in the green manure I'll grow to "clean" and improve the land. The old boy who sold us the place offered me the ancient one his brother had used to till the plot, but I declined after witnessing the belch of black smoke it coughed into the garage and the way he applied a hammer to silence it.

Of the hand tools, I have a good selection that will do just fine for now. Tools are always worth the investment, as there is nothing worse than working with a piece of equipment that is badly designed or, worse, underspecified for the job. Handles or grips that come loose or pinch are a nightmare, and tools that are unbalanced can take it out of you. It is also never worth economising, as cheap tools break. A good tool should feel like an extension of your body and be designed so you have to do as little as possible to make it work effectively. The angle of a spade or fork and the length of a handle on a hoe or rake are also things that you should test for yourself to see that the implement fits.

Carrying, barrowing and lifting are made that much easier with the right equipment. I have barrows from builders' merchants with inflatable rubber tyres that are designed to go the distance, and rubber buckets of which I have two, as one is always in use. I first saw these on building sites on the continent, but they are now readily available here ( An oilskin carrier ( is perfect for moving unwieldy piles of leaves or trimmings and I have two rakes, one with sprung tines for raking up debris, the other with fixed tines for preparing seedbeds. A worn hoe is always the best, so I am keeping my eyes open for a second-hand one that looks like it will suit me for the vegetable garden. Sometimes it is good not to have to bend to weed.

My mother gave me my favourite hand fork and I favour it for the wear in the tines. It acts like a precision tool and is perfect for "surgery" in the border and working in confined spaces. I like the size of border tools and also have a border fork and spade in stainless steel, which are perfect for planting. Stainless steel is worth the investment, particularly if you garden on heavier soils, which are less prone to sticking than they would be with mild steel. Stainless-steel tools are also easier to find if you lose them in a pile of clippings. I have several trowels and hand forks because they tend to be fugitive, but those that are keepers are all stainless.

Of all the hand tools, my Felco pruners are the most precious. I have four sets of No 2 secateurs so that I always have a pair handy, and long-armed pruners with better leverage, as you should never force a cut. I have fold-out saws for precision cuts on larger wood, but I'll need billhooks, axes and a chainsaw for coppicing because I'll have to move at pace to conserve energy and cultivate the land in workmanlike fashion. There will be no more than I need to get the job done, but always the right tool to hand.

Image: Suki Dhanda for The Observer
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