Tools - Choosing the right garden tool for the job

Tools come in an array of sizes, styles, and purposes. Choosing the right tool for the job is as important as planning your garden and deciding what to plant. Tools can make your garden work go smoother and more efficiently. Shopping for tools should be a hands-on endeavor. Picking them up and trying them out is as important with tools as it is for clothes. That said sometimes it is hard to find specialty tools in your area.

Size and weight should be balanced and you should be able to move the tool easily in all directions without overextending your body. You don’t want a tool that is so heavy it puts a strain on your body. And if, like me, you are shorter than average, you may have a harder time finding tools to fit your body so shop around. Cutting the tool shorter will change the balance point and may make it harder to use.

Some people want to buy a lot of specialty tools but I prefer the basics. Getting good quality tools is important. Buy the best tool you can afford, especially if it will undergo continuous usage. Tools with forged steel are of high quality and long lasting. Check the handles and make sure they are securely attached. The least reliable handle is the socket handle where the handle slips into a metal sleeve. Sometimes they are held on with a rivet or screw. Check the security of the connection by applying pressure. The strongest handle is one that is forged to the tool head.  

Here is a list of the basic tools a gardener should have.

A trowel is a gardener’s best friend. This handy tool is used to dig small holes to transplant, dig out bigger weeds, and make a small seed row. Many trowels come with ergonomic and cushioned handles which is nice for prolonged use.

Shovels are very handy and are used for digging and moving loose materials. You can get shovels with a pointed, rounded, or flat edge. I use my rounded shovel to dig holes of all sorts for planting. It is especially useful for planting trees and other perennials where a larger rounded hole is needed. A flat shovel is good for making smooth sides on a hole, removing sod, and flipping dirt over. A flat shovel is also great for scooping up and moving piles of compost or gravel. The most important part of the shovel is where the shovel and handle are connected. Make sure this is a strong bonded connection. Using a shovel naturally exerts a lot of pressure on this point.

The Spade Fork has long flat tines and is used for digging. It works well for digging up clumps of perennial weeds and for dividing perennial flowers. It also is useful for digging and turning garden soil and harvesting root crops and potatoes. This tool can also be used to aerate and loosen the soil.

A pitch fork has long thin tines and is good for moving straw and hay around the garden. If you have livestock you are familiar with this tool.

Hoes are a gardener’s friend. There are many types of hoes. The basic hoe has the typical flat edge. It is useful for chopping weeds and pulling dirt up to mound around plants. A Warren Hoe has a pointed end and is great for making furrows and getting weeds in corners or working closely to established plants. A shuffle hoe has a movable blade that shuffles back and forth over the ground and is best for small weeds. It cuts just below the surface cutting off small young weeds.

A metal rake is good for raking up plant waste and rocks, chopping up soil clods and making raised beds in the garden. I am very hard on rakes. It’s important to make sure the handle and rake are mounted together securely. Here is where forged steel makes a big difference.

A good set of hand pruners are necessary if you have small fruits or flowers for trimming back small branches, dead heading, or harvesting. The Bypass style has curved blades and makes a nice clean cut while pruning. If you have fruit trees you will need to invest in a good set of loppers for the bigger branches. Loppers are a larger Bypass pruner that allows you to exert more pressure and can cut branches up to 2” thick.

A wheelbarrow is indispensable, even if you own a tractor. With a wheelbarrow you can move materials around the garden, move compost to the garden and take debris back to the compost pile. Wheelbarrows come in a dazzling amount of sizes and styles. You definitely want to try out a wheelbarrow before purchase. The traditional wheelbarrow has one wheel in front. But I like the style with two front wheels as they are easier to balance while maneuvering. Wagons fall under this category as well. I love my wagon! It holds a large amount and has a dump feature. I have over time replaced the pneumatic wheels which did not hold up with solid wheels.

Maintaining your tools is equally important as having them. Tools need to be kept out of the weather. A workroom, garden shed, or barn hallway all work well. I keep my long tools hanging on hooks in my equipment shed and the smaller tools hanging on the peg board in the work room. Hanging your tools up keeps you from tripping over them and helps you locate them quickly!

After using a tool it is important to clean the dirt off before you hang it back up. It’s important to put your tools away so they are safe and easy to find the next time you need them. My grandfather used to keep a bucket of sand in the garden shed to clean off his tools. Several times a season you will want to sharpen and oil your tools. Sharpening is important because it keeps the tool working efficiently. Rubbing some motor oil on the metal will keep it in good shape and rubbing wooden handles with linseed oil will keep them from cracking and having rough spots.

Lowes and Home Depot and similar hardware stores carry an assortment of tools and allow you to try them out while shopping. One mail order company I have come to trust for quality tools is Johnny’s Seeds. Many of Johnny’s tools have a video to let you see the tool in action which helps making a decision.