Gardening is a wonderful way to get exercise, grow healthy food, and improve your mental outlook, and good tools make gardening easier and even more enjoyable.
Whether your garden is a backyard plot, a sidewalk strip, or containers on a balcony, the right tools can protect your hands, your back, and your plants. That being said, some of the tools advertised as “impossible to do without”, well, you can do without. Also, while there are plenty of power tools in the world of gardening, rototillers, chippers, and tractors are not needed by the home gardener. [I really appreciate having a chipper, though!]
This guide provides an introduction to some of the more important garden tools, and introduces you to a few you may never have heard of before.
Pruners, shears, and loppers
If you only have one garden tool, make it a high quality bypass pruner. Pruners are used to clip away dead or diseased stems and leaves, to shape shrubs, trees, and espalier projects, and to harvest the fruits of our labors. Bypass pruners work much like scissors, in that the blades bypass each other to make a nice, clean cut. This makes it easier for plants to heal. Anvil pruners use a blade that cuts against a flat surface. This crushes plant material, but they 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, allowing 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, and baskets are great for carrying transplants, harvested fruits and vegetables, and other lightweight items. Buckets and baskets are simply too handy not to have, which is why 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, and it 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 different sizes and styles 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 pair. You’ll be glad you did.
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. It is important,, when shopping for a garden hose, to ensure that the hose does not contain lead or other heavy metals. Lead is used in manufacturing most hoses, but it is probably not a good idea for your edible plants.
Pitch forks and spading forks look like dinner forks, only bigger. Pitch forks, or hay forks, have round tines and are used for pitching hay and flipping compost. Spading forks have flat tines that are used to 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 are going to 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 especially sharp cutting edges are called spades. Narrow spades, used for digging trenches and installing transplants, are called drain spades.
Trowels are simply miniature, hand-held 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.
Most hoes are long handled gardening tools with a small, thin metal blade, used to break up soil and in 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 how, 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 types of rakes used in the garden: leaf rakes, cultivars, and thatching rakes. Leaf rakes feature flexible tines, gathered at the top into a triangular shape, that cause minimal damage to lawns while collecting fallen leaves. Cultivators are the comb-shaped variety, with metal teeth, used to move mulch, rocks, and soil. When cultivars have 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 to remove thatch from lawns.
Other handy gardening tools include dibbles, brassica collars, moisture meters, a soil sampling tube, 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 and dirty tools can carry pests and diseases. If your tools are not well maintained, they can become dangerous to both 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 can be sanitized with bathroom cleaner or a solution of 1 part bleach and 9 parts water.]
There are a surprising number of mostly fungal diseases commonly spread by contact with infected tools. These diseases include Phytophthora tentaculata, Verticillium wilt, phytophthora root and crown rot, pink root, Fusarium wilt, Fusarium dieback, Fusarium crown and foot rot, eutypa dieback, stem blight, rust, rose rosette, peach leaf curl, onion white rot, mummy berry, karnal bunt, grey mold (also known as botrytis fruit rot and botrytis bunch rot), and cucumber mosaic. There are also bacterial diseases, such as angular leafspot, olive knot, black rot, crown gall, citrus blast (also known as bacterial blast or black pit), and blackleg that can be spread on contaminated tools. Conditions such as black spot, witches’ broom, bacterial wilt, and clubroot can also be spread by infected tools. Those tools can also 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 corrode the metal. 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 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 seeing 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 cutting 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, that 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 an occasional rain. But well made, properly maintained tools can make the task of gardening a lot easier on your hands and your back.
Finally, does anyone know what the tool below is called? I inherited it from my mother, but I haven't been able to track down a name.
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!