The History of Gardening Tools

Written by lauren ferris
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The History of Gardening Tools
Many of our modern garden tools have remained more or less the same for milleniums. (Dylan Ellis/Stockbyte/Getty Images)

The use of tools and the development of agriculture have for millenniums set humans apart. Yet, despite the many ways in which we've evolved, many of our gardening tools have not. The materials have become more advanced, like plastics and lightweight, high-density metals, but the basic design of these tools remains more or less the same. From the Hanging Gardens of Babylon to the Tuileries in Paris to your own back yard, these stunning landscapes are shaped by simple gardening tools and dedicated hands.

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The Neolithic Revolution

The earliest recorded use of gardening tools dates back 10,000 years ago, to the Neolithic period and the domestication of plants. The microlith, a small, sharp stone blade set into a handle of bone, wood, or antler, was an early multi-tool. Its shape is similar to a small spade. It was used for digging, clearing forest or brush, clipping or cutting plants, and for making other gardening tools. Many of our familiar gardening tools came out of this period: scythes, hoes, ploughs and gardening forks, all made from stone, flaked and chipped into shape, and attached to a wood or bone handle.

The History of Gardening Tools
The Neolithic period saw the rise of tools use for gardening and agriculture. ( Images)

Agricultural Innovation in the Bronze Age

The Bronze Age marked the invention of smelting, the process by which raw materials like tin, copper, and later iron are separated from their ores, then purified into workable materials. This development meant sharper, harder tools for agriculture. Ploughs, axes, spades, scythes, hoes, forks were made from solid pieces of bronze, making them more durable and efficient. The ancient Sumerians also developed irrigation systems, canals and reservoirs for their gardens.

The History of Gardening Tools
Irrigation was and still is an important part of maintaining a healthy garden. (Hemera Technologies/ Images)

Tools of the Han Dynasty in China

An early, wooden version of the seed drill, to keep from having to plant each seed by hand, made its debut in the 3rd century B.C. It took another 3,500 years to spread west to Europe and the Middle East. The Chinese also developed the wheelbarrow in the 2nd century B.C. Although the original model is quite large compared to its modern equivalent, the basic structure and characteristic single-wheel have continued to prove useful in the garden.

The History of Gardening Tools
Though its design is simple, the wheelbarrow is one of the most versatile tools. (George Marks/Retrofile/Getty Images)

American Advances in Gardening Tools

The first cast iron shovel was produced by American John Ames. The broad shape of the blade and the long length of the handle are still characteristic of modern shovels. Early colonists also developed a deterrent for the gardener's worst enemy: pests. The colonists used a cloche, a large bell-shaped tool used to keep pests off their plants and to help trap in the heat of day necessary for plant growth. Also during this time period, gardening became a very fashionable pastime, and with the fad came custom tools like cultivating forks, pruning and hedge shears, edging irons, and budding and grafting knives.

The History of Gardening Tools
Early American gardening tools, like Ames' shovel, were often custom made, prized possessions. (Jupiterimages/ Images)

The Industrial Revolution, Automated Tools, and Mass Production

In the mid to late 1800s, with the invention of electric and steam-powered machinery, many automated gardening tools and techniques became available. Steam powered tractors and threshers made large-scale agriculture less daunting. Steel and other metal alloys became the material of choice for common garden tools like spades and hoes. Moreover, gardening tools in general became more widely available with the spread of mass production and mass transit.

The History of Gardening Tools
Tractors and other automated machinery made large-scale agriculture possible. (Jupiterimages/ Images)

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