Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 3, 2017

A History of the Garden in Fifty Tools (2014), by Bill Laws

I haven’t finished reading this book, but I’ve got myself all excited and even though it’s a bit self-indulgent, just have to tell you about it.

Yesterday I went to an event at my local library, where Jane Edmonson of ABC TV Garden Australia fame was the speaker (and I learned a trick or two to deal with gall wasps).  The librarians had set up a display of gardening books, and I made off with A History of the Garden in Fifty Tools by Bill Laws.  It’s not a new book, it came out in 2014, but I’ve never seen it in the shops or I would have snapped it up like a shot.

This is the blurb:

A green thumb is not the only tool one needs to garden well—at least that’s what the makers of gardening catalogues and the designers of the dizzying aisle displays in lawn- and-garden stores would have us believe. Need to plant a bulb, aerate some soil, or keep out a hungry critter? Well, there’s a specific tool for almost everything. But this isn’t just a product of today’s consumer era, since the very earliest gardens, people have been developing tools to make planting and harvesting more efficient and to make flora more beautiful and trees more fruitful. In A History of the Garden in Fifty Tools, Bill Laws offers entertaining and colourful anecdotes of implements that have shaped our gardening experience since the beginning.

As Laws reveals, gardening tools have coevolved with human society, and the story of these fifty individual tools presents an innovative history of humans and the garden over time. Laws takes us back to the Neolithic age, when the microlith, the first “all-in-one” tool was invented. Consisting of a small sharp stone blade that was set into a handle made of wood, bone, or antler, it was a small spade that could be used to dig, clip, and cut plant material. We find out that wheelbarrows originated in China in the second century BC, and their basic form has not changed much since. He also describes how early images of a pruning knife appear in Roman art, in the form of a scythe that could cut through herbs, vegetables, fruits, and nuts and was believed to be able to tell the gardener when and what to harvest.

Organized into five thematic chapters relating to different types of gardens: the flower garden, the kitchen garden, the orchard, the lawn, and ornamental gardens, the book includes a mix of horticulture and history, in addition to stories featuring well-known characters—we learn about Henry David Thoreau’s favourite hoe, for example. A History of the Garden in Fifty Tools will be a beautiful gift for any home gardener and a reassuring reminder that gardeners have always struggled with the same quandaries.

Ok, it does look as if Mr Laws doesn’t know anything about indigenous tools used on this continent for 60,000 years or more, but he does credit the invention of the lawnmower to The Victa from Australia in 1950.  And let me tell you, although it is quaintly English, this book is fascinating.  Who knew that the humble tape measure had such stories to tell? Did you know that

… the original Imperial yard was based on the hand of the English king Henry I, or more specifically the distance between the distance between the tip of the royal nose and the thumb of his outstretched arm? (p.139)

Those bolshie French revolutionaries *chuckle* had to have something more suitably egalitarian (even if they didn’t quite exactly know where the North Pole was back in 1799)

 to mark the influence of the new regime, and by 1799 the decimalised metre was in place.  Gallic gardeners grumblingly adopted the metre, shrugging their shoulders at the explanation that the new metre represented one ten-millionth of the distance between the equator and the North Pole.  (The actual distance was calculated, for the time being, between Dunkirk and Barcelona). (p.140)

And did you know that according to Chinese legend, the serrated edge on the saw was inspired by the edge on a blade of grass?

But I had barely browsed through a tool or two, when I learned something that has puzzled me for ages.  Just yesterday I was chatting with Karen at Booker Talk about The Cheltenham Square Murder by John Bude, a book that interested me as you can see from my comment:

It seems I must read this one too, though crime fiction is not my thing…
I visited Cheltenham [UK] when I was very small. My older sister and I were offloaded onto a childless step-aunt while younger sister was being born. I have vivid memories of broad beans from my uncle’s garden, of seeing a calf just born, of hot chocolate and biscuits at bedtime, and of splendid cakes baked for our birthdays, blue for her and pink for me. We were sorry to go home, except for the broad beans…
And now I live in Cheltenham in Melbourne. All the streets around us have Cotswolds names: Swinden, Cobham, Evesham, and so on, and many of the houses have cottage gardens, though not so many in these time poor days, alas. But my guess is that in multicultural Melbourne, most of the residents have no idea of the provenance of the names.
We went to Cheltenham when we were in the UK in 2010 but we didn’t do a nostalgia trip, we did touristy things like visiting Gustav Holst’s house and the museum.

(BTW If you enjoy Karen’s blog at Booker Talk, don’t miss her very good news.  It made my day).

Five minutes after this conversation I opened up A History of the Garden in Fifty Tools for browsing over my morning coffee.  Now,  I had always assumed that these streets around us here were named out of someone’s nostalgia for the Cotswolds.  After all, many places all over the world are named after English places.  The Americans even have a London, which is surely ridiculous.  (It’s a town in Ohio of less than 10,000 people.) But now, thanks to Fifty Tools I know the real reason for our street names.  In the chapter about ladders, I discovered that in the 1930s the fruit bowl of England where all the orchards and market gardens were, was known as the Vale of Evesham.  *The penny drops*: and that’s when I remembered that before the land was subdivided for housing in the 1950s, our suburb was all market gardens and orchards too! (And there are still market gardens just up the road, though these days they grow mostly flowers).

A History of the Garden in Fifty Tools is a lovely book, and I should point out that it would make a lovely gift for the gardener in your life:)

Author: Bill Laws
Title: A History of the Garden in Fifty Tools
Publisher: Allen and Unwin, 2014
ISBN: 9781743317969
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: The History of the Garden in Fifty Tools


  1. Reblogged this on The Logical Place.


  2. It never ceases to amaze me what people find to write about but you know sometimes these little odd books contain a wealth of fascinating info (like this one). I knew the length of a yard is the distance between thumb and nose but never knew it all started with a particular king. Now why did those French revolutionaries pick Dunkirk and Barcelona as their two points for measurement – wouldn’t you think they’d have gone for more landmarks like Paris/Madrid for example???

    Never mind, at least we cleared up the mystery for you of how Costwold names ended up on your continent. Left to puzzle this for myself I would have just surmised they were the birthplaces of settlers who wanted a bit of the old homeland with them in the new one.

    PS: delighted to have made your day with my news. It made mine too….


    • It’s a lovely book. I don’t want to give it back to the library…


      • Drop enough hints and maybe a kind relative or friend will buy you a copy


  3. Thank you! Filing this one as a future gift for gardeners in my family.


    • I think it’s got very wide appeal. Not just gardeners either. You know how at car boot stalls and Rotary markets there are those trestles full of rusty old tools? Now I’m starting to understand why people buy them…

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I enjoyed your review, though I don’t know what a gall wasp is, and don’t use any tools on my three plants. To go off at a tangent, the streets around me (in Rivervale, WA) are named after Melbourne suburbs – Toorak, St Kilda, Fitzroy, Armadale and so on. Someone must have been homesick.


    • Gall wasps are the bane of anyone who grows citrus trees. They form a bulge where they lay their eggs along the branches and there is no cure but cutting off the affected branch/es because it weakens the tree. As fast as you get rid of them on your tree, new ones come to visit from your neighbour’s tree. And then you don’t get any limes for your G&T…
      Those WA place names are all posh suburbs, you know! (Yes, even St Kilda now, though it’s still lively, if you know what I mean).


      • I’ll check my lemon tree. Rivervale was all Housing Commission, fibro houses on quarter acre blocks, must have been wishful thinking. Though, being an inner suburb, it’s all sub-divided and worth a bit more now!

        Liked by 1 person

  5. […] A History of the Garden in Fifty Tools, by Bill Laws […]


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