First Make Your Scythe…
There has been much comment recently in the press about maintaining old skills. Here is an article that I wrote for the Professional Gardeners’ Guild, some years ago. It outlines a few thoughts on the use of the scythe.
As Head Gardener of the medieval gardens at the Prebendal Manor Nassington, I thought that there should be an area of turf, albeit a small one, where the grass would be maintained using historically accurate techniques. The turf seats and the wild flower meadow were ideal, but first I needed a scythe.
The medieval illuminated manuscripts show scythes with a straight snathe (handle). We already had a scythe with a rotten, bent snathe hanging on the wall of the museum. It would be so much better to have a more typical scythe on display and one that would also be of use. The blade was in fairly good condition.
I had a chat with a local carpenter for ideas on how to make the joints. A few more hours work and even with my rudimentary woodwork skills, I had a working tool.
The next problem was quite simply, ‘What do I do with it?’ Luckily we soon had a group tour of the gardens. One of the visitors was Jim Cawley, an old friend, now retired, from a village where I once used to live. He told me that as a young boy he had been taught to scythe the grass and agreed to give me a lesson and offer any advice he could.
In his own garden he casually demonstrated the swing. It seemed so very easy. I could see myself effortlessly cutting great swathes through the meadow or finely trimming the lawn. Once home I was keen to get started right away and ignored some of his basic advice. Somehow it wasn’t so easy after all.
And so I went back to basics. Jim had told me that before he was allowed anywhere near the turf he had to show that he could handle the scythe properly. The first task that he had been given was cutting down nettles. I soon learned why. The nettles offer little resistance and it is easy to get a good swing and rhythm. When learning most skills it doesn’t pay to do too much in one go in the beginning. Your muscles tire quickly and things begin to go wrong. After a time I had a trail of neatly cut nettles. I also had aching muscles and some large blisters on my hands…
And so back to the grass again. It started to become easier. Fallen grass proved difficult and I soon learned that wet grass is the easiest to cut.
As far as I can tell, scythes are made for right-handed use only. This means that to avoid laying the mown grass cuttings in your own way you need to work anti-clockwise when mowing an area of grass. maybe nowadays there are left handed scythes. this may be ok if everybody else is left handed, but a mix of both sounds a recipe for disaster if you work as a team.
Several other things soon became apparent:
A sharp blade is very important. The time spent sharpening your blade is not wasted time. You will probably need to sharpen every twenty minutes. This may seem a lot but it is no worse than adjusting the cord of the older strimmers. I made a leather stone holder to hang from my belt. These are shown in many manuscripts. Another method is to hang your stone from the top of the snathe.
Scything the grass lays the mown grass to one side in strips so that it will not be in the way as you move on. These strips are easily raked into piles for collection.
Using a scythe is very quiet. The only noise being the rasp of the grass being cut. (I hate to disillusion any Disc World fans, but scythes really don’t swish!). After the headache-inducing whine of a strimmer it is sheer bliss. You have no need for ear protectors, goggles and a cumbersome harness.
If like me, you suffer with asthma, you are not plagued with irritating fumes.
If you cut pond edges the grass finishes up on the bank, not in the water.
It is said that most amenity trees are killed as a result of damage caused by strimmers and mowers. You are unlikely to damage trees with a scythe. Even if you do accidentally cut a tree, the cut will be a thin, clean one and should heal.
Scythes are cheap to buy and run when compared to the alternatives. I paid £60 for a complete scythe from Central Wool Growers.
They are easily and cheaply maintained. They don’t break down when you need them most.
A scythe is only as good as its blade. My best blade is on an old French scythe which cost me all of £17!
My latest scythe came from the Czech Republic. A good blade, handle, whetstone and a tool for sharpening it cost all of £28 from a hardware shop.
Of course, there are disadvantages:
- It does take practice to become proficient enough to make scything worthwhile.
- It does take a longer time to cut a large area. But for a small area or for nettles there is none of the preparation required with strimmers.
- You may get a blister or two, but you won’t suffer from white finger.
- It is not easy work on a hot day, but you can start early, take a break during mid-day to do something else and carry on later when it is cooler.
- A scythe does need to be set up for the person who is using it. During a sleepless night I heard a programme on Radio 4 about a museum of grass cutting. (Does anybody know the whereabouts of this museum?). Apparently there were once gangs of scythe-men who used to cut golf courses and bowling greens. The scythe would be set up for each man so that the grass would be the correct length of grass, but if a longer cut was needed the men would wear shoes with thicker soles so that they would not need to change their swing.
I have found mastering the scythe to be challenging and fulfilling. It is a useful tool that you can pick up and start to work with immediately. And if you do suffer from the odd dose of romanticism, what better than the steady swing of the scythe to make you feel part of a long tradition.
Ó Michael Brown. The Historic Gardener. 2014.