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Copyright © 2003, 2004, 2008, 2010 by David E. Ross
Having just bought a house, my daughter Heather asked me what tools she would need for her garden. Here is my answer, with the tools categorized by significance. From the most significant to the least, the categories are: Essential, Important, Handy, and Useful. The order within each category is irrelevant.
Note: This page is still being developed as I think of more tools that might interest my daughter.
I generally use the first three of these every time I work in the garden.
- pruning shears
- I prefer blade-and-hook shears, also known as bypass shears. The shears are held such that the blade is towards the plant and the hook is towards the part being removed. Others prefer blade-and-anvil shears, in which the blade cuts against a brass anvil.
- paring knife
- A sharp knife is excellent for cutting out a weed below the soil. If you do not get at least part of the root, the weed might resprout. A knife is also used to trim torn bark on a tree so that the wound will heal better. Of course, you use a knife to make cuttings from shoots that you have removed with pruning shears; to avoid making the knife dull, cut against a scrap of lumber.
When buying a knife, be sure the blade is stiff and not flexible; a flexible blade will not cut true and might break. Also be sure the tang of the blade extends the length of the handle. Then, the handle merely becomes a means of holding the blade when digging and weeding; a shorter tang transfers the force on the blade onto the handle, which might then break.
- I recommend a galvanized steel pail, about 3-5 gallons. I use my 3 gallon pail to carry my small tools. While weeding, I toss the weeds into the pail. I fill the pail with water to soak new flower pots. (I generally use clay pots, which when new are so dry they will suck all the moisture out of the potting mix.) I make small amounts of potting mix in my pail. For the first feeding of the year for my roses, I mix the various ingredients — ammonium sulfate, super phosphate, gypsum, iron sulfate, zinc sulfate, Epsom salts, peat moss — in my pail. For larger tasks, I also have a 5 gallon heavy plastic pail that originally contained something used by our contractor when we remodeled our house.
- gardening books
- Every gardener should have at least one comprehensive book appropriate for his or her climate. I use Sunset's Western Garden Book (written for the western United States), which contains a plant encyclopedia. For Father's Day 2004, my wife gave me the 2001 edition; this is the fourth version I have owned, with the earliest being the 1961 edition. I also have specialized garden books on such subjects as camellias and house plants. My book shelves contain some old books, including a 1941 edition of Sunset's Visual Garden Manual and a later printing of the 1947 edition of Roy E. Biles's The Complete Book of Garden Magic. I even have textbooks on horticulture and plant taxonomy (the classification of plants into orders, families, genera, and species).
While the others sit in the bookshelves of the family room, the Western Garden Book sits by my computer in my second-floor office, where I can look out into my back yard, see something, and then consult Sunset.
- A garden hose should be long enough to reach from the hose bib (faucet) to the farthest corner of the garden, in case you want to soak a plant at that corner slowly. My hoses are ribbed inside, which prevents kinking.
I have two hoses always connected, one in front and one in back. But then I live in a climate where I do not have to worry about the hoses freezing. In colder climates, hoses should be disconnected, drained, and stored before the first freeze.
- I do much more digging of small holes with a trowel than I do large holes with a spading fork or balling spade. Often, I use a trowel to dig fertilizer around the base of a rose bush or into the top inches of potting mix around one of my dwarf citrus. They are great for planting a few small bulbs or young bedding plants.
Get a real strong trowel. Make sure the shank between the blade and handle is equally strong. The blade and shank should be one continuous piece. You don't want either the blade or shank to bend while digging. The handle should be comfortable. I prefer a heavy plastic, one-piece handle that is a round cylinder with little grooves to enhance my grip and a rounded end so that I can push on it to force the blade into the soil. However, I have seen some very nice trowels that are all one piece, with the handle merely an extension of the shank, still a cylinder with a rounded end. I avoid wood handles, which may start to form splinters too quickly; unlike many other garden tools, a trowel is gripped very tight when in use, tight enough to force a splinter deep into your hand.
It might be handy to have both a standard (wide-blade) trowel and a narrow-blade trowel, the latter being useful when digging in confined areas such as flower pots and planters.
- lopping shears
- These are long-handled pruning shears, used on branches too thick to cut with the smaller hand shears. Too thick is really a term indicating how hard the branch is, not its physical size. Lopping shears also come as either blade-and-hook or blade-and-anvil, just as hand shears. Do not bother with lopping shears with fancy lever action, which is intended to yield greater force on the blades. Any branch that requires such force should instead be cut with a pruning saw.
- pruning saw
- A pruning saw is designed to cut wet wood. The teeth angle back towards the handle; and the saw cuts on the pull, not the push. The blade tapers towards the end. I prefer a very significant taper on a relatively narrow blade that curves concave towards the teeth; this allows the blade to work in confined areas, near branches I do not want to cut.
Folding saws are nice, but be sure you get one in which the blade can lock open. Don't bother with a folding saw that uses a wing nut to hold the blade open; if the saw binds in a cut, the wing nut might not hold. I have two pruning saws. The folding saw has relatively fine teeth for smaller branches. The other saw does not fold and has larger teeth. Both have pistol-grip handles as seen in the adjacent illustration of the folding saw. This allows my hand into confined areas better than the looped handle seen below the folding saw. Avoid plastic handles, which break easily; only buy saws with wood handles.
- white glue
- As I mention on my rose pruning page, I use this to seal pruning cuts, not only on roses but other woody plants (especially my peach tree). Conventional pruning paint often causes die-back. I buy whatever brand I can find: Elmer's, Willhold, Gluebird, or a store's house brand.
- spading fork
- I think this is better than a spade for digging, whether merely to turn the soil, for a planting hole, or to move a plant. I also use my spading fork to stir my compost pile. Get a fork with four tines, not three. The tines should be quite sturdy; you do not want them to bend. The fork should have a D handle (as shown). Do not confuse a spading fork with a manure fork or pitch fork, both of which are too light to withstand the stress of digging.
- grass shears
- Besides trimming grass close to other plants, along an irregular walkway, or around a sprinkler head (where a power trimmer is not suitable), grass shears may be used to trim dead flowers from small, clumping plants and to keep ivy in bounds. I like the kind where the handles are vertical (upper drawing) rather than horizontal (lower drawing); my knuckles do not scrape the ground.
- potato hook
- Once you have turned the soil with a spading fork, a long-handled potato hook is the best tool for breaking up clods and generally preparing a seed or planting bed. Get one with four tines in a straight line instead of three (which often comes with the center tine advanced before the two side tines). I think a potato hook is much more effective than a hoe.
- lawn rake
- This is a rake with long, flexible teeth. Mine has metal teeth spread in a fan. When I finally replaced my old rake — the teeth had worn down until they no longer hooked — the wooden handle of the new rake broke less than a year later. Unlike good garden tools, the handle was made without any regard for the direction of the wood grain. My current rake has an aluminum handle coated with vinyl.
- balling spade
- This is a narrow-bladed spade, very good when digging in confined areas (e.g., when digging up a plant). I prefer one with a blade that is straight at the end instead of pointed; this is handy when digging a narrow trench. This, too, should have a D handle.
Note: Be sure you learn the difference between a shovel and a spade.
- A shovel is for scooping and moving. The blade is at an angle to the handle so that you can scoop with the blade nearly horizontal without stooping.
- A spade is for digging. The blade (or tines on a spading fork) are nearly parallel to the handle. If you stand on the top of the blade (or shoulder of the tines) while holding the handle vertically, the blade (or tines) will go straight down into the soil.
- Usually, I hate receiving gifts of gardening tools. I always want to choose them myself, after examining them (thus no mail-ordering). However, my wife gave me this excellent step, which is also a seat and — turned upside down — a "kneeler". I use it frequently.
I was going to classify my seat as merely Handy, but I use it so often that it is really Important (but not as important as my wife).
- When pruning my peach tree, I set my tools on the step so that I don't have to squat down to pick them off the ground.
- When pruning low-growing shrubs, I sit on it.
- When weeding or digging fertilizer around my roses, I kneel on it. The underside of the seat has a thick foam pad for my knees.
- I can even stand on it to reach something not high enough to require a ladder.
- large empty coffee cans
- I use about six empty coffee cans. I still call them "3 pound" cans (about 1.1 kg), but it has been many years since the roasters packed even 2.5 pounds of coffee in them.
By the way, the plastic lids from coffee cans make excellent coasters under the saucers in which I place my flower pots.
- One can holds shards of broken clay flower pots. As I repot plants, I always seem to need a new piece of broken pot to cover a drain hole in a new pot, especially if the new pot is larger than the old one.
- I put small bags (3-5 pounds each) of plant food into cans. These are fertilizers that I use sparingly; the contents seem to last longer than the bags. (I leave the torn bags in the cans to identify the contents.)
- I use one can as a scoop for the sand from which I make my potting mix. I use another can — one with evenly spaced ridges on its sides — as a measure so that I get the right proportions of sand and peat moss. And these cans are excellent for storing small amounts of left-over mix.
- I use a lot of twine, primarily to train my grape vines and climbing roses. I buy a large cylinder of hemp twine about once every two to three years, far too much to carry around the garden. From the cylinder, I wind a ball of twine slightly smaller than the diameter of a coffee can. With my garden paring knife, I cut a small X in the plastic lid of the can. I put the ball of twine in the can and thread the free end through the X. When I need twine, I just pull enough through the X and cut it off, leaving about an inch still sticking out of the X. In the can, the ball never rolls away while I am pulling off a length of twine.
- Even if you garden strictly according to organic principles, you still sometimes find a need to spray. After all, there are such things as insecticidal soaps, BT, and other natural products to protect your landscape.
I recommend a pump-up sprayer with 2-3 gallons capacity. I prefer high-impact plastic over metal for two reasons. First of all, plastic will be at least partially translucent. You can see how much spray mixture is in the sprayer; some plastic sprayers even have easily read marks at half-gallon and one-liter increments. Second, some of the materials I spray will eventually corrode even the best metal sprayer.
If you use a sprayer, you also need a bottle of liquid soap. It's as good as (if not better than) any commercial wetting agent. Fuzzy or waxy plant leaves as well as some insects readily shed liquids. A good squirt of soap into the sprayer — after the mix is added so that excess foam doesn't hide the measurements — will ensure that the spray does indeed wet its target. I buy the cheapest liquid dish detergent I can find, avoiding detergents with lotion, lemon, or excessive perfumes.
- Here I mean metal or heavy plastic barrels, 20-50 gallons capacity trash barrels (depending on what you can move). I use them to store the peat moss and washed plaster sand that I use in my potting mix. I also use a barrel to store sifted compost and another one while sifting to store the material that I will then have to return to the pile for further composting. If you get a large barrel, try to get one with wheels so that it will be easily moved even when fully loaded. (Note: A wheeled barrel is not a wheelbarrow.)
- Any large sheet of canvas or heavy vinyl will do. I use a piece of vinyl given to me by a shop that reuphostered our breakfast room chairs. It's almost square, about 4 feet on each edge. When I divide bulbs or perennials, I place them on my tarp so that the dirt does not accumulate on the lawn or paving. I sift compost onto my tarp. It's very good for mixing large quantities of potting mix; when I am done and have scooped most of the mix into a container, I can lift the tarp and dump the rest into that same container.
- (See balling spade regarding the differences between a spade and a shovel.) This can be used to move a large amount of potting mix from your tarp into a container, to clear the street gutters next to the curb, etc.
- grass catcher
- (See lawn mower.) I bought this for use with my push mower when I still had dichondra lawns. I still use it even though I no longer mow. The catcher is handy as a giant dust pan when raking leaves or sweeping the driveway.
- If I am not frequently sweeping my walkways, driveway, sidewalk, and patio, I should be. I prefer a push broom, which has a removable head perpendicular to the handle. The head should have two holes for the handle so that the head can be reversed, which lengthens the life of the head. The screw threads on the handle should have a metal sheath so they do not wear down, but a hard plastic thread-end is acceptable. If possible, find a broom that is labeled for sweeping medium surfaces rather than coarse or smooth.
- pole pruner
- This is a pruning device to cut small branches high in a tree. I can also mount a pruning saw blade on mine. However, most of my trees have been trimmed over the years such that I can reach very few branches even with an extension pole. If you have younger trees that are still getting tall, this might be handy. Now, I usually call a tree service. Sometimes, I still use my pole pruner to trim the branch ends of my street tree (Zelkova serrata) because the county requires a 12-foot clearance over the street and sidewalk; with an extension pole, I can reach 12 feet.
- lawn mower
- When I mowed my lawn myself, I had dichondra (Dichondra micrantha, also known as D. repens). It was easy to cut, so I had a reel mower with only human power (a push mower). Now my significant grass is red fescue (a tall-growing ornamental). It needs to be cut 1-2 times a year, for which I call a lawn service.
I cannot advise anyone regarding buying a lawn mower. I know nothing about power mowers and never studied the differences between reel and rotary mowers. However, I do know that the only human-powered push mowers are reel mowers.
- This is handy for moving large quantities of potting mix (and even mixing it), other soil amendments, flats or pots of plants, debris, etc. The wheel should be wide enough so that it does not cut into the soil or lawn while being moved. Some come with inflatable wheels; avoid these because the repair of a leak is a real bother.
Be very careful when using a wheelbarrow! It is far too easy to overload it. Most wheelbarrows are strong enough to withstand loads greater than you can safely move. Wrenched backs, sprained wrists, and even fractures can happen while trying to manuever an overloaded wheelbarrow.
19 October 2003
Updated 11 August 2010