The Tools You Need if You Want to Love Gardening

January 8, 2024

Garden Tools and Their Human Admirers

The history of us; humanity, is intertwined with that of the tools we grow our food with. And these are the tools that will make us love gardening. Once, they helped us stay alive, now they enhance our spare time and beautify the places we live in. Those tools in our garden sheds-they are a constant in our lives. We rank them as good, better, and best, and then we brag and complain about them. Then we remember one left in the back garden and have to go out at night with the flashlight to find it! This is the list of tools you’ll go out at night for!

To go directly to the list of garden tools that we would never be without, click here. #list-of-tools

Digging To Our Past

The everyday activity of digging in the earth ties us to our past, as few other life experiences can do.

Gardeners Before Us

Long before our generations tilled the soil, earlier people invented garden tools. They did so because they needed to. As much as we are tied to the internet, we don’t need it to live. The plebeian garden hoe we must have!

Neolithic Diggers

The Neolithic humans pieced together some tools to help them plant and grow- that’s about 10,000 years ago. By the bronze age, we learned smelting and could make metals for tools both hard and sharp. We knew early on that to eat better; we needed to keep improving.

Ancient Inventors

The Han Dynasty in 3rd and 2nd century China gave us a primitive seed drill and, who knew, the wheelbarrow! The ancient Romans loved their garden pruners so much that they displayed them in artwork, we can see them today!

antique wheelbarrow

Here’s an antique wheelbarrow, an idea we have used for a long time.

Modern Gardens Begin

Well into the 18th century, to work in agriculture meant to be tied to the earth. There was no ” I think I’ll spend some time trimming the bougainvillea today.” Labor-intensive, growing food meant sunup to sundown six days a week! For these people the garden was not just the pleasant part of life, it is for us today-it controlled life!

The Industrial Revolution wasn’t even an idea yet! But when it showed up; it changed everything. Then despite its disruptive problems, everyone would eat better.

Interestingly, to us gardeners, it was the Agricultural Revolution of the 18th century that started the Industrial Revolution. It was a renaissance of creative improvements by people who live near the soil that brought about the full Industrial Revolution.

English Longhorn Cattle

Here is a beautiful product of the Agricultural Revolution. English Longhorn cattle, were developed as early examples of selective breeding in the 18th century. And, big horns notwithstanding, they were (and still are) gentle, maternal, and highly productive. They are still known for sweet and delicious butter!

We saw them on an English boat trip at Rousham House and also at Christ Church Meadow, at Oxford. A true gardener’s vacation!

Thoreau’s Garden at Walden Pond

While he is not my favorite gardener, we can learn a lot from Henry David Thoreau. At Walden Pond, he paid all his bills by growing rows of beans. He grew seven miles of them and sold and traded enough to live on. His desire to live simply, caused him to use fewer tools than we would want, and he was willing to borrow what he needed, too.

He told us that he did a lot of things wrong; planting and caring for his beans in his bare feet and working with only his hoe. He did however make good use of it!

Most of us would prefer to own our own tools and keep safe shoes on our feet!

Gardeners and Our Tools

Of course, it’s not the tools that we want. It’s the crops that we fancy, trees, shrubs, blossoms, dinner! But we will not grow any of them without our tools!

“He that would perfect his work must first sharpen his tools.”

-Confucius

Always listen to Chinese advice on gardening. The people who brought us the peony and the wheelbarrow are deserving of our attention! Always pragmatic, Chinese thinkers emphasize having the right tools and taking care of them too!

In our Garden, Today-Tools We Covet

In our own 21st century garden, we have a list of tools we would never be without! In fact, if one of them were lost or broken we would immediately replace it!

Our family garden tools can make their own point of history. They are old! We love our tools and do add to the collection but it is significant for its age. We garden with tools we bought many years ago for houses far away but we also have a good selection of tools in their second generation.

Carefully chosen and maintained, garden tools are not expensive, they can be of great value. I can’t say the same about the car!

It is rare, at our house, for a day to pass when we are not in the garden. Our garden tools are like pots and pans, we never spend a day without them. That’s unless we are traveling, in which case we may well be admiring someone else’s garden.

See the section “In The Garden”, including ‘The Complete Guide To Visiting Oxford Botanical Garden’

Here is the list of tools we would not be without.

Long Tools

Two cultivators, with long and short handles

-Long Cultivator-Three hardened steel tines to loosen the soil. This work can cause pain, get a good one, your back, arms, and hands will thank you.

-Short Handled Cultivator-use this standing cultivator in smaller spaces. It is a little heavier, in some cases provides just the control we need.

Garden Rakes

We find that 3 garden rakes cover the tasks of turning soil, removing weeds, lifting debris, spreading ground covering, and tamping soil. We live on a pond and they are handy for weeds in the pond.

-A Wide Leaf Rake-this should be light, strong, and not likely to break. Use this one to move debris, clean, and pick up leaves. A big area deserves a big rake. The large one has 30 tines in a fanned shape.

-A Narrow Leaf Rake-You will not just rake large lawn areas, the narrow, fanned leaf rake is perfect for working between shrubs without breaking them.

When you go out to rake, bring both, of them with you.

-A Heavy Bow Rake, this is the one with dense, hardened tines in a parallel formation. The rake head is at a 45-degree angle from the handle. You can pick up, dense debris, lawn grass, and other material. It is also useful to loosen and level soil. It is a heavy tool but used properly, reduces stress on the back, muscles, and joints.

A Garden Hoe

Buy the most modern design you want, it won’t have changed very much from the one Thoreau used in his bare feet in 19th century Concord MA. Its ancestor was the Neolithic tool, the Megalith. Consisting of a rock attached to a vertical handle it served as the hoe and the shovel, together. Next time in the garden center, they will show you a long tool with two heads to do two tasks. Think of the Megalith!

The simplest of tools with a long handle and an angled blade you will find many styles of hoe. However, they are the same tool that predated the plow.

Do you think that’s one of gardening’s attractions, the fact that we are part of an ancient history?

Shovels

The shovels you choose have a lot to do with the soil where you live. We have lived and gardened in all sorts of climates and some of our garden tools are on their second generation! These work for us.

-We love a short-handled one with a rounded, beveled point and scoop shape. It will cut, dig, chop, scoop and lift. It helps us to, cultivate, carry materials, like soil and compost and turn over beds. Keep them clean and sharp and they will always be your friend.

-We have a big square shovel, that followed us from other gardens. In south Florida, referring to the rubble we grow in as “soil” is generous. If your soil is heavy and clay-like, you may use the big shovel more.  South Florida soil is lime and sand and both water and nutrients fly through it! We have been amending it with compost since we moved into the house and it is much improved.

When we began the garden 4-5 years ago my husband dug the soil with a pickax! The limestone and the homebuilder’s mulch simply welded themselves together in what looked like rocks.

-A Short Spade, is flat, smaller than a shovel, and has straight edges. It will slice through soil and roots and is helpful for moving and transporting soil.

-A Trench Shovel, this has a long narrow blade with a pointed tip. The blade is set at an angle. Perfect for a trench or deep, narrow hole. It slips right between the stones.

A Garden Edger

Do you admire a smartly edged planting bed? We do and my husband loves them. He does this job and it’s a labor of love. I’m glad it is.

Before starting the hand tools, let’s talk about handles. And this is a hot topic! It’s controversial. There are, believe it or not, online forums just filled with heated debate about metal, wood, and fiberglass handles. These are populated by gardeners who debate the tiny minutia of every point regarding handle material. Read one for fun and you will wonder how they find time for the garden!

Many of our long tools are very old. We use wooden handles. Proponents of other materials will discuss splinters and breakage. We love them and keep them cleaned and oiled. Proponents of the wood handles will emphasize the fact that they have some give and are easier on the back and the joints. We will stay with wood. Try fiberglass and metal if their features are important to you.

Hand Tools

Garden tools

These are some of the tools we would not allow ourselves to be without. The seat flips over to be a kneeler, the Hori Hori knife has lots of uses, and the gloves -well, you need them when you need them!

Pruning and Cutting Tools

You can spend from $10.00 to about $75.00 for a single tool. While I would avoid the very bottom of the range, you should make your own cost-benefit decisions. Ensure you buy tools in which the blades can be either sharpened or replaced. Otherwise, you will be stuck fairly quickly with an unusable, dull tool.

The rule of blade tools is this. Sharp and respected is safe. Dull is dangerous.

The blades are made in two different ways and each one is designed for a specific purpose. Use them accordingly.

Bypass blades-these blades work like a pair of scissors and they make the best, sharp, clean cuts on young green branches and wood.

Anvil blades-these work like a knife and they are designed to cut tough wooden branches. Keep them for wood. They will crush the delicate green branches.

-Hand Pruners, are the handheld blades you carry to cut plants as you work. They are also sold as handheld pruners, pruners or secateurs. Why secateurs, from French, secateur, originally Latin, secare, “to cut”.

-Lopping Shears-pruning shears with handles 24-20” long. These are for cutting branches up to 2” in diameter.

-Pruning Saw-when the hand pruner is too small, and the lopper unwieldy, the pruning saw is perfect. All pruning saws have a metal blade with cutting teeth machined into the blade. A small, folding saw is convenient to own and safe to carry around. If your property has loads of hardwood trees and bushes you may own several sizes.

-Long Handled Branch Trimmer allows us to trim pretty high tree branches from the ground using an elevated blade with a rope handle. We have hardwood trees, flowering trees, and plenty of palms. This tool comes in handy.w

Other Cutting Tools

I carry small scissors and a tiny pair of pruners, my husband goes nowhere without a pocket knife. We can trim small plants, tie plants up and make little repairs along the way. We need to cut herbs for dinner and flowers for the house.

Cutting Herbs For The Kitchen

If you love your herb garden as we do, a good time to cut for the day’s cooking is morning. Just after the dew dries and the plants are bright, cut what you expect to need for the day. Bring it into the kitchen and store it in a vase of water.

For more on Culinary Herbs, you may like this article.

-We do love the Hori Hori Knife. It is an all-purpose, Japanese garden tool. You carry it in a leather holster on your belt and it makes you the Sherriff of the garden. It digs like a trowel, plants bulbs, and cuts weeds and roots. It has two side blades, one smooth and the other serrated. It is even marked off in inches for measuring and planting bulbs.

We bought one to share and had to get another because we fought over it. The two tools we fought over were the Hori Hori knife and the combination bench and kneeler. If you are like us, just get two of each and save yourselves some aggravation!

Until the arrival of the Hori Hori knife, I would have insisted on two trowels. One wide and one narrow. We still do use the wide one. Yes, there are specialty trowels. If your location is causing difficulties, here is a listing from Gardens Illustrated.

Ergonomic Tools

These are designed to do the least damage to joints and muscles. There are so many choices available that you can always find them. They are especially valuable for people with carpal tunnel or arthritis issues. Really busy gardeners, those who are working all day long will choose for form and comfort also.

The best ergonomic tools allow your joints to remain in their normal position. Look for features like pistol grips at the end of hoes, Hand tools will offer nonslip and natural grip handles. Pick them up, see the difference.

Pain-Free Pruning

There are ergonomic pruners, with padded handles and ratcheted blades that require far less pressure. If you or someone you know needs more help these can keep them in the garden.

Garden Gloves

We use three basic varieties in our garden.

-Snug, stretchy rubber-coated fronts with breathable backs. You can get these in bags and they protect your tactile sense and to some extent your hands while you stick your fingers into places you would not risk being cut up these are great.

-If your garden requires a lot of digging with long tools consider gloves with padded palms. Your hands won’t hurt when you are done and you will not be too tired to cook all the fresh vegetables!

-Rose Gauntlet Gloves-South West Florida is the first place we have gardened in which roses are less than rewarding to grow.

You can grow roses where we live, but you need to be prepared for disappointment. The general manager of our most popular local garden center, says in one of his popular talks. “Never plant roses around here. The worst thing that can happen to you is that you accidentally plant the first rose in exactly the right place and you spend the rest of your life trying in vain to reproduce it!”

All gardeners know that feeling.

But our vines, bougainvillea, and agave will make up the difference. Everybody needs a pair of these protective gloves some days. Yes, they are the most expensive but when you reach inside the bougainvillea you will appreciate them. Remember that plant thorns can provide viruses in addition to a little pain. “Rose Gauntlet Gloves“.

Sun Protection In The Garden

The most common cancer diagnosis is What? Skin Cancer, and is preventable. Each year 96,400 people are diagnosed with skin cancer in the USA and 7,200 people will die! (Source)

These are hats designed to have a flexible but dense weave. They allow a comfortable and safe way to work in the sun.

Here are the tools we trust most in our South Florida garden. We try to start early in the morning and are enjoying the garden in the evening-but in our climate we cannot avoid the sun! “Sun Protection In The Garden”

The Wheelbarrow

The history of the wheelbarrow and the human have been intertwined since the 2nd century. This invention’s little bit of genius is that the weight of the load, once born entirely by the human, is now shared with the barrow, thus allowing us to move twice what we could formerly transport. The useful barrow went to the garden, to market, and even to war and eventually reached Europe sometime around the 1170s.

As simple a tool as it is, we still need it. Imagine its value, once made in the farmyard, of wood; today, you can find it in a wide variety in every big box store. What would the Han people say if they could see it now?

Choosing A Barrow Or It’s Cousins

There are loads of versions and the first question to ask is “How hilly is my property”? We have gardened in hilly and even wooded spaces, right now our garden is small and most of  Florida is nothing if not flat. Our needs for a wheelbarrow are basic and so is the barrow.

Most wheelbarrows have a single wheel and carry about 10 cubic feet of material. The heavy barrows can carry big loads but are a challenge, especially on hills. The polyethylene beds offer a compromise. Most high-quality wheelbarrows have pneumatic tires like cars.

With a flat working space, we move heavy objects like bales and bags in a hand truck because loading and unloading is so much easier.

Do I Want A Wheelbarrow Or A Garden Cart?

Here’s the difference.

Wheelbarrow-has sloping sides, one or two front wheels, and you walk behind it. It is easy to control. There’s nothing better than the wheelbarrow to dump loose, heavy material.

Garden Cart-with a flat bottom and straight sides, you pull it. It’s more stable, can carry heavier loads but it is harder to maneuver especially on rough ground, you are going to bend over and lift the load out.

Some people keep both. What about us? We might not be the best example, with flat ground and a small space we depend on a wheelbarrow, not in daily use and the lowly hand truck, wonderful for anything in boxes, bags or bales!

An Example

This week I weeded the littoral shelf planting area at the pond’s edge. The canna lilies are ready to bloom and so is the local Gulf Coast Iris. The next step is to mulch with pine straw which makes a solid mat of protection for the soil and stays in place when the summer waters rise. We take the bales from the SUV and the hand truck makes it easy to dump them in place along the water edge.

Combination Garden Seat & Kneeler

If the wheelbarrow and the hoe connect us to our early digging ancestors, this tool is our nod to modernity. If the ancient Chinese inventor of the wheelbarrow saw this, one he would have been astounded and jealous too.

Made of powder-coated, tubular steel, with foam seat and kneeler, you just flip it up or down to weed or trim. Gardeners do not always cover a lot of mileage -that Is unless you include the travel up and down. If you do a lot of that, here is a pretty nice tool to keep you productive in the garden. It folds flat for easy storage because nobody has enough room for shoes or garden tools!

And when you are buying yourself that next new tool don’t forget some old advice

Different Gardens-Different Tools

Our present garden is not large and vegetable areas are small. I was watching a video from the excellent website “Susan’s In The Garden.” Her tool list is a little different than ours. Her property is larger, she has a set of tools just to carry her large vegetable crops.!

I hope our list is helpful to you. Make sure your tool shed has what you need for your garden.

Summary,

About Garden Tool Storage

This is important, If you can’t get to your garden tools quickly they are not much use. We have a small property with tools stored in a garage. With many other tools for different purposes wall hanging is not an option for us. It’s all used up! Tall metal storage cabinets work well for us. Long tools live in a standing cabinet, smaller items in a cabinet with shelves, and really small items have drawer storage.

Find a way that they are visible when you need them easy to grab and of course clean and dry. What do you use?

Don’t forget the words of this American gardener.

“The best investment is in the tools of one’s own trade”

-Benjamin Franklin

Resources

‘How To Clean And Disinfect Your Garden Tools For Healthier Plants’

“Discover The 7 Steps To Your Perfect Spring Garden“-preparing tools for the season.

Rose Gauntlet Gloves”

“Safe Sunscreens, What Travelers Need To Know”-this is about choosing sunscreens.

“Sun Protection In The Garden”

The Best Garden Seat And Kneeler”

Trying Out A Hori-Hori Knife”