Great Collections: May 2017

Great Collections: May 2017

A Tool for Every Purpose – The Gardening Tool Collection of Mark Morrison
By Judy Gonyeau

Seeds of His Collection
Like so many collectors, Mark Morrison’s eye for antiques began at an early age while growing up in Wisconsin. “Ever since I was a kid I’ve always liked rusty metal and antiques and old things,” says Mark. “A few of my contemporaries’ mothers owned antique shops. Instead of hanging around with other kids, I would go shopping with their mothers.” One particular item among his purchases from that period was a large crock. “I paid $2 for it! This giant stone crock … I’ve schlepped it around with me all these years.”

Over the years Mark continued to pick up things here and there, but his focus on collecting gardening tools started at the same time as he started his landscape architecture business in 1983. From free-flowing gardens to manicured elements of historic note, “We approach each project with a high level of craftsmanship and innovation, proposing individualized solutions that emphasize restorative practices in site development, storm water management, and environmental sustainability.” (markkmorrison.com)

Mark’s collection of garden hand tools and all things botanical reflects much of his corporate mission, focusing on the craftsmanship and innovation across centuries that brought garden tools to new heights of complexity and diversity compared to the relatively few “throw-away” basics for the modern American gardener. His collection has a story to tell.

“In 1983 I took my first trip to South Africa for work and found a fork that caught my attention. I brought it back with me, putting it in the overhead bin on the airplane.”


Because Mark has been fortunate enough to travel often to England and Europe, he gained personal insight into the history of gardening – steeped in tradition and reflection. As more and more people emigrated to America and faced the harsh country conditions, the garden was kept mainly for utilitarian purposes focused on survival. In Europe the garden was not only for food and timber and such, but for beauty and status. It was something to fuss over, and the variety of tools used for each and every function within the garden was crafted by blacksmiths and artisans who would continually re-engineer them over the centuries to a degree of specificity and sheer volume of tools that can at times boggle the mind.

Mark wanted to create an eclectic collection of garden tools that reflected the variety utilized over time. “I found the right sources, went to visit them, and spent time in Europe looking through shops and markets. People look for me all the time-there are not too many of us doing this in this world. Another collector was a Frenchman who was fortunate enough to be born into a family that had Chateau from the 1400s. Many of the things he had were very old and people would ask to see them. He would say they were stored in boxes or put away or you ‘really could not see them.’ In time, a group of people worked with him and they made a book on his collection. I have most everything he has in his collection,” says Mark with a touch of pride and a bit of boyish “Gee whiz!” built in.

A Growth Spurt
Most of Mark’s collection has been built over the last ten years and consists of predominately pre-industrial revolution tools, when the local blacksmith took great care creating hand tools customized to the user, and often signed their work. The mark of the maker and other marks that can include anything from size and design specifications to dates and initials are always a plus. But it is not just the type of tool itself Mark is going for, but the evolution of the tool and its various iterations over time.

Every drawer in every space in the various buildings holding his collection is full of multiples of tools, numbered and labeled and clean to the touch. “I try not to touch them too much because of the acid that is on my skin,” notes Mark as he opens yet another drawer of 20 or so seed dibbers made from wood, iron, and even glass over the centuries.

Finding that “one” is what really gets Mark’s mind going. “I’ve been buying lately-finding things like hedge trimmers you hook your drill to from the 40s and sometimes discovering a one-of-a-kind piece. To date he has amassed over 12,000 garden tools (over 150 trowels, 350 watering cans, thousands of shears and cutters and trimmers, and many one-of-a-kind tools). The collection also includes related items such as seed catalogs and advertisements, souvenirs from historic gardens and from tool manufacturers – everything from ashtrays to mugs to wine bottles with botanical labels (although Mark has a rule that they must be empty in order to be in the collection).

“I have tools that have changed from hand power to electric and gas powered;” from the early 1600s to current items. “It’s a huge span but it seems that everything gets junkier and junkier; many people won’t spend a lot on gardening tools – they buy for cost and convenience but not for quality. If they took care of their tools and invested just a bit more when buying them, they can last a lifetime.”

Lately, Mark has been noticing a bit of a downturn in the availability of antique garden tools. “I find I am pickier as time goes by. When talking with my contacts who keep an eye out for things they feel I would be interested in, I find myself not buying just to have the item, but to have a unique version of that item. I may have bought 100 trowels from someone, but unless they have something I do not, I won’t buy it.” In particular, items from England are getting harder and harder to find. “Prince Charles collects old tools and buys from some of the same families I do, but you can’t find as many any more.”


A Collection in Full Bloom
Each time Mark looks at a new tool he has just purchased, he asks himself, “How many people did these tools feed? How many lives did they save?” as he begins to process the item. This often involves research into the piece and keeping any history that came with any particular tool. Mark has an impressive amount of organization to his collection. Most items are cleaned and sorted and organized to in one building, followed by placement and storage in other locations.

As for storage and display, he added on a large room on his home property where tools are not only for review and education, but decoration and inspiration. It is a space where his guests are invited to ooh and aah and hear the many stories of how, when, and where items were found. “I got out of the back of this hardware store …” and “I found this at an antique shop in Missouri …” or “My contact in France just called me about …” Tales of adventures from down the street to foreign lands, each one giving insight into history to the mind of the collector often make for a rousing good time in his showplace.

But if you think you will see fountains and large planters and the like, think again. While he has his own personal outdoor pieces, he felt the need to stick to the botanical vs. the architectural. “That can get very big and very expensive, whereas what I collect fits into the nooks and crannies where I live and work.”

You can indeed find his collection wherever you look – protected indoors, displayed on walls, within every drawer, in the bathroom, in the mudroom, and tended to with a gardener’s touch.  Like the seeds his implements planted and tended, his garden collection continues to grow.

Great Collections: May 2017