A brush with greatness
All brooms are the same? That’s the sort of idea that gets Paul Williams bristling
For many years I have been looking after gardens – both large and small – and carrying a range of tools in my van. Recently I had a spring clean and took a look at what I really needed and what I could do without. As I considered each item, I was surprised that one of the most essential tools was my broom. This is not just any old broom but a choice fine-tuned by years of experience.
If you think it odd that a broom can be such an important item then you haven’t done enough tidying up in your garden – those of you who have swept will understand. A sweep-up at the end of a chore allows a moment for a satisfying look back at a job well done.
To the uninitiated, one broom must seem as good as another – but let me take you on my broom journey. My first encounter was with a bass broom – pronounced like the fish, not the low notes – at my first job, as a gardener at Stretton Hall in Staffordshire. I fell in love with the swishing sound it made as I brushed water across the worn brick floor of the sunken melon house. Each stroke was chased by a crisp, short-lived, “sheesh” of tiny bubbles.
Bass brooms – heavy, awkward and ugly – are designed more for the expanses of a stable yard than for flicking wet leaves out of awkward corners in the garden. Originally they were made – and many still are – from the leaf fibres of piassava, a palm also known as bassine, but now nylon-bristled models in red, blue or green can be seen brushing the straw out of stables. There is no finesse with this style of broom and the bristles on a new one are much too long for satisfying sweeping.
At the other bristly extreme, I once arrived at a job late. In a rush and brushless, I had to borrow the client’s broom, which was as refined and light as the bass broom was clunky. It had silky smooth hair (you couldn’t say bristles because that implies stiff spikiness), which would have been ideal for pushing crumbs around a polished wood floor but were no use as a garden tool.
It is tempting when you have a large area such as a drive or terrace to use a wide broom, but don’t be fooled. Trying to exert enough pressure on a broom 36in wide is arm aching beyond reason. Some are nylon bristled and skitter across the ground – or they might be soft coco fibres, which are good for shoving but have no bite.
In contrast to the wide broom, the block paving brush has a head not at a right angle but in line with the stale (handle), with a narrow row of steel bristles to brush moss and the like from between blocks. If breaking rocks is not sufficiently tedious to persuade prisoners back on the right track, half an hour with this tool will have them promising anything if only they can stop this pointless scrubbing.
Unwieldy brooms (such as the bass) might have metal stays to keep the head and broom stale firm, but no matter how careful you are, the handle always seems to end up wonky – and the more you fix it, the wonkier it gets. The joint between the head and broom stale is always a weak point. I recall my father telling me how to get the broom stale in solidly. First, whittle a bit off the end of the stale so you can get it to start into the hole in the head. And there you have your first problem – unless you are a perfect whittler, your stale end will already be wonky. Now hold the broom upright with head perched on the stale; bang the other end of the stale on the ground and the momentum will force the head on to the stale. Got it? But the weight of a bass broom head is never directly over the stale, so it wants to tilt off when you bang it hard – and it often did. Fit wooden stales on to wooden heads when they are as dry as possible – any moisture that gets in will swell the wood and make the joint tighter. Giving them a soak tightens the joint.
A new, stiff-bristled broom will get better as you use it; the bristles wear so that more are in contact with the ground at the angle you sweep. The angle at which they wear down is determined by the height of the user, so if a tall gardener hands a brush to a short gardener, they will be brushing on a new set of bristles, which makes the brush skitter across the ground and be far less effective – guard your well-worn broom with passion, and ideally never a lender or borrower be.
The test of a garden broom is to see how well it copes with clearing up box clippings. Small box leaves have an uncanny knack of hugging the paving, and many brooms leave lots behind. Yew leaves can be almost as bad. A brush that lifts these pesky nuisances is to be treasured.
So, my perfect broom must have bristles sufficiently stiff to flick up those stubborn box leaves, but not too long that they do more flicking than brushing; narrow enough to be able to wheedle out autumn leaves from behind pots; strong enough to push along a pile of wet leaves or snow; just soft enough, when deftly handled, to not damage the lawn when brushing off leaves, hedge clippings or spilt soil; and robust enough to be pulled from under a pile of other tools in the van without the head coming off. And strong enough to show a savage dog you mean business.
As a last note, don’t throw away old broomheads. I keep a very worn soft coconut-fibre broomhead in the van for sweeping out bits in the corners, but it is just as good for keeping your potting bench tidy.
Clean sweep: Paul Williams gets to work at Whichford Pottery with a favourite broom