Pruners, shears, and loppers
If you only have one garden tool, make it a high-quality bypass pruner. Pruners are used to prune away dead or diseased stems and leaves, shape shrubs and trees, espalier, and harvest the fruits of our labors. Bypass pruners work much like scissors in that the blades bypass each other to make a clean cut. This makes it easier for plants to heal. Anvil pruners use blades that cut against a flat surface, crushing plant material. Anvil pruners are a good choice for cutting dead wood and woody stems.
Shears look like pruners with the blades turned sideways. Grass shears have shorter blades and are used around trees and shrubs, where a string trimmer might damage the bark. Hedge shears are a larger version used to shear shrubs and hedges.
For heavier cutting jobs, long-handled loppers are a good investment. For hard-to-reach cuts, pole pruners are a great choice. They allow you to trim the top of your trees without using a ladder. If you are like me and have arthritic hands, you can find pruners with a ratchet action, which provides increased cutting power.
Buckets and baskets
In my opinion, a sturdy, galvanized bucket is the second most useful garden tool, followed closely by a variety of baskets. Buckets can carry potting soil, water, weeds, chicken feed, tools, beverages, you name it. Baskets are great for carrying transplants, harvested fruits and vegetables, and other lightweight items. Buckets and baskets are simply too handy not to have, so I have several.
While every gardener dreams of having a Green Thumb, that doesn't mean you actually want your thumbs to turn green. Gardening barehanded is an easy way to develop cracked, stained skin and dirty, chipped nails. Of course, gardening barehanded feels good. It also increases the number of mood-boosting soil microorganisms you absorb as your play with your plants. But you will still want good gardening gloves. Believe me. Thorns and blisters are not fun.
When selecting gardening gloves, try on several sizes and brands to see which ones feel the best. To test the touch aspect of your garden gloves, try picking up a dime from a hard, flat surface. Once you find a style and brand you like, be sure to grab several pairs. You’ll be glad you did.
Hoses and watering cans
Watering cans are handy garden tools, helping keep your plants hydrated when and where they need it. The piece at the end of the nozzle is called a rose. A large watering can with a standard rose is best for larger plants. Use a smaller watering can with a long, narrow, open spout for watering containers. Before buying a jumbo-sized watering can keep in mind that one gallon of water weighs 8 pounds. It can get heavy after a while. Watering cans are generally made of metal or plastic. Plastic watering cans are lighter, but galvanized metals last longer. Personally, I opt for metal over plastic.
Unless you are gardening on a balcony or indoors on window sills, you will need more than a watering can to keep your garden hydrated. Garden hoses and soaker hoses come in many lengths, colors, and styles. You can control the way water comes out of your garden hose with an adjustable nozzle or water wand. Water wands provide a gentle, rain-like sprinkling. My husband swears by them. I prefer using my thumb. When shopping for a garden hose, be sure the hose does not contain lead or other heavy metals. Lead is used in manufacturing many hoses, but it is probably not a good idea for your edible plants.
Pitchforks and spading forks look like dinner forks, only bigger. Pitchforks, or hay forks, have round tines and are used for pitching hay and flipping compost. Spading forks have flat tines that dig into turn the soil and lift plants out of the ground. Garden forks are handheld tools that look like a hand, with the fingers curled downward. A gardening fork is used to break up soil and when weeding. There are also potato forks, border forks, and broad forks, which you can read more about at the Garden Tool Company.
Shovels and trowels
Even if you employ no-dig gardening, sooner or later, you will probably need a shovel. A shovel is used to turn the soil, break up dirt clods, move materials around, and prepare beds for planting. Long-handled shovels are easier on your back, and short-handled shovels are better when working in tight spaces.
There are two basic types of shovel: rounded end and square end. The end of a shovel is called its point. Round point shovels are used for digging. They usually feature a shelf for your foot to provide extra digging power. Square point shovels are better used for moving all that valuable mulch around. Shovels with sharp cutting edges are called spades. Narrow spades, used for digging trenches and installing transplants, are called drain spades.
Trowels are simply miniature, handheld shovels. A trowel’s flat or curved blade surface is used to dig into and lift up soil, seedlings, and weeds without disturbing the surrounding area. Extra narrow trowels are called transplanters.
The most commonly used saw in the garden is the pruning saw. Pruning saws have a short handle and a short, curved blade, making it easy (usually) to work within a tree’s canopy. Bow pruning saws look more like hacksaws, with the blade held within an extended C-shaped metal handle.
Wheelbarrows and carts
Wheelbarrows are three-wheeled carts used for moving compost, soil, and other materials. Unless your garden is particularly small, you will want a cart or wheelbarrow. The bucket portion of a wheelbarrow is called its tray. Trays can be plastic or metal. If you are shopping for a wheelbarrow, I urge you to consider a more durable contractor grade. It’s worth the investment. Plastic wheelbarrows and carts have the advantage of being lightweight and they don’t rust, but sturdy and durable are worth the extra cost in my book.
Most hoes are long-handled gardening tools with a small, thin metal blade, used to break up soil and when weeding. There are also handheld hoes, which are indispensable when it comes to getting to the root of problem weeds.
In addition to your standard, rectangular garden hoe, there are three other common garden hoes: the Warren hoe, the action hoe, and weeding hoes. The V-shaped Warren hoe is used primarily for digging furrows. The sharp-edged action hoe is a flattened circle used to cut weeds on both the push and pull strokes. There are actually several varieties of this type of hoe, which we will explore another day. Weeding hoes are double-headed in that they have a flat blade on one end and two pointed tips on the other end.
There are 3 basic rakes used in the garden: leaf rakes, cultivars, and thatching rakes. Leaf rakes feature flexible tines gathered at the top into a triangular shape. These cause minimal damage to lawns while collecting fallen leaves. Cultivators are comb-shaped rakes with sturdy metal teeth. Cultivators are used to move mulch, rocks, and soil. When a cultivar has a T-shape, it is called a flat rake. When the head is held in place with two curved steel supports, it is called a bow rake. Thatching rakes use short, sharp, blade-shaped tines, held horizontally, to scratch the soil surface and remove thatch from lawns.
Other handy gardening tools include dibbles, brassica collars, moisture meters, soil sampling tubes, post hole diggers, edgers, stock panels, tree cages, tomato cages, canister sprayers, sticky barriers, brooms, tarps, rain barrels, knee pads… well, the list never really ends. Before adding to your tool collection, however, let’s take a look at common problems associated with garden tools.
Problems with garden tools
Dull tools are hard to work with. Dirty tools can carry pests and diseases. If your garden tools are not well maintained, they can become dangerous to you and your plants. A sharp, rusty edge can turn a small cut into a trip to the doctor’s office. Dull blades tear at plants, rather than making clean cuts. And if you don’t periodically sanitize your garden tools, well, you’re just asking for trouble. Tools should be sanitized regularly with a household cleaner.
There are a surprising number of mostly fungal and bacterial diseases commonly spread by contact with infected tools:
Witches’ broom and clubroot can also be spread by infected garden tools. And those tools can carry vine mealybugs, nematodes, and San Jose scale to new plants.
Remember, pests and plant diseases are not the only things that get carried on tools - herbicides, pesticides, and tetanus bacterium can hitch a ride just as easily. Keeping tools clean is one way to break disease triangles and prevent accidental exposure.
How to clean rusted tools
It happens. You leave a tool outside overnight, or you decide, as I did, that your garden tools look lovely, hanging up against the chicken coop. Unfortunately, in each case, this exposes metal tools to water. Metal plus water equals rust. Compounding that problem, putting tools away without cleaning them leaves soil and microbes in contact with the metal surface, which can also cause corrosion. Even if you are diligent about cleaning and protecting your garden tools, they will still need regular care to work properly and last. Following these steps will help your garden tools stay useful longer:
So, what about those rarely heard of tools? How about a billhook? Or a sickle? Or a scythe? Scythes are those long-bladed tools you see being carried by Death or Father Time. If you ask my kids, they will tell you that scythes are implements of torture. This is due to my mother’s insistence that they help her mow a swath of path through her 97-acre Upstate New York farm one summer. Sickles are similar to scythes but only smaller.
Billhooks are similar to sickles, but with a wider blade and an even shorter handle. Used to pull brush and vines closer, and then cut them, billhooks, block hooks, and brishing hooks are commonly used in vineyards and when pleaching. Pleaching is the art of building living fences.
You want tools that fit nicely in your hands and aren’t too heavy. It is important to buy garden tools that are well made. The demands put upon them often cause lower-quality products to fail. I urge you to avoid poorly made, novelty tools.
Ultimately, all your plants need is good soil, plenty of sunlight, and occasional rain. But well-made, properly maintained tools can make gardening a lot easier on your hands and your back.
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!
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