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3 October 2018

Melania’s shovel is cause for reflections on our complicated relationship with gardening tools

I admit I am a bit perverse in the use of my spring-tine rake – it works much better upside down than the right way up.

By Stefan Buczacki

A few weeks ago, Melania Trump came in for some ridicule; although unusually on this occasion there was a horticultural slant. She was photographed planting a tree while wearing stilettos and a $4,000 skirt. I have no quibble with her wardrobe although it must have been a touch awkward. However, one gardening writer levelled criticism at the fact that she was holding a shovel rather than a spade.

I suppose you could just about plant a tree with a shovel, but the criticism in this case was somewhat misplaced because the tool in question was arguably an American digging spade with a long straight handle. Yes, tools do vary around the world and long-handled spades are generally much more common in America and elsewhere than in Britain, where almost all spades (and forks) have short handles and a “T”-piece or a “D” at the top.

Nonetheless, the Melania tree-planting exercise made me think about how set in our ways we are with gardening equipment. I admit I am a bit perverse in the use of my spring-tine rake, which I find most valuable when turned on its back and used to prepare a fine tilth for sowing seeds – it works much better upside down than the right way up.

That you need horses for courses, however, became apparent when I turned my attention to the lawn, which is looking somewhat sad – like most others after the long hot summer. As I wrote some weeks ago, lawns will recover eventually because grass is almost never killed by a drought, but there is nonetheless a fair amount of dead thatch and moss that is impeding new growth.

If you have a small lawn, then a spring-tine rake (used the right way up) will prove excellent at pulling it out. On a large area, however, it becomes a masochist’s business and you then need a powered scarifier. Most small electric models do an admirable job but again are really only suited to fairly modest lawns.

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On my large lawns, I decided last week to try a model of petrol-engined cylinder lawn mower with interchangeable cartridges – you can remove the cutting blades and replace them with scarifier tines. I was disappointed, however, for while the engine clearly has the power to cut grass most effectively, it baulked quite badly at my dense thatch and I resorted to hiring a purpose-made machine. The drawback with any scarifying is that you produce mountains of dead stuff and when much of the mountain comprises moss, it will compost very slowly and inadequately. A better option is to bag it up and take it to the local recycling centre.

Mrs Trump, however, has served most usefully to offer a reminder that the tree planting season is upon us. Trees from containers can now be planted safely, although you should wait a few weeks for any bare-rooted stock. But, planting a new container-raised plum tree in a part of my lawn yesterday, I was struck by just how many tools I needed to do it properly. I had a half-moon lawn edger to take out a square metre or so of turf, a fork to loosen the compacted soil, a spade to dig the hole and a trowel to work in some bonemeal before again I turned to the spade to refill the hole. Then I used that most invaluable of all tools – the heel of my boot – to firm it in. Now that is certainly something the First Lady could not have managed with her stilettos. 

This article appears in the 03 Oct 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The fury of the Far Right