It begins – and I guess will eventually end – with a spade. I have accrued spades across the years with the compulsion of a debauched pasha collecting concubines. I am seduced by them, use them with curiosity and some pleasure until the novelty wears off and then put them to one side, clean, oiled and ready for use, in comfortable retirement. There is a stainless- steel border spade, small and precise and useful for moving plants in a busy border. I have digging spades with wide treads and long straps extending halfway up the handle, trenching or Irish spades with extra-long handles and a tapering blade, spades with YD grips, T-handles or straight handles beautifully shaped to bulb out slightly at the end so that the handle instinctively seeks and finds the most comfortable, ergonomic position.
I have spades practically unused because they look fine but just feel wrong, and spades worn by many generations of gardeners to a lopsided shaving of its original self. All have ash handles, although American hickory is good. Most have YD handles, where the ash is split and steamed to hold the shape of an open fork, which is then closed by a tubular ash bar. I would not dream of using a spade with a plastic handle, partly because wood, worn shiny smooth with use, feels so much nicer, but also because plastic will give you blisters much faster. How many people, when buying a spade from a garden centre, ask what wood the handle is from? But you should. It makes all the difference. Would you buy a kitchen knife with a superb blade and a cheap plastic handle? No. The tool works from the hand outwards. The point of contact has to be right.
All these spades are sufficiently different to get an outing every now and then, but only one spade has my heart. This is stainless steel and was made at the Wigan foundry of Bulldog Tools in 1988. It weighs exactly 5lb and it balances perfectly cradled on my index finger. The blade, set on a swan neck of forged steel drawn from the same ingot as the blade is pressed from, is gently curved in cross section, the curve diminishing as it opens towards the edge. That edge is sharp enough to cut string and chop through tree roots like a chisel. It is a miracle of sophisticated design, as perfectly evolved for its function as a shark is for swimming or a wheel for revolving. Its angles are subtle and yet precise. It cost about £90 in 1988 and I regard it as one of the best buys I ever made. It is now on its third handle and I would not exchange it for any other spade in the world. I let no one else use it. There is no negotiation on this – there are spades enough for that and good ones, too. Just not this one. This is spade as fetish, spade taken very seriously.
But every gardener should take their tools seriously, just as a chef will take knives seriously or a musician their instrument. Good tools don’t make a good gardener, but they do add enormously to the pleasure of gardening. Every single time I use my spade I enjoy the experience, be it lifting an errant hazel seedling to move to a better spot, or double-digging. It introduces a pure aesthetic element to a task above and beyond its success. Digging a rich loam becomes one of life’s great sensual pleasures. Good soil plus good spade equals good time.
It goes without saying that I like hand tools best, and simple, refined combinations of steel and wood best of all. Most modern attempts at improving or redesigning garden tools look as though they have fallen out of a cracker. That is not to say that I think we should be using antique tools or faux ‘Tools of Yesteryear’ (I kid you not). There are wonderful toolmakers still at work. It is simply a matter of discrimination.