So you’ve gotten the garden bug and sallied off to the garden center to pick plants. Wait just a minute; before you leave the garden center, better run through a check list and see if you’ve got all the garden tools you’ll need to make your garden spring to life. We aren’t going to break the bank here; no power tools and even a few you can craft yourself. We’ll touch on a few items that could be considered luxuries, but only if they really make the job easier (or more fun…). We can make this list a lot more organized by breaking the jobs in the garden into four main categories.

Four Kinds of Essential Garden Tools

  1. Tilling Tilling covers soil preparation and moving; basically plowing and carting.
  2. Cultivating Cultivating is any job we do to maintain the garden, like weeding or pruning.
  3. Planting Planting covers how we get the plants in the ground
  4. Watering And finally, that most important task, watering (which explains itself…).

Tools for Tilling

A Good Shovel and a Spade

Assuming you’re not doing an acre of veggies, your most important tilling tool is a good shovel or spade. This is the work horse, a real jack of all trades that hits almost every category (I have never tried to water with a spade and do not see an immediate need…). There is no point in going cheap here. This is a lifetime purchase if done well; you will be back here in a year or two if you screw up, so buy the best you can afford. I am a big fan of all metal spades; I have had the one I am currently dating for a decade. I am using this tool in a professional capacity AND using it for my home garden; I have dug trees and shrubs, transplanted and split countless perennials and grass, cut sod and roots, and even hammered a few stakes with it and I foresee several more decades of the same (I hope I hold up!).

Why a Garden Spade is Important

A spade offers more versatility; the narrower blade and shorter handle make it easier for work in a small (or established) garden. The shovel is a better choice for digging that big hole (and for saving your back), but why choose? I have both and suggest you do as well. If you do have that big area, or are just establishing a bed, roto-tilling is a good method but a quick word here; I do not feel that buying a roto-tiller is a good investment. Renting for the weekend to knock out that new garden makes much more sense, as yearly roto-tilling breaks down the composition of your soil (more so in clay soils). Repeated tilling also brings up weed seed that eventually decays if left in the depths of the soil strata. This may not sound like a big deal, but consider crabgrass. It can lay dormant at depths of up to three feet for 100 years, waiting to infest your bed and dive into the lawn.

Why I Prefer Worms Over a Roto-tiller

I like to establish the bed with one good tilling and then let the worms do the rest. If you have provided organic matter and decent moisture they will come (adding a box or two of night crawlers from the bait shop don’t hurt any, either…). Worms migrate through the soil throughout the year, climbing from below the frost line in the spring to tear into the surface layers in the summer, diving back down in the fall to wait out the winter. They have a daily cycle as well, going deeper to escape the heat of the day. As they move through the soil they break it up and reconstitute it as castings, which actually add fertilizing nutrients to the soil. Let’s see a roto-tiller do that! So as you can probably guess, my favorite tilling tool is a box of worms.

Mattock – A Tool for Tough Digging

Breaking up the soil can be very difficult in clay situations, and working around established trees can leave you frustrated with the roots. The right tool for both jobs is a mattock. It looks like the offspring of a pick and a hoe and handles both these tough jobs and a lot of others. I do not own a pick; the mattock covers those bases nicely as well (I am fond of tools that multi-task).

Spading Hand Fork – One is Good But Two are Better

A spading hand fork is a wonderful tool for transplanting and aerating; two together make such a wonderful device for splitting grasses and perennials that I have always had two hand forks (stab them back to back at the point you want to split and work the handles apart). They will also do the job of a manure fork, sorting hay, mulch and the like, at least for a smaller garden.

Pry Bar Works Great for Rocky Soil

In the New England garden, rock is our constant companion, and those of you with hardpan know how difficult it is to break through. No list of tilling tools would be complete without the pry bar, or breaker bar. You know the one, 6’of iron bar just perfect for, well, prying and breaking things. This one gets a workout whenever I start a new bed, prying up the inevitable boulder or two that I run across. It also is another tool that can double as a pick, so we’re running out of reasons to own one. If we’re starting a bed we’re adding compost and humus, mulching and perhaps even moving soil from one locale to another, so I include the barrows and carts in this group. This is a personal decision, based on what you are intending to carry and your own personal limitations. The traditional wheelbarrow with the single tire up front is great for working in tight spaces, but it can be unstable with a big load, and anyone who has had to shovel a load of gravel off of a lawn will attest that it is not much of a labor saving device if you dump it.

Garden Cart

Garden carts, with the wide set bicycle wheels, are steady as a rock but don’t dump well and the wide wheel base can be a pain. While I own a traditional model, I have my new favorite, what we in the trade call a mulch monster, sort of a hybrid of the two other designs. The wheelbarrow body (good for dumping) is set on two garden cart type tires set about a foot apart (good for stability). The best of both worlds…

Tools for Cultivating

The original cultivating tool was probably a stick, but it wasn’t long after that someone invented the hoe. It’s still one of the most invaluable tools in your line-up for keeping those gardens weed-free, but so many to choose from. The old traditional draw hoe works, but not as well as some of the more “modern” designs (not a lot of new breakthroughs in hoe design in the last hundred years). The draw hoe necessitates really breaking up the soil surface and we’ve discussed how that can affect weed seed; it’s also a lot more wear and tear on you! (It’s usually used walking backwards and can lead to the occasional trampling). The next evolution was the scuffle hoe, with the blade pointing forward and perpendicular to the ground. (It’s often shaped like an arrowhead). You walk forward and scuffle it along in front of you, cutting the weeds at the surface and displacing only a little soil. At last we come to my favorite, the double action hoe. I promised that some tools you could build yourself and this is one of them. It’s really just a strap of metal bent in a twisted horseshoe shape, so that the bottom of the horseshoe rests flat on the ground and the two ends extend back in a 45° angle to bolt to a handle (or broom handle or stick or…). Sharpen both sides of the flat so it cuts on the forward stroke (like the scuffle hoe) and on the back stroke (like the draw hoe). Now we’re doing the job almost twice as fast. (I’ll get a picture of one here soon)

Cultivator

The cultivator comes in two different flavors; long handled and hand models. The long handled one is better on the back and the schedule, but the small one is the tool of choice around delicate plants and tight spaces, like containers and window boxes. If you are using a draw hoe, the long handled cultivator is redundant, but if you prefer the faster hoes, it’s a good tool to loosen that baked-on surface layer in the depths of summer. I have both and they both get a work-out. The hand model usually comes in a set with a trowel (we’ll cover in planting tools) and a long pointy spear with a fork on the end that you have wondered about, I’m sure. Well, it’s an asparagus fork, (for cutting the spears below the soil level) and before you throw it out (no, we don’t all grow asparagus) it does a famous job of digging dandelions and other tap-rooted weeds, so keep it! The other part of cultivating is cutting and pruning, and there is plenty to look at here. The spade may be Tool Numero Uno, but the pruners (or secateurs) run a very close second. There are a lot of different types out there but if you are only going to buy one pair of shears get a really good pair of by-pass cut shears. I have been a big fan of Felco #2’s since I started in the industry; they are the standard in the biz. Replaceable parts and blades mean you can bring these back to new in a few minutes (and we’re not talking about rebuilding a carburetor) so like your spade, you should have these for life.

Pruners

All Purpose Pruners

Now a lot of rose aficionados swear by the anvil style pruners, and many a perennial gardener wouldn’t part with their ikebana shears for all the tea in Japan, but for an all purpose, one shot deal, these will work on anything up to the size of your pinky.

Small Pruners

Then what? From pinky to thumb size the right tool for the job is a pair of loppers. These look like pruners with 2′ handles and come in the bypass and anvil variety as well (my allegiance to by-pass remains unwavering). Anvils do have a little easier action and now can be found with a ratcheting gear that allows cutting ease for those who may suffer from arthritis or such, but the cut is cleaner with the bypass type and cleaner means less chance of disease or fungus.

Tree Pruners

Pole pruners solve that “I’ll get the ladder out and prune those trees…just not today” problem. Most extend out to 18′ or so, letting you lighten up those lower tree limbs, and most of the people I talk to with “problem shade” only need to lighten up the bottom 20′ or so of their treescape to be able to really garden to their hearts content! So if you have ANY trees, this is a must have tool. But what if we have to cut something larger than our thumb?

Garden Saws

Saws are the tool for bigger limbs and trunks and like most of this list there are different saws for different jobs. For homeowners a folding pruning saw will handle most jobs up to 2″ and larger stuff should be tackled with a bow saw (up to 8″). Sure, there are buck saws and double-buck saws (those are the ones that the two magicians are always trying to saw that girl in half with), even chain saws for you real he-man lumberjack types, but most of the cutting and pruning in the garden can (and should) be done by hand. I have a tree surgeons saw, Felco 621 (I am brand loyal to the good stuff) that I love with all my heart. This thing has cut branches from pinky to bicep size and has even been pressed into service to cut PVC and it is still WICKEDLY sharp; this ranks up there on my tool list and, yes, it’s not cheap, but I can combine most of my pruning saw and bow saw duties in one tool. And my saw won’t wake neighbors out of a kind sleep at 9:00 AM on a Saturday morn like that chain saw…

Clean-up Tools

Clean-up is last on our cultivating tool list but its high on the list of things to do to keep the garden looking great. Our garden cart or wheel barrow comes in handy here, as do the rake family. Our first must-have rake is the garden rake, or bow rake. This is the one with the steel teeth; hopeless for getting the leaves off the lawn but perfect for smoothing the soil after weeding or hoeing. The great leveler, as it were. The other rake is a lawn rake, that bamboo thing Dad thrust in your hands on a crisp autumn morning as he gestured to the ten acres of front lawn (hey, it seemed that big…). I get the question, “Steel or bamboo?” a lot, and while I can be a bit of a traditionalist about a lot of things, I have only had one steel rake fall apart in my hands. The honor roll of bamboo rakes I have sent to that great leaf pile in the sky is almost without counting; steel wins hands down. “But it rips at the lawn…” So what, it’s lawn and a little light root pruning is good for plants. I recommend 2 rakes so you can use them like big mitts to pick up piles; try it…

Tools for Planting

Our spade heads the list yet again, cementing its lead as the tool to have. The spading fork can work here as well. Have a spade or fork handle lying around? (I told you to use the pry bar to lever out those rocks…) Sharpen the point just below the D handle and you now have a dibbler, or dibber, just the tool for planting bulbs! (If you don’t have the handle, the pry bar does double-duty.) The trowel, that little hand spade, is the perfect tool for planting window boxes and containers, or moving those little volunteer seedlings or any of those other little jobs that are so much of the joy of gardening. Get that little set you’ve had your eye on (and don’t toss the asparagus knife…)

Watering Tools

This is the most important job in the list; you can plant and till and cultivate all you want, but if the watering isn’t done then you may as well just watch TV. A bonsai apprentice in Japan is given his shears and wire and all the rest of his tools on day one, but he is not allowed to touch a watering can until the fifth year of his apprenticeship. Watering is the lifeblood of the garden so pay close attention to the needs of your plants and make sure you have the tools to provide for them. Let’s start with that watering can. If you only have a few pots and window boxes, this is probably all the watering system you’ll need. Don’t skimp and get those plastic cans with the plastic roses that never survive the first season. I got my can at a flea market for ten bucks and it was probably 25 years old when I bought it. It’s now 32, and although it IS worn I’ll wring a few more years out of it and then it’ll become a planter (ever see a plastic can you wanted to do that with?) Upturned hoses are something to look for as they provide a gentle cascade rather than a hundred little jet streams of water. Like any other garden tool, hoses should be lifetime purchases (well, close). Buy good rubber hoses and stow them appropriately and they will last indefinitely; there are so many good storage systems out there now that you can find something in your budget (With 200′ of hose I’m eye-balling those new self-winding numbers). Remember, stowing appropriately does not include coiled on the ground, no matter how neatly you do it. A spray head or wand is a must and I’m really fond of these dialing nozzle types that turn the hose into a lot of different tools. Mist for wetting seed flats, shower for general watering, full for filling the watering can, flat spray for a water broom, jet for shooting the significant other from the other side of the yard; the list goes on and on. This is my third place nod for cool tool, try it, you’ll like it. Finally in the water category, we have the sprinkler. SO many types; I bought one with a dialing head (it worked on the wand) and I hate it. Leaks like a sieve. The old stand-by for me is the pivoting head type with adjustable return; I can close it down to a 10° arc and adjust the length of spray with the set screw. That in itself makes it a good all-around choice, but you should look around and find the sprinkler that works for your space. Maybe it’s not a sprinkler at all. Soaker hoses are a great way to deliver the H²O and good for the environment; no wasted water (and they can’t see you watering during a restriction…). Selecting your garden tools should be a fun and personal process; we’re all going to develop a cool tool list of our own. I have stuck (adamantly) to hand tools; power tools are a subject of topic (and debate) for another day. Buy the best you can afford and maintain them; cutting oil and white lithium grease are what passes for love with your tools. I always remember what my grandfather said, “Buy the best and you’ll always be happy with your purchase.” He was a wise old man…