For John Evelyn in his Elysium Britannicum of 1659 the ‘scythe and slasher’ was the most indispensable tool for the gardener. The scythe had been used in agriculture for several centuries before Evelyn and continued to be an essential part of the armoury of gardeners and farmers until the middle of last century. Mechanical mowers and strimmers then took over the job, in Britain at least, of cutting grass and meadows, leaving the scythe redundant.
Recently however, the scythe has started to make a comeback in the tool shed. Anyone trying to re-create wildflower meadows in their garden knows that when the time comes to cut the meadow the scythe is the only tool for the job. The mechanical alternative, the strimmer, which cuts by spinning nylon twine or a metal blade at high speed, is not only noisy and dangerous to use but has a tendency to mash the plants, leaving behind a confetti of stems, leaves and seed heads. For a successful meadow it is vital that the plants are allowed to drop their seed as they are cut and then that the cut plant is easy to gather up. Only cutting with a scythe allows this.
The traditional scythe has a long handle, the snath, usually made of ash, with a smaller handle, the nib, about a third of the way from the top. The long curved blade is typically bent upwards towards its point. Before beginning to scythe make sure that the blade is sharp and your meadow is dry. A blunt blade or a wet day and you may as well flail the grass with a bamboo stick for all the good you will do.
Using the scythe can seem difficult initially, but once you have found the rhythm of scything it becomes an easy and pleasurable job. Stand upright (savouring for a moment the thought that finally there is a job in the garden where you don’t have to bend) and grip the nib in your right hand with your palm downwards. Hold the top of the handle with your left arm curled up towards you and swing the scythe towards your left. Try to remember the feeling as a child of starting a hoola-hoop – that’s the movement your body needs to make.
If the meadow you are cutting is small, consider using a sickle – a semi-circular blade with a short handle – although needing to bend to cut low makes using it hard work. In parts of southern Europe you can find a long-handled sickle with a slightly angled blade, ideal for cutting small meadows, but not easy to pack in your luggage on your return from holidays. I’ve never been able to find one in Britain.