Gardening Antiques: The History Hiding in Your Potting Shed

Take some time to dive into the corners of your potting shed; you may discover some old garden tools and unearth some history.

  • Old gardening supplies
    Our most basic gardening tools have evolved quite a bit in the past few hundred years.
    Photo courtesy
  • The first steel garden fork was introduced by inventor Alexander Parkes at the Great Expedition in London in 1851.
    Photo by Fotolia/sever180

  • Old gardening supplies

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.”

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