It is amazing how little the designs of garden tools have changed over hundreds, even thousands, of years. Metal shod wooden spades were used in China from about 1,600bc, and the Romans were the first to use metal spades in Europe. The pala, which was recognisably a spade with a broad blade, was recorded by Pliny as being the ideal tool for opening up rushy ground. Hoes are even older. ‘Elementary hoes with a triangular flaked-stone head, mounted on a handle with thongs fixed with bitumen, are known from the fifth millennium bc in Mesopotamia,’ wrote Anthony Huxley in his charming Illustrated History of Gardening (1978).
Later, angled hoes occur in pre-dynastic Egypt; and very much later, settlers in the New World observed that a large clam shell attached to a pole created the perfect hoe, as William Wood observed in New England’s Prospect (1634). He found, engagingly, that the Native American Indians of Con-necticut ‘exceed our English husbandmen, keeping it [the soil] as cleare with their Clamme-shell hoe as if it were a garden rather than a Cornfield, not suffering no choaking weede to advance his audacious Head above their infant Corne, or an undermining Worme to spoil his Spurnes [roots]’. Although the materials used for these tools have been refined down the ages, their designs have remained essentially the same, as there is little that can be improved upon; the most noticeable change in recent years has only been the much greater availability and affordability of versions in stainless steel.
I am pondering these things because in recent weeks I have been using some remarkable new digging tools from the long-established firm of Spear & Jackson (which traces its roots, as it were, back to the 1760s). You might not think there are any further refinements to be made to the garden spade; scores perhaps hundreds of regional variations have come and gone (Huxley says that at one time there was a differently shaped spade in use in every county in Britain). So, although not exactly reinventing the wheel, Spear & Jackson’s new ‘e-series’ range has made a modification which is, I believe, a genuine development, and one so simple, it only seems amazing that nobody has done it before.
The spades, forks and lawn-edging iron incorporate a stirrup design so that the foot tread is centralised, not offset to the right or left of the shaft. They have also tilted the handle forwards to an ideal angle and cushioned it with comfortable grips. The result is a much easier dig, and as there is so much unavoidable spadework to be done at this time of year, for the first time in ages I can say I look forward to it. But be warned, there is a trade-off for those of us who love the plain simplicity of traditional, wooden-shafted tools. The charms of the ‘e-series’ are entirely ergonomic it is the Nike trainer of the tool shed visually, at least, no challenge to the classic leather brogue.
The Japanese holly Ilex crenata has never been widely available in this country, but I have noticed it is starting to be stocked more readily in nurseries, perhaps because imports of Continental topiary are increasing. I guess it has been overlooked for many years because it is slow-growing; surely also because it bears more than a passing resemblance to ordinary box, Buxus sempervirens, bearing oval, dark evergreen leaves packed tight against the stems. (But, look very closely at those tiny leaves, and you will find the edges are finely serrated indeed, it is known as the box-leaved holly.)
If your garden has been ruined by one of the box blight diseases in recent years, then Ilex crenata can be an excellent substitute, tolerating a wide range of aspects and soils. It comes in many forms, all slow-growing, but that makes Ilex crenata an excellent plant for containers and town gardens (for stockists see The Plant Finder at www.rhs.org.uk). It is also a traditional plant for ‘cloud pruning’ in the Oriental manner, and these days a number of topiary specialists stock ready-made ‘cloud’ topiaries in this species, for those whose inclination might not be Zen, but is certainly Now.