Thursday, November 12, 2009

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How to Select the Hand Tools Every Gardener Needs

Everybody loves a garden but not everyone likes working in one. For those who do enjoy digging, planting, sowing, pruning, and harvesting, it is important that the tools used are appropriate for the task at hand, and are of the best quality affordable.

While there are many power tools available, hand tools provide the greatest satisfaction for the craft or profession of gardening as they bring us closer to the earth and are the greener option while providing a physical workout.

What makes a good, basic garden tool collection? It really depends on the size of the garden. If you are creating beds and borders or contemplating a vegetable patch, then you will need a larger collection than someone with a small garden who mainly deadheads or prunes and occasionally plants small containerized material. The indispensable tools in any collection are a hand trowel, a hand fork, a weeder, secateurs (often referred to as hand pruners or clippers), a watering can, and a decent pair of gloves. This basic set will allow you to perform the fundamental gardening activities of digging, cultivating, pruning, and watering. Once you’ve acquired the starter tools you can add to them as your garden grows. If you already have a large garden then you should have a spade, hoe, rake, and loppers or a pruning saw.

Garden tools come in a range of materials and prices and you get what you pay for. There are no real bargains. The tool “head” or the working end should be made of metal, and the best are made of high-carbon steel. Look for tools labeled “tempered,” “forged,” or “heat treated,” and keep in mind that heavier-gauge metals hold a sharper edge. The grip or shaft, the part you hold onto, should ideally be made of wood like ash or hickory, which will hold up longer than an unknown hardwood or composite. The most expensive tools are stainless steel which contains chromium, making it rustproof, but with proper maintenance rust should not be an issue. A trowel is probably the most used gardening tool and it’s worth splurging for a top-of-the-line model because the cheaper models inevitably bend and then snap.


Secateurs also should be of the best quality you can afford as they can be used year round for pruning, deadheading, and harvesting. The Felco brand has set the gold standard for secateurs. Two types are available: the “bypass” (which I prefer) performs like a pair of scissors only with curved blades and a slicing action; the “anvil” type has one moving blade that comes down onto a flat piece of metal with a chop-like action. Whichever brand or type you choose, make sure that replacement blades are available and that it can be resharpened.

A last word here on maintenance as many gardeners neglect this essential task in taking care of their tools. Wipe your tools clean after use or, even better, wipe them with an oil-soaked rag which will help prevent rusting. Pruners should be sharpened annually while spades, hoes, and shovels benefit from having their edges sharpened. Keeping your tools in tip-top shape extends their usable life and gardening chores will be performed faster and better. With the gift-giving season upon us, a good tool is always a welcome gift to a gardener, so hoe, hoe, hoe!

Ruth Furman is a Massachusetts Certified Horticulturist (MCH). She trained in horticulture in England and spent many happy years working and gardening there. To reach Ms. Furman, email her at:

© 2009 Elm Bank Media