The Cottage Smallholder

stumbling self sufficiency in a small space

Cheap gardening tools can be an expensive mistake


Photo: Broken gardening tools

Photo: Broken gardening tools

Our ground is stony but gradually we are removing the stones. In some areas it’s compacted, were dealing with this by adding loads of organic matter. We are digging 3000 litres of good manure and topsoil mix into two thirds of our borders. The other third will get the treat next year. We are taking turns in barrowing Denise’s Delight from the giant bags on the front drive, through the tightly packed barn and into the garden. Dull but satisfying work as I know the plants will welcome this deluxe spar treatment.

All was going well. We had dug 500 litres into the recently enlarged and overhauled north border . It was time to shift the plants that can cope with dappled shade from the south border to their new home.

I shifted the Japanese anemones and then my eye fell upon the wonderful capanula lactiflora  that flowers from June to September.

This plant has very deep roots. So deep that the fork handle snapped at the third attempt to shift it. I liked the feel of this fork but it was my third in the last 18 months. At £20 a pop I had invested £60 and was left with just the two or three tined forks (that we use on stony ground) to assist me. As we now have around a quarter of an acre of borders to tend a decent fork is an essential tool.

We have been discussing whether it would be worth investing in a Mantis garden tiller. But it’s a big investment and I’d rather have a really good and reliable fork.

Now, I’ll let you into a secret. I’ve been drooling over the Sneeboer tools at Harrod Horticulture for some months now. Which ever way I looked at it I couldn’t justify the expense. This afternoon I suddenly twigged that to get a replacement would cost me another £20. Why not take a look at the Harrod Site as the Sneeboer tools are guaranteed for life. Taking my past history of breaking tools this could be a money saving step!

I languished in the Sneeboer section of their website for ages. I found this fork but I couldn’t spot a fork that in the non pc olden days would have been described as ‘a ladies fork’. At 5’ 3” I have to be careful to buy tools suitable for my height. So I strayed onto the Crocus site (which stocks the rival Dutch tools – made by De Wit).

The difference between Sneeboer and De Wit is that the former uses stainless steel with ash handles and the latter uses carbon steel with ash handles. Apparently carbon steel is tougher than stainless steel and not prone to metal fatigue. Up until now I’ve always bought stainless steel, believing it to be superior. Ash handles are stronger than oak or beech – that is why ash is always used for axe handles. The De Wit tools are also guaranteed for life and are much cheaper than the equivalent Sneeboer.

The De Wit range had a ‘Ladies” fork. Shorter and much cheaper than the Sneeboer one. I could have invested in a new ash handle but I’m not sure how much life is left in the tines before they snap. The reviews of the ergonomic benefits of the De Wit tools are so good that I have splashed out on the fork. I reckon that I will save time and money over the years with my new gardening assistant.

  Leave a reply


  1. Fiona,

    You did a good science experiment testing the toughness of steel. And the results are according to theory. 🙂 Stainless steel is good for appearance, carbon steel is good as a sturdy tool.

  2. Have you considered returning the duff tools to the supplier? I’ve done this in the past and been given replacements.

    But you’re right about De Wit tools – their perennial planter is my all time favourite tool.

  3. Barbara

    I agree about getting good quality tools. I have a couple of the Sneeboer hand tools, bought at Heligan, which do what they say. Last year I got an Alko garden shredder and am very happy with it–it shreds things, it doesn’t jam (my old one, also Alko but older design, jammed frequently but never wore out), produces material for paths if I shred woody cuttings and fine shredding for mulch or to commpost from thinner stuff. I agree with Paula about not tillering or rotovating. Turning the soil seems to increase the carbon output of gardening considerably.

  4. Having been the disgruntled owner of 3 cheap (relatively speaking) brushcutters that failed to start, constantly broke down and weren’t even very good on the rare occasions they DID work, I couldn’t agree more. We’ve just invested in a Husqvarna; cost more than twice as much as any of the others and guess what? It starts. It runs. It cuts stuff with no complaint. We love it and wish we hadn’t wasted all that money in the past. We bought a Husqvarna chainsaw too, and it’s equally fab.

  5. I have always felt that good tools were worth the investment.

    I would caution you away from tillering at all. The new thinking about soil health is that the soil is made up of a ‘soil food web’, and tillering just destroys that. Much better to loosen with a broadfork, and then plant with soil-building cover crops.

  6. kate (uk)

    I got so sick of trowels that bent and snapped…ended up investing in a lovely posh one, now I go for quality tools when things need replacing as they will see me out….money well spent on good quality tools, they last and handle like a dream.

  7. Have you thought of just hiring a garden tiller when you need one? I know you could see the cost as money you could have put towards buying one but if it is a machine you would only use occasionally you would avoid the cost of maintaining it. Or maybe you would hire once on a try before you buy type basis.

  8. Like shoes and beds (if you are not in one you are in the other!) some things should be the best you can afford. I will need to buy a new fork soon as Mum and I are sharing one and I don’t like hers!
    Joanna, maybe Ian could till other plots in exchange for help on other jobs.

  9. That is always a hard one Fiona. Sometimes the cheaper tools are just that cheap, and sometimes they are just basic good stuff. I prefer the smaller border forks and spades as I am only 5ft (even smaller than you :D) and so I can really appreciate the problems you have.

    We bought a rotavator the other day and it is sure great for doing the whole allotment but it was a debate of which one to go for. Still the one we bought did the whole allotment in one morning what it has taken Ian two years to clear by hand. A lot of money for a machine that won’t get used very often in the year.

  10. Richard @ Eco Living Advice

    My Dad jokes that he has a garden broom that has lasted for over 20 years. He likes to tell me that in that time it’s only had 4 new heads and 2 new handles 😉

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