The hand-forged Damascus Hori Hori is no ordinary garden tool. The ornate blade with its mirror shine is no more than four inches long, weighs a little less than half a pound and is based on a traditional, centuries-old multitasking knife used for sawing, digging, weeding and pruning. It’s made to order (with a lead time rivalling any Hermès bag) and handcrafted by Masashi Yamamoto – a blacksmith based in Sanjo, northern Japan, an area known for its independent metal workshops since the 17th century, and where more than 60 different kinds of bonsai tools are produced. With its quince burl and ironwood handle, intricate engraving and £759 price tag, it probably isn’t the soil-slicing choice of mere mortals – but a beech-handled, carbon-steel hori hori priced at £24, from niwaki.com, is the entry point alternative.
For Jake Hobson, the topiarist turned tool aficionado and founder of Dorset-based specialist Niwaki, the Japanese reverence for tradition and craftsmanship (an apprenticeship of seven years for makers is commonplace) is what takes the country’s exquisitely made scissors, secateurs and shears to the next level. “Outside Japan there has always been a fascination with its crafts and blacksmithing in particular, harking back to samurai swords,” Hobson says. “The aesthetic is so attractive, not only in terms of the product but the lifestyle it suggests – the simplicity imbued by the hand of the maker.”
Beautifully crafted tools (from all corners of the globe) have developed a cultish following among gardeners. Last year, Hole & Corner dedicated its first hardback book to a selection of the most enduring, in its tome The Story of Tools (Pavilion, £20), while titles such as the surprise bestseller Norwegian Wood (MacLehose Press, £20), a paean to the chopping, stacking and storing of logs, have elevated traditional outdoor skills – and the kit that goes with them.
In an age of ephemeral and throwaway products, a tool built to last a lifetime has increasing appeal. But for those using them, the cult of tools goes deeper because superlative implements transform what can often be arduous jobs into joyous ones – or, at the very least, make them much easier.
Sneeboer & Zn’s functional designs are a case in point: the short planting spade (£63, from sneeboer.co.uk) is made with an angled head and short ash handle so it can be used when kneeling and digging in borders, while its slender trowel (£44.80) was created to the late British gardener Christopher Lloyd’s exacting specifications and glides into the soil to remove long-rooted weeds or to easily slide new plants into tight spaces.
For many professionals, including designer and author Isabel Bannerman and Oxfordshire-based growers The Land Gardeners, trowels and spades by PKS Bronze (which can be purchased from £34, from implementations.co.uk) are the most prized. They have ash, beech or lime handles and copper heads that emerge cleanly from the soil and leave mineral traces that help to deter slugs and snails.
All these accessories share an effortless blend of form and functionality, and perhaps the added charm of a good backstory. One of Hobson’s favourite Sanjo makers is Taira san, who crafts scissors by hand-laminating Shirogami white paper steel blades to curvaceous handles. The distinctive Taira Okubo design (from £129, from niwaki.com), traditionally used for bonsai or ikebana, is beautiful enough to have become a hit accessory, featuring on the Instagram feeds of numerous florists – yet each pair is made in the same way they have been for centuries, with Taira san sitting cross-legged on the dirt floor of his tiny forge.
An exhibition, “Derek Jarman: My Garden’s Boundaries Are the Horizon”, is showing at The Garden Museum from 4 July to 20 September 2020 (gardenmuseum.org.uk)