Gardening can get expensive, right?! It can really add up quickly, especially if you have to keep replacing tools like trowels that bend and break, shovel handles that snap, and gloves that get holes after only a few weeks of vigorous gardening. Over the 20+ years I’ve been gardening, a great many garden tools have crossed through my tool caddy and shed. Some just didn’t end up being useful for our particular needs. Others were cheaply made and didn’t hold up well with heavy use over the years. I learned that cheap tools don’t always save money in the long run. So these days, I’m more discerning as I pass the racks of gardening tools found in nurseries and garden centers. I can tell by looking that some of them just aren’t going to last. Luckily, we have a nursery in our area that carries some very well-made tools, and some of these have lasted the full 20 years we’ve been on this property.
So, if it’s helpful to any gardeners, especially new gardeners, I want to share some some of the best and most essential gardening tools that have made our A-list. This is a bit of a long read, so you might want to get some snacks and a hot beverage first, or take it in stages. 😉
As I was assembling this list, I quickly realized it was an over-reach to try to include every tool I use, so there may be other installments on this topic. And of course, everyone’s needs are different depending on the variety and extent of what they are gardening. I’m not sure many of the below tools would be needed for growing orchids, for example. Also, I can’t say this collection is particularly aesthetically pleasing; I would certainly love it if my tools could not only be durable but exuded hand-crafted natural beauty as well. If you live in some romantic area of the world that has sources of such artisanal treasures, hurray! Please send photos so I can vicariously enjoy them.
Felcro Pruning Shears
Also called secateurs or hand pruners, pruning shears are one of the essential tools for the gardener. Felcro is one of the best makers of pruners, and I have several pairs of Felcro 2 which I use all the time for tasks like pruning fruit tree twigs or wisteria or dormant raspberry canes, removing thick weed stalks or spent sunflowers, or harvesting a head of broccoli. I scarcely go outside without them. The parts are replaceable and you can sharpen them. They will probably outlive me.
A must-have for pruning trees and woody shrubs. I have a couple of different brands. I’m pleased with the ones the photo. Felcro also makes loppers. Again, go for quality in a hard-working tool like loppers.
Gloves? One might rightly ask, why wear gloves at all? Well, I don’t always wear them, but as I’ve gotten older, my skin heals less quickly from scratches and cuts, and gloves are becoming more essential for me. Also, around our area in Northern California, there are poisonous black widow spiders that are often hiding underneath things, and though they are shy and run away quickly, I’m not keen to accidentally grab one. Even though I usually have a sense of where they may be, I nearly grabbed one once as I was weeding some grass near the base of a tree. I turned it over with my trowel and yes, it had the red hourglass. This was not a place I would have guessed. Same with hidden wasp nests that show up in so many places–inside pots, or attached to the bottom twig of a lavender plant. And then there are nasty splinters to avoid from bamboo or lumber, or the old rusty nail. So wearing gloves is good safety! Ok, now let’s shake off those cringe-worthy images and get back to gloves….
So, we were using another brand of garden gloves for many years, but they kept getting holes quickly with our heavy use. I had avoided thinner gloves, thinking they would wear even faster. Finally, I grew tired of buying more and more replacement gloves and experimented with these Mud gloves. They are made of thin fabric, but are sturdy and rip-resistant — a pleasant surprise. The thin fabric makes it possible to do tactile detail work, like with small irrigation parts, or finding the weed root hiding underneath a head of lettuce. Plus, the high-grip surface really saves my wrist from having to grip so tightly — my pruners don’t slip out of my hand and I have a solid grip on the mower handles and power tools. My rose/thorn high-cuff gloves are another brand which I also like, but I’m going to try the ones Mud makes. My roses are mostly heirloom roses, with some formidable thorns, and I’m still receiving a little too much rose-acupuncture for my taste. 😉
My favorite trowel of all time is the brand called Corona, with our specific version called Transplanter. As the garden expanded over the years, we bought more of these to keep in various places, and they are the longest lasting trowels of any we’ve tried. It says they are made of “one-piece, polished aluminum alloy” but I could have sworn they were steel, being so strong and never bending. And trowels like this one with measurements marked on the blade are very useful for planting bulbs the correct depth, like daffodils or garlic.
Oh the watering cans that I’ve loved and lost! Copper, brass or anything with promise of a patina will always my first choice, but alas, those metal cans I cherished in the early days developed leaks much too soon. They probably prefer to live indoors if they are to go on being watering cans and mine were left outdoors with the roses and took early retirement there. I only have one left that still holds water, and it’s a small antique one, possibly made of zinc. I tried fixing the others, but my fixes didn’t hold. If I ever learn welding, I will try again. So I was forced to try some plastic ones. Plastic watering cans can meet an early end too, but some are surprisingly hearty, like this Swiss brand that has done impressively well for us: Stockli 12 liter watering can (3+ gallon). The handle is strong and has not broken despite being filled to the brim and jostled over distances, and left outside year-round. If other gardeners have found ways to preserve the integrity of copper or brass watering cans, or how to solder them, let me know! And, indoor gardeners: I’m curious if your copper or brass watering cans last many years when only used indoors.
Other Garden Tools
I don’t have the brand names of all the them, but the following are important tools we use:
- Florist scissors (for harvesting or dead-heading flowers; trimming bouquets, harvesting beans, trimming strawberry runners)
- Curved weeder, I think by CobraHead (this tool made so many other hand-weeding tools obsolete for us; also used for pulling a run of cleavers out of a bush without getting covered with the itchy seed-heads, or unearthing a buried drip irrigation hose, or loosening soil around a root-bound plant)
- Twine (use natural—it’s compostable and the plastic versions end up getting caught in mower blades at some point)
- Dibble (handy for making fast planting holes for things like garlic and transplanting seedlings)
- Rooting gel (for propagation)
- Soil moisture and PH tester
- Wire cutters (for making your own gopher baskets from gopher wire rolls, or all the little wire cutting needs around the garden)
- Small and large hand sickles (we use a small one for mushroom harvesting, and larger one for removing old flax or artichoke leaves)
- Folding pruning saw (when you just have a few small branches to prune and don’t want to haul out a big power pruner; or you want more arm exercise)
- Gopher hole clearing tool (invaluable for setting gopher traps; FYI: in the early days, I tried to have a “sharing” attitude towards gophers until one ate a much-loved, 8-year-old Pink Pearl apple tree whose gopher basket had rusted out. The entire root ball was gone–just a trunk stub left. But I’m generally an animal lover and even with gophers, I yield at times. Like, I found some babies once whose mother was missing (was it me? I don’t remember); I couldn’t help myself and nursed them with fig leaves and other gopher delicacies for awhile then released them back into our field. One bit me through my glove as they were getting released. They are probably eating our fruit trees now.) 😉
- Pointed taproot weeding trowel or very slender taproot cutting tool, (see photo; for removing young thistles and other taproot weeds)
- Taproot digging shovel (when the weed is tall and the taproot deep, like poke weed or a large thistle)
- Sturdy shovels (contractor-grade fiberglass is best we’ve used although I would love to try these beautiful-looking steel ones).
- Leaf rakes with sturdy metal tines (keep those deciduous leaves for compost or mulch; pine needles for blueberry mulch; don’t mulch with eucalyptus—it’s probably allelopathic)
- Agricultural rake with a strong bond between handle and tine end
- Digging fork (aerating soil, digging potatoes, turning compost if you do that….)
- Pitchfork (for spreading straw mulch, tossing weeds onto compost, checking the worm bin…)
Hoses and nozzles
Hoses can develop permanent kink spots, and those areas are prone to crack. Some hoses are very thin material and don’t withstand water pressure well over time. So we try to steer clear of the cheap versions and go for heavy duty hoses with anti-kink properties. A common kink spot is at the spigot end where the hose bends if pulled on, or the clearance from ground is minimal. If that is your situation, look for the kind with a heavy wire anti-kink spiral at the spigot end, or buy an attachment with that.
As for hose nozzles, frankly I’m still looking for a favorite. Many haven’t lasted long with our rugged use and water pressure set high for our irrigation system. Adding an additional shut-off valve before the hose nozzle is helpful to reduce pressure strain on the nozzle valve. In winter, shut off water at spigot, drain the hose of water, and leave nozzle valve open to allow for expanding freezing water inside. Drape the hose nozzle up off of the ground somewhere, or best of all, remove the nozzle in winter altogether. You can repair hoses if they split, but we find that process rather frustrating and short-lived. We’ve added the step of using a pipe glue when we repair. If you have a favorite hose nozzle that weathers well, please let me know!
Battery-operated Reciprocating Saw and Hedge Trimmer
Our reciprocating, battery-operated power saw is used all the time: for pruning larger branches than the loppers can handle and many other uses including garden construction projects. So far we have shied away from chainsaws and circular saws, for safety purposes. But the reciprocating saw is very manageable and handles most of our needs. They are coming out with lighter versions all the time, especially with the advent of lithium batteries. There are various blade types available, we mostly use the pruning blade, but the metal blade is good for many garden projects, including — surprise! — being good at harvesting bamboo.
When hand shears just won’t cut it, go for the hedge trimmer. After trying to prune our large lavender patch the quaint hand-tool way, and wrecking our backs doing so, we gave in to using an electric hedge trimmer. Even that is still hard on the back but at least it’s done in a fraction of the time. DeWalt is a brand I like for reciprocating saws and hedge trimmers.
One day we’ll probably fork out for a small tractor, but all these years thus far we’ve been getting good exercise hauling around shrubs and soils, trimmings and trellises with wheelbarrows, and this is the best one we’ve ever had. Please excuse the fact that I did not clean it before taking the photo. We do use a truck for some very heavy loads, like bags of fence post cement, or yards of mulch, or moving very large branches, but mostly we just make do with two of these Smart Carts. The plastic bed is removable and the frame is lightweight. It has outlasted or out-performed three other types of wheelbarrows that we tried over the years. Worth the price.
What about garden hoes? Frankly, we don’t really use them much. We garden in raised beds with lightweight potting soil that only occasionally needs a bit of fluffing with a digging spade. We weed by hand or with the curved weeding tool. For anything that is gopher-proof and can be planted in the ground, we use a no-dig/no-till method. New areas are cleared of initial weeds with sheet-mulching. More on this in another post.
That’s a lot of tools! What are the most essential gardening tools for new gardeners?
Well of course it depends on what and where you are gardening and your own preferences. In general, if I was just starting out as a new gardener in a small outdoor planting space, I would probably focus on investing in just a few initial tools:
- a good pair of gloves
- a trowel
- some pruners
- a hand weeder like the one above
- a quality shovel
- a watering can (if a hose isn’t a nearby option)
- and hopefully a borrowed or second hand wheelbarrow for the time being
If your budget is tight, you could give your friends and family your wish-list for garden gifts, or see if a neighborhood gardener has any old tools they are willing to share or give to you, perhaps as a trade for some mowing or weeding, or a promise to water their garden when they are next away from home.
I’d love to hear about your favorite garden tools to see what has been useful for you! And if you have a quaint old watering can, please do send a photo. 🙂
Stay safe and be well!