The Cottage Smallholder

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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. Hi all

    I would recommend spending your money once and get yourself some good quality tools you can keep for years. But just make sure you keeop them secured under lock and key in a metal garden shed – check out as they do all sorts of metal garden sheds!


  2. Bit late to the comments on this I know, but I do want to chip in! I run a garden centre in Surrey, and am also keen gardener. Most of our ‘premium’ ranges of tools, which always includes the stainless steel lines made by Wilkinson Sword, Yeoman etc come with a guarantee, usually either 10 years or ‘lifetime’. Always keep your receipt, and then when the tools break take them back to the garden centre. They can claim a refund back from the supplier, and at least it’s the supplier taking the hit and not you. I think that we’ve got too used to throwing things away; throwing away a £30 fork cos the handle’s broken is not something that would have happened 20 years ago.
    I do have to agree that long term I think that the new carbon steel fork will be a thoroughly worthwhile investment. Happy digging!

  3. veronica

    Plus another one on “don’t buy a Mantis”, for the reasons stated 🙂 We’ve got one rusting in the shed too. It’s especially useless of you have clay-ey soil.

  4. Fiona Nevile

    Hi Joanna

    I reckon that your allotment is very big – so the tiller is a justified purchase. Especially if your husband is doing the tilling. Danny doesn’t ‘do’ the garden so any machinery has to be operated by me. Judging by the comments below the Mantis tiller would be too heavy for me.

    Hi Richard

    I loved your comment! I have a lot of old tools inherited from my grandparents and aunt and some of them are superb – especially an old shovel that has a razor sharp blade.

    Hi Suky

    Wow I couldn’t share a fork as I use one every day! I’m going to replace the handle on the latest casualty with an ash one – so I have a spare.

    Good idea swapping tilling for other work.

    Hi Pamela

    Good idea. I might try that next year if the fork isn’t the whizz I expect it to be.

    Hi Kate UK

    I’m rapidly coming to the same conclusion. Most of the cheap tools that I have are not very well designed.

    Hi Paula

    That’s interesting as it links into the biodynamic methods of cultivating soil (just the top 3”) when I discovered this is slightly put me off the Mantis tiller. I reckon your method of building up the soil sounds excellent.

    Hi Bib

    Thanks for those tips – If you think how expensive it is to pay someone else to do those jobs you are saving money at the end of the day.

    Hello Barbara

    I hadn’t even considered the carbon footprint of gardening – what a great point! The Sneeboer tools are beautiful. Can’t wait for my fork to arrive!

    Hi Nick

    Good point – I might try that this time. I must admit that I have lost confidence in cheap stainless steel tools.

    That De Wit perennial planter looks so tempting!

    Hello Sjoerd

    I was amazed when I discovered this. Thanks for dropping by!

    Hi Joey

    Thanks for the tip. I hadn’t thought of using them for that!

    Hi Jo

    I had to smile at this as I think D might have the same impression on tools if he was forced into the garden ?

    It might be worth going down the De Wit route – they have a massive range of forks.

    Hello Cookie Girl

    Yes it’s a lot of digging! The poor fork won’t know what has hit it.

    Hi Jen

    What a relief to get the thumbs up for De Wit! I was a bit apprehensive about buying such an important tool without even handling it. Great that you are enjoying the blog.

    Hi Beth

    Thank you. I’m so relieved that I wrote this article as you confirmed my suspicions. And I hadn’t even considered the worms!

    I’m going to check out that book immediately. Thanks again.

    Hi Bib

    That’s the final nail in the coffin for the Mantis. Thanks for this good advice.

  5. Beth’s comment has just reminded me that when I first got my allotment, the site secretary said “whatever you do, don’t waste your money on a Mantis, they’re useless”.

  6. Don’t buy a Mantis tiller – biggest waste of money I’ve ever spent. Like you I am 5 foot nothing and it is very hard to control – leaps & bucks all over the place. When I can get it to drive into the ground it churns everything like a Channel Tunnel digger gone possessed and will very quickly “over-till” your soil to dust. And don’t forget the worms – they will be chopped to shreds poor little things.

    I got a free grass aerator and scarifier when I bought my Mantis and now just use it for lawn maintenance. I have nearly as much garden as you and find that Charles Dowding’s “no dig” method works wonders, can highly recommend his book “Organic Gardening” (or something like that,no allifiliation, etc).

  7. I was first introduced to De Wit tools at Gardener’s World Live a few years ago by a member of the De Wit family on the exhibition stand there. I would always have gone for stainless steel in the past but he explained the merits of carbon steel to me and I’ve been hooked ever since. Every year I go back to the show and invest in another tool. He’s promised to replace any which I wear out if I take them back but I just don’t think that’s going to happen. I thoroughly recommend them as they’re a real pleasure to use and made to last a lifetime or two. BTW I’ve always called what I use (also being on the shorter side) a border fork. Always enjoy reading your blog!

  8. Cookie Girl

    Goodness me that sounds like a lot of digging! So the correct, comfortable-to-use, long-lasting tools are essential if you are to keep up with all that.. I hope the tool proves to be a worthy investment. Happy digging !

  9. Jo@LittleFfarm Dairy

    Grrrr. Don’t even start me on the subject of forks. I can’t comment on the subject of garden forks (The OH’s not the most enthusiastic gardener; that’s left to me) but I could count in literally hundreds of £s, the cost of the number of pitchforks & muck forks that now languish in the Great Fork Graveyard owing to Tony’s cack-handed &/or angry wielding (I cannot say overenthusiastic, alas)of said implements. But as he’s attempted to use pitchforks to dig through deep-litter muck; & snapped the shafts of countless sturdy muck forks when moody, it’s hardly surprising his frustration has cost us so dear. These forks – & I always buy decent quality – are upwars of £40 each. We’ve been here since Autumn 2006 & must’ve got through at least eight forks in that time.

    And every time I replace said ‘casualty’ with a sturdier, better fork I worry about how long that poor implement might last…starting to think I need a brain implant for said OH to quieten his angry fork-wielding muscles!

  10. Don’t throw the broken forks away, especially the ones that have the end spikes snapped. They are brilliant to use as border forks for tilling in between plants during summer, or in the narrow bits between rows in the veg patch!

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