A brush with great­ness

The Daily Telegraph - Gardening - - Down To Earth -

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

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