Gardening Antiques: The History Hiding in Your Potting Shed

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Our most basic gardening tools have evolved quite a bit in the past few hundred years.
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The first steel garden fork was introduced by inventor Alexander Parkes at the Great Expedition in London in 1851.

There is a magical charm to raking leaves. I can hear some of you moaning already. I could never understand what type of satisfaction you get from using a leaf blower. The rake is like an artist’s brush . . . with each stroke you make, you are creating on your canvas. First introduced to us in the 19th century, it was called a “leaf broom.” Often, the material the rake was made from denoted the region it was made in. The occupation of town rake-maker was commonplace along with the local blacksmith and basket-maker.

If you have ever raked over sand or soil, then you know the feeling of sereneness it brings. The sanon yo kumade (sand rake) was used by Buddhist monks to etch peaceful designs in the garden and then erased it with the backside of the rake. The rake also symbolizes good luck and fortune. Celebrated in Japan in an annual festival called “Tori no Ichi”, it is held on the Tori, or day of the rooster. It is a day of thanksgiving and prayer. Tori no Ichi dates back to the Edo period (1603-1868) and is believed to be celebrated for abundant harvests and prosperous sales. Kumades (bamboo rakes) big and small alike are decorated with amulets, coins and tokens that denote good fortune. They are meant to “rake in” and “sweep in” good luck and prosperity for the coming year.

There are two types of rakes, broad and rigid with steel tines curved downward, and fan-shaped leaf rakes with flexible tines that are made from a variety of materials such as steel, aluminum, plastic or bamboo. The fan shaped rake is designed for light tasks such as raking leaves. It is meant to be used in short deliberate strokes whereas the broad and rigid tined rake is best suited to heavier work. This heavier rake can be used to hand-thatch your lawn where it will displace dead matter while aerating the soil.

Garden Fork

1650’s diarist John Evelyn famous for his opus, the Elysium Brittannicum, a tome unfinished at his death, boasts illustrations of historical garden tools including the three-pronged fork made from iron adhered to a wooden handle, the garden fork. The first steel garden fork was introduced by inventor Alexander Parkes at the Great Expedition in London in 1851. The same qualities of this fork are still evident in use in the English garden fork of today.

The Industrial Age brought about mass production of steel, and interest in the garden fork deepened. In his book Profitable Gardening (1863) James Shirley Hibberd extols the virtues of the fork, “Let me commend the steel digging forks that are now getting into such general use. For all ordinary digging they are better than spades because they break the soil well, pass through it easily, and enable a man to perform one-third more work in a day than with a spade.”

Forks serve two purposes; digging or scooping/carrying. Varied by their prongs/tines/handle shape they are offered in a wide array of choices. Tines/prongs can number from 2-10. Less seen is the Broad Fork or Cultivating Fork which has two wooden handles on a broad head with steel or wooden tines. The tines can be straight or curved. The all-purpose American spading fork has a YD handle with a wooden grip; the tines are pointed which enable easy penetration of the soil. Another good choice for the garden is the Evergreen Garden Fork which is sturdy and has a polypropylene grip handle that is replaceable over time.

A lighter choice is the spading/digging fork suited to less strenuous garden tasks such as spading over lighter friable soiled garden beds. The four prongs on this fork taper to a diamond point with either an oblong or triangular cross section. The Border fork is a much smaller fork as comfortable in the hands of a hulking gardener as a petite one.

Scooping forks (longer handle) such as the manure fork (5-6 tines) are useful in the vegetable garden for hefty root crops. There are many choices for scooping forks: bedding, manure, hay, compost. These are lighter weight steel with more of an arc angle to them—think of them as a hand-shape that is scooping.

When purchasing the garden fork, opt for high carbon steel-high manganese tines. This allows them to bend and also to be easily bent back into shape without losing any of its strength. Advice from The Smith & Hawken Tool Book shares this tip, “the best garden forks are made of forged steel and finished with either a long socket or straps through-riveted to the handle.” With proper care, a garden fork can last a lifetime. No need to purchase a new one, check out Estate sales, flea markets and barn sales. Remember that bent tines can be easily remedied.


I bet if you dig in the recesses of your potting shed you are bound to come up with a few of these! I have to admit, I do have a tendency to covet my rustic older garden tools and nothing feels quite so right as a hoe that feels at home in your hands! Having a favorite hoe is like having a favorite kitchen knife. The few hoes that I have I still use. I admire them for not only their functionality but also for their grace and elegance

Where did the word hoe originate? Well, the name hoe came into Middle English as how, from the French as hove, is also related to Germanic, I am settling on “to hew.” Hoes are differentiated by how deep they cut; the Eye hoe goes the deepest. Hoes will chop, grade, weed and then some!

History dictates that the hoe was in vogue long before we came into existence—third millennium BC. Sumerian legend tells of the god Enlil who wielded a hoe to create daylight. The hoe has been active throughout history since then.

Though I doubt I would like it in my family crest, it is an honorable insignia among the Batembuzi tribes of Bunyoro, AKA “blacksmith kings.” In his book, A History of Fifty Garden Tools, author Bill Laws shares, “In some regions a chief would pound out a rhythm on an old hoe to set the growing season in motion.”

By the late 18th century, the hoe had to be broken down into two distinct families to keep confusion at bay: draw hoes with broad blades that move in motion towards the operator, and thrust or Dutch hoes (AKA Scuffle hoe) for weeding and loosening ground, in movement they are pushed away from the gardener. Among the French, hoes were quite the rage. At one point there were more names for hoes than actual hoes!

Hoes can be used for aerating soil, creating furrows to plant seeds, backfilling seed furrows, weeding, chopping roots and also leveling soil. Noteworthy are the pointed (heart-shaped) or Warren hoe that resembles an arrow head, it is a multi-purposed implement that could dig holes, cultivate between rows and was useful for planting and filling “seed drills.” A Draw hoe/ Push hoe are good for working near the soil surface.

All hoes have a different angle that is designed for its use, i.e., the broader blades is used in more open garden spaces. Most hoes are long handled and forged from a single piece of steel with straight grained ash wood handles. By all means, try out the hoe before purchasing. Look for a hoe with a sturdy wood handle such as hickory and you want a hoe with a head attached to the shaft with rivets. Smith and Hawken’s Tool Book recommend that, “Top quality manufacturing includes a tempered steel head attached by tang and ferrule to a hickory handle.” Author Jim Fox, How to Buy the Right Plants, Tools and Garden Supplies goes on to say, “The crook where the blade meets the metal shaft connecting to the handle is made to be bent. Do not leave it at the angle it was at purchase. Position the handle so it is at a comfortable angle for you, ignoring the angle of the blade, then bend the crook above the blade so that the blade lies parallel to the ground.” Interesting to note is that with the exception of the Collinear Draw hoe all hoes are used with the thumbs of the user pointing downward.

Watering Can

The watering can evolved from the “common water-potte” during the 17th century. However earlier ‘sprinkling cans’ first appeared in the 1400’s with earthenware following in the 1700’s and these were followed by metal ones. In the 1800’s John Haws invented a watering vessel that could reach the plant referred to as “little pod” which was the exotic vanilla. An easy to carry watering can was designed and was an instant hit. Haw’s nephew, Arthur became somewhat obsessed with the watering cans design details and each can was sold with two roses (the perforated area where the water comes out), one round and one oval. The cans had tapered nozzles to catch any debris that might be in the water.

Watering cans quite literally are a work of art and craftsmanship. The spout has the ‘rose’ at the end where your water will flow from and when purchasing there are some things to look for. The rose allows for varied amounts of water to flow out, from a fine spray, perfect for newly planted seedlings to a coarser spray that would drown them. Jim Fox in his book, How to Buy the Right Plants, Tools and Garden Supplies says, “those that face upward (rose) deliver a gentler spray for watering flats of seedlings and even large plants.” The oval shaped rose has a more forceful flow. You will want to choose a well-balanced can that will not be awkward to carry when full (hint *carry two full watering cans at the same time for balance*) – so you need to look for a smooth handle and a long spout. You will want the level of the water so that it will not spill out of the spout when you are carrying the water can. You can choose a watering can made of plastic, though I personally like the modern cans that are zinc coated galvanized steel. Better grade watering cans have roses that can be made to face up or down.

Terracotta Pots

Dating back at least 4,500 years, the terracotta pot has never gone out of fashion. Pot making was the first handcraft to go into mass production. Terracotta in Italian means quite literally, “baked earth.”

From the great gardens of Egypt to Monet’s Giverny, to Gertrude Jekyll’s Munstead Wood right on to Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello the terracotta pot has been well traveled and well received. Some of the more decorative designs were the Townly vase, the Oxford vase, also Scroll pots called affectionately “Jekyll pots.” Once a particular mold was made, it could be mass produced.

What makes terracotta so well-suited for plants is the semi-porous baked clay. This particular surface also insulates the plants against wide variances of heat and cold. They are totally biodegradable/recyclable right down to being ground up and returned to the soil. The drainage offered by terracotta far surpasses any other material. The rim on the terracotta pot was developed for ease in shipping. They were easy to stack and there was less chance of breakage. The pot called “Long Tom” was a taller terracotta pot sans the rim. It was designed for plants with a long taproot.

I have a penchant for older terracotta pots. Nothing quite compares to the warm earthy look of an old terracotta pot, or better yet, one that is old and moss covered. You can easily make a newer pot look old by painting it with some buttermilk or plain yogurt and then rolling the pot in moss. Store it in the back of your garden shed for a few months and you should have moss growing. There is a commercial mix you can buy that does the same thing. I love the look of a well-worn weathered terracotta pots. They add a special old-world charm to the home garden.

If choosing a new terracotta pot, or one that you do not know the history of, give it a good thwack with your knuckles. A better, high fired pot should emit a high, bell-like ringing sound. Avoid those that do not. Do not scrimp when purchasing terracotta pots. Before planting in your terracotta pot, soak the pot thoroughly in water. This will stop the terracotta from wicking away the water from the plant.

Older pots should be sterilized in the autumn before storing them away till next spring. This can be easily done using a solution of white vinegar or 1 part bleach to 10 parts water. Pots can also be baked in the oven at a low temperature to kill any fungal disease. Store your pots upside down with some cushioning between them.

Wellington Boots

The Wellington was on the frontlines in World War I; they offered soldiers protection for their feet amid the trenches. English gardener Gertrude Jekyll once said “I suppose no horse likes a new collar. I am quite sure I do not like new boots.” This much is true Gertrude loved those lace-up boots so much that her portrait was painted in them. Water and mud proof, British Wellingtons affectionately called “Wellies” are fabric lined; supply arch and ankle support and come up over the calf in height.

I don’t have true British Wellies; I have a bright green pair of Lily Pulitzer’s with a shocking pink lining. I so hated to get them dirty! Today, choices for the garden shoe are varied, and they vary also from culture to culture, be it garden clogs, lace up leather boots or good ole reliable Wellies!

Hand Pruners

I have always loved the British name for these, Secateurs. The hand pruner is essential in the garden for deadheading flowers from perennials although you should not use them on any twigs over ½ inch thick, use loppers instead. The exact origin of the secateurs is unknown, they were introduced to the garden around 1818 (French).

Use care when shopping for a hand pruner. You want to be sure to find a pruner that is a good fit for your hand. You want them to work like an excellent pair of scissors, with the same motion. If properly cared for, they can last a long time. Choose a pair that can be dismantled and cleaned/sharpened and keep them that way.

Katherine Weber-Turcotte writes and gardens from the Pine Barrens of New Jersey. Her articles have appeared in Herb Quarterly magazine.

Mother Earth Gardener
Mother Earth Gardener
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