Essential Tools for Gardeners

If you're new to gardening, here's a must-have list of essentials to build your collection. Our best advice: invest in a well-made gardening tool that will last you a lifetime. 

1. Shovel

If you'll ever be digging a hole or moving compost from a cart to the garden, you'll need a shovel. A spade, which has a flattened rectangular head, is a different tool entirely. Spades are very useful for some tasks, but a good shovel is indispensable.

The business end of a shovel is relatively thin, rounded, and comes to a point. The top edge is flat across, and is usually rolled or has a flattened "step" so you can apply some foot pressure if the digging gets tough. The width of a shovel blade may be narrow or broad, but it will always be slightly dished to hold the soil in place.

As with all garden tools, forged steel is far stronger than stamped steel. Be sure to look at how the head is attached to the handle. If a shovel is going to break, that's the spot where it will happen. For a strong connection, the top part of the forged shovel head should wrap right around the handle. Shovel handles will be either waist-high with a D-grip or long and straight—it's really a personal preference. Ash is the traditional handle material, though there are now synthetic handles that are lightweight and very strong.

2. Trowel or Hori Hori

For tasks like transplanting seedlings and planting bulbs, you need to get down on your knees. What you need at that point is a short, sturdy digging tool with a handle that won't tire your wrist. Like a shovel, a trowel has a round point and a dished blade, but the blade is usually longer and no more than about 3-inches wide. These days you can purchase trowels made of plastic as well as forged steel, stamped steel and stainless steel. It's still hard to compete with the sharpness and strength of forged steel. As with shovels, the part of the tool that takes the most stress is the point where the head is attached to the handle, so look carefully at how that's been done.

If you garden in soil that's heavy or rocky, you may find hand forks—which typically have 3 or 4 tines—easier to use than a trowel. In either case, the handle will usually be set at somewhat of an angle away from the blade. This is because when using the tool, your wrist should stay as straight as possible. There are lots of new ergonomic tool handle designs, some with soft rubber coatings.

3. Pruners

A quality pair of pruning shears is good for the gardener as well as the plant. A clean cut, made with a sharp pair of pruning shears, will minimize injury and allow the wound to heal more quickly. For the gardener, well-designed pruning shears will snip off spent flower heads as well as remove good-sized branches without straining the hand or wrist. There are two styles of blade styles to choose from. Anvil pruners have one blade that's a flattened surface and another like a knife. The sharp blade cuts down through the branch, coming down onto the flattened anvil. Bypass pruners work more like a pair of scissors, with two sharp blades that slide past each other to make the cut. Anvil pruners are strong and durable, but they don't let you get quite as close as the bypass style. Unless they're very sharp, they also tend to crush the plant's tissues rather than make a clean cut. To keep your hands from tiring, look for some sort of spring-action between the handles to help force the blades apart after you make each cut. Pruners come in a range of sizes and weights; select a tool that's appropriately scaled to your hand.

4. Garden Forks

When you're loosening soil and mixing in compost, the tool of choice is a garden fork. Garden forks are also useful for digging, dividing and transplanting perennials, especially if the soil is moist. Most have 5 or 6 tines that are about ¼-inch square and about 12-inches long. Handles are usually waist-high with a D-grip. Forged steel will provide the strength that's needed. Again, check out how the head is attached to the handle as that's the most vulnerable point.

5. Garden Rakes

There are leaf rakes and there are garden rakes. A garden rake is made of steel. It will be about 12-inches wide and straight across the top, with 8 or 9 short tines. The handle should be as long, and unless you are short in stature, the longer the better. A garden rake may not get used as often as a shovel, but there's no substitute. It's the perfect tool for smoothing the soil surface of a newly prepared planting bed or leveling out paths between raised beds. A garden rake is also essential when preparing a new lawn area for seeding, distributing a top-dressing of compost or repairing sections of the lawn or garden. If you have the arm strength to handle a relatively heavy, forged-steel rake head, you'll find the tool will do more work. That said, for the average-size garden, a relatively lightweight garden rake is usually more than adequate.

What About Tools as Gifts for Gardeners?

Though garden tools can pose a big challenge when it comes to gift wrapping, they do make great gifts for holidays, birthdays, housewarmings and weddings. If a person has been gardening for a long time, they have probably accumulated a shed full of B-grade tools. A new tool that's clean and well made will be truly appreciated. Newer gardeners probably don't have the tools they really need. As a well-informed gift-giver, you can make sure their high-quality new tool is a trusted friend that will assist them for many years to come.

Related Article: Garden Tool FAQs 

Last updated: 08/07/2023