Garden Tools Rule

“There is a lovable quality about the actual tools. One feels so kindly to the thing that enables the hand toobey the brain. Moreover, one feels a good deal of respect for it; without it the brain and the hand would be helpless.”

Gertrude Jekyll

Whether you’re planting a hedge, mowing the lawn, weeding round the lavender or pruning a privet, you will be aided, no doubt, by one or more garden tools that, in all probability, you will take for granted. But every single one of them owes its existence to human inventiveness –so let us spend a few moments in acknowledging those we have to thank. After all, gardening wouldn’t be half as much fun if we had nothing to do it with apart from our bare hands and a stick…

The Lawnmower

Edwin Budding, from Thrupp, near Stroud, invented the lawnmower in 1827, allowing grateful gardeners and grounds men to put down their scissors and scythes.


We have Antoine Francois Bertrand de Molleville (as French and aristocratic as his name suggests) to thank for inventing secateurs in 1819 – so spare a thought for him next time you’re giving your lavenders a trim.


There is something deeply satisfying about spending half an hour decimating weeds that have had the temerity to grow beneath and between your box or beech with a well-sharpened hoe and it would be nice to give you the name of the person to thank. Unfortunately, the hoe goes back a good 20,000 years, making it just about the oldest tool still hanging in the shed, and one day the archaeologists might tell us whether bragging rights should go to the Sumerians, the pre-dynastic Egyptians or some other ancient civilisation.

Incidentally, it was only in 1975 that the California Supreme Court banned the use of the short-handled hoe by farm workers and insisted an extra couple of feet be added to its length so said workers weren’t crippled by having to bend continuously. 1975?! But then again, the American carrier bag still doesn’t have any handle at all.

The Flower Pot

The general consensus appears to be that the first pots specifically designed for flowers or plants were fashioned by the ancient Egyptians. Those who go further and give exclusive credit for their invention to Ramses III, sometime around 1230 BCE, are, I’m afraid, stretching a point.

The Garden Hose

The first hosepipes date from around 400BC, were made from of ox gut and were used simply to move water from one place to another. A Dutchman, Jan Van der Heiden, developed a linen fire hose in 1672 with leather ones being introduced shortly afterwards. The first hoses specifically for garden use appeared in the 1860s with canvas and India rubber versions following in subsequent decades. The familiar moulded plastic hose arrived around the end of WWII. And guess what –only the ox gut version doesn’t kink. So much for progress.

The Trowel

Given the trowel’s diminutive size, it is perhaps not surprising that its history is elusive. It is hard to imagine that having invented the hoe, early man didn’t come up with a smaller version (a trowel, after all, does look like a fashioned flint with a handle) or that all those lavender knot gardens were planted without the aid of something at least trowel-like. But it would seem that stonemasons, for one, got a specialist trowel for their work long before gardeners got theirs – we had to wait until the C.17th.

The Greenhouse

The history of the greenhouse in Europe depends upon whether you think a greenhouse has to be a glasshouse. If you don’t, then our story can probably start around 700AD and the reign of Emperor Tiberius III (698–705). This emperor was so partial to a particular cucumber-like vegetable that he insisted it be served every day. To meet this imperial demand, his gardeners not only grew the crop in hand carts that could be moved inside and out according to the sun, but also in specularia – frames or larger structures glazed in lapis specularis – a kind of translucent gypsum that was also used for window panes. Now, if you don’t believe a specularium constitutes a greenhouse, then you must stay in Italy and wait until the 16th century when glass-glazed greenhouses (called giardini botanici ) were built for the exotic plants that explorers had started to bring back from more distant lands. In the following century, greenhouses spread first to Holland and from there to England. As the 17th and 18th centuries advanced, so did the quality of glass and greenhouse construction, though they remained very much the playthings of the rich. Yes, greenhouses were built to house plants of botanical and medicinal interest (often by universities), but many more were constructed so that their owners could enjoy fresh oranges (hence orangeries) and pineapples (hence pineries). As the names given to specialist greenhouses suggest, the French, too, had the greenhouse bug and many were constructed at Versailles where coffee plants were successfully grown and harvested in the 1730s; pineapples in the 1730s and bananas in the 1750s and, with greater success, in the 1840s.

But while we may not have invented it, the Victorians certainly recognised its potential both as a bourgeois garden must-have and as the grandest of grand imperial statements – just think of Joseph Paxton’s magnificent botanical construction at Kew Gardens and the Crystal Palace for the 1851 Great Exhibition in Hyde Park.

The Wheelbarrow

There is an on-going debate as to whether the wheelbarrow emerged in ancient Greece or 1st century China. However, given we have two inventories for building work at the temple of Eleusis dated between 408and 406 BCE referring to a hyperteria monokyklou (a person for a one-wheeler), the Greeks must surely have it. Incidentally, those Chinese claims generally rest with General Chuko Liang who, records state, used a wheelbarrow in 231AD – some 600 years later – to move army supplies across muddy terrain.

Records of the Romans using wheelbarrows are rare and one of the earliest – perhaps the earliest – describes how the Emperor Elagabalus (reigned 218 to 222AD) and his guests wheeled women around the palace in pabilli (one-wheeled vehicles).

Up to this point in their history, wheelbarrows were primarily used to move goods and people rather than hedge clippings and lavender stalks – as they were when the crusaders encountered them in the Near East during the 12th and 13th centuries. Nor had the situation changed by the time the wheel barrow is first recorded in early medieval Europe – on a stained glass window at Chartres Cathedral dated 1220.

It took the Renaissance and the development of the ornamental garden for wheel barrow use to include its now familiar role. By the 1550s, its design had evolved into a form we would recognise today – Georgius Agricola, the German academic and scientist described it in detail in De Re Metallica (1556) and by 1706 it was well-enough established in the horticultural world to be listed by Francis Gentil as one of the 30 essential garden tools in his Le Jardinier Solitaire (The Solitary Gardener).

Electric Hedge Trimmers

Of course, many gardeners remain devotees of manual shears when it comes to pruning* their yew, box, beech, privet or Leylandii hedge – or indeed, their lavender. Others, though, prefer some powered assistance and reach for the electric (or petrol) hedge trimmers. If you are among them, then you can allow yourself a little patriotic satisfaction as it was a British company that took the first steps in the development of the hedge trimmer’s best friend. Back in 1922 The Little Wonder Company launched its hand-cranked hedge trimmer – the first modern tool with a reciprocating-blade– which stayed in production until the 1950s. By then, though, the company had been taken over by an American firm – Schiller – and relocated to the other side of the pond. They launched the first electric hedge trimmer in 1940, introduced double blades in 1945 and petrol power in 1955.

Since then many other companies have taken up the innovation challenge and hedge trimmers continue to improve – witness the number of cordless models with rechargeable batteries (and tilting cutting heads) now available.

*If you do prefer shears, they must be as sharp as sharp can be – it makes pruning much easier and guarantees a clean cut

PS: If you are in or around Brize Norton and in need of a tool to buy or hire, visit our good friends at 5As or just click here.

Photo credit: Ben Earwicker at