LETTERS have been coming into my new place of work, seeking employment at Croxteth Hall over the Christmas period. “Dear Sir, I am writing to apply for the position of gardener. As my current employer would attest, I am strong, fit, and reliable. I will work from 6 a.m. till 8 p.m. I am ten years old.”
This is all part of the run of Victorian-themed days for schools coming up in December, and just the sort of role-play that makes history seem very real. In preparation for the new recruits, we have been bringing terracotta pots to the fore, and hiding all the plastic ones behind hessian. While my colleagues lined up the old wooden-handled tools along the wall, and removed their modern counterparts, it struck me that in the world of gardening the changes to a basic set of tools have been surface-level.
So what would I rate as essential to a novice gardener today? My starter list would be spade, fork, hoe, rake, trowel, and a hand fork. Forks and spades come in standard size, and the smaller border or ladies’ version. Some people will prefer these, and, ideally, one has to have both to suit different situations.
Vintage tools have become trendy, and are often priced accordingly, but you can still find bargains at car-boot sales, house clearances, and the like. They can be a bit heavy for some, but are self-evidently built to last. It is best to buy new, though, when it comes to secateurs or a pruning saw, and a pair of loppers for tackling heftier stems and branches.
Returning to Christmas preparations, these tools are perhaps too functional to be gifts, but here are some smaller items that might please a gardener in your life. Genus makes high-performance gardening clothes. Its silk glove-liners (£15) are sleek and worn under your normal gloves. The added layer of insulation can make gloves that are fine enough for fiddly jobs (even thin latex ones) warm enough for winter.
Gathering berries requires both hands: one to hold the stem, while the other teases away the ripe fruit. The traditional solution is a basket hooked under one arm, or bending down to a container on the ground. In a tangle of canes, I much prefer the hip trug from Burgon & Ball (from £9.95). The neoprene holster (mine is a festive red) clips to your belt, pocket, or waistband, and holds the removable kidney-shaped plastic vessel.
The Darlac tungsten sharpener (about £7.50) is a nifty tool for sharpening blunt garden tools, knives, and scissors. It has an integral oil-wipe in the handle. Also by Darlac, the easy-cut string-cutter (under £4) is ring-shaped, and fits comfortably on your finger, ready for use. It is safe, and allows you to keep both hands free when tying up plants.
Finally, I have been testing an Opinel No. 8 garden knife (£9.95). It is traditional in design with the carbon-steel blade folding into the varnished beech handle. It would not look out of place in a Victorian Christmas stocking, but I would be delighted to find one in mine this year.