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A History of the Garden in Fifty Tools

A green thumb is not the only tool one needs to garden well—at least that’s what the makers of gardening catalogs 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 colorful 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 favorite 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.

See sample pages from the book (PDF format).

224 pages | 150 color plates | 7 x 9 | © 2014

Biological Sciences: Botany, Natural History



“Laws examines the history and cultural bearing of everything from a cloche to a lawn mower, and he understands that gardeners form deep attachments to the tools they use.”

Washington Post

“This handsome horticultural history by a noted British gardener, published by the University of Chicago, would make a fine gift for the gardener who has everything, guaranteed to give him or her a one-up on buddies who don’t know a dibber from a mattock or a billhook from a daisy grubber.”

Toronto Star

“Laws’s book offers the delight of reminding us of all the different kinds of advances that can reshape simple activities. Label stakes (18th century) and the potting shed (19th) contributed directly, while wireless radio contributed more subtly, providing music or baseball broadcasts that completely changed people’s experience of time spent digging in the yard.”

Boston Globe

“I found myself enchanted by the con­versational prose, historical tidbits, and bizarre digressions that fill its pages. . . . Don’t worry if you haven’t experienced all the tools Laws covers; you will surely find new appreciation for any implement that can be fashioned into some garden purpose. This is a truly entertaining read that will appeal as much to non-gardeners as to those who have wielded many a tool to coax plants from the soil.”

American Gardener

“Laws presents a novel approach to the history of the garden in this charming book. He explores the use of 50 tools arranged according to various parts of the garden, although only a few are exclusive to those areas. Most of his choices are what we would consider ordinary tools, but others are a little surprising. . . . Along with very practical information, he gives the reader fascinating and often humorous historical garden tales”

Chicago Botanic Garden

“In A History of the Garden in Fifty Tools, Bill Laws . . . approaches his subject with a disarming mixture of deliberation and affection. His tales ramble from the twentieth century to the Paleolitihic er and back again to recount global histories of, yes, fifty garden tools, each offered up in all its staggering variety. The scale of such a project could have been overwhelming, but the book’s artfully cohesive design makes it accessible and orderly.”

American Scientist

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