Anyone who’s ever stood in the garden tools aisle of a home improvement store knows the feeling: so many choices. Which ones do you really need? How do you choose the right style or size? How much is too much to pay? Maybe you should just give up, go home, and watch some more HGTV, right?
Relax, we’ve got you covered. When it comes down to it, most gardeners really only have a few tools they use on a regular basis. They’re the garden tools that live at the front of the shed, where they see an almost daily workout. These are the 10 tools we’ve rounded up here, the ones every gardener should keep on hand and well-maintained. We’ve also got tips for making the right selections for each of these garden tools, and keeping them in good shape year after year.
Call it a shovel or a spade – it’s the #1 tool in every gardener’s arsenal. “Spade” is generally used to refer to a flat-edged tool used mainly for cutting and digging. “Shovels” are a little more versatile, with a rounded edge that’s often still plenty sharp for cutting through sod, but also able to scoop and move soil and mulch.
Look For: Choose a shovel with a handle length that’s convenient for your height. The top edge of the shovel should have a flat ledge, so you can comfortably step on it with your foot for more digging power. Look for thick-gauge stainless steel blades that won’t bend or rust.
Shovels do the heavy lifting, but hand trowels pull their weight too. They’re ideal when you’re planting smaller annuals or loosening up the soil around the base of existing plants.
Look For: Two factors matter most here: the strength of the trowel itself, and the comfort of the handle. Trowels are often called on to do some chopping through tough roots or compacted soil, so pick one made of sturdy material that won’t bend under pressure. Since this tool gets a lot of use, look for one that’s easy on the hand with a padded grip. Newer ergonomic handles are better on the wrists, too.
Rakes have two general uses in the garden: raking up leaves and other debris (leaf rake), and loosening and smoothing soil (bow rake). Depending on your garden, you may need one of each type.
Look For: Leaf rakes (shown above) should have strong flexible tines. In the past, they were often made of aluminum, but plastic can work well too. Bow rakes are sturdier, with tines to break up soil, while the back side of the head is used for leveling. For both, avoid materials that may rust over time, and regularly check to see if tool heads are coming loose from the handles.
Think of a cultivator sort of like a bow rake for your hand. This is the sort of tool you’ll use to loosen soil along with a trowel when planting annuals, or for doing small cleanup in hard-to-reach places.
Look For: Choose a cultivator with strong curved tines and a comfortable handle. Narrower cultivators are good for very tight spaces between plants, while wider ones are ideal for breaking up soil before planting.
We Love: DeWit 5-Tine Cultivator, $24
Hand pruners come in two styles, bypass and anvil. In anvil pruners, the two blades meet in the middle. Bypass pruners have a top curved blade that actually passes next to the lower blade, making a cleaner and more complete cut. Gardeners tend to prefer bypass pruners for this reason.
Look For: You’ll reach for bypass pruners over and over again in the garden, especially for woody stems. Choose those that open and close smoothly, with padded or rounded handles for comfort. Good pruners should lock shut when not in use. Keep them completely free of rust, and have them sharpened every year or so as needed.
Loppers are bypass pruners on steroids. Their extra long handles enable you to reach high areas, and the leverage they provide allows you to cut through thick branches in a single squeeze.
Look For: Extendable handle loppers expand your reach even further. Nonstick coating on the blades help them slide through even tough wood with ease. As with other cutting implements, keep them clean and dry when not in use.
While pruners and loppers are for tough cutting jobs, snips are there to handle the details. Dead-heading, cutting flowers for indoors, snipping herbs for the kitchen… these tiny blades are better than regular scissors because they offer more control.
Look For: The best snips have fine blades that allow you to make delicate cuts, but are strong enough to snip through sturdy stems. Snips with a small cover for the tips let you slide these little must-haves into your pocket so they’re always handy.
In a day when nearly everyone has a garden hose or two handy, do you really still need a watering can? We say yes. Sometimes lugging a heavy house around is just inconvenient. Watering cans are especially nice when planting new annuals or seedlings, and are essential when using water-saving rain barrels.
Look For: Buy a watering can large enough to make your trips worthwhile, but not one that will be too heavy when it’s full. Galvanized metal may last longer, but plastic cans are durable as long as you protect them from extreme temperatures. Removable sprinkler heads are a nice feature too.
Unfortunately, there’s no magic tool that pulls weeds for you. But there are some that make the chore a whole lot easier. Good weeders slice through roots and aerate soil with less fatigue on your hand and wrist.
Look For: The classic Cape Cod Weeder is the gold standard in this category. The blade chops through the toughest stems and roots, loosening the soil and making the weeds easy to pull out. Due to the strain, these weeders sometimes come loose at the handle, so buy a brand with a lifetime warranty to save money on repairs down the line.
We Love: A. M. Leonard Cape Cod Weeder, $21
There are those who prefer to garden without gloves, and we get it – we really do. There’s something about the feel of soil between your fingers that’s so satisfying. But we also know that same soil is often full of bugs that bite and sharp stones, so the protection of gloves is simply a must for many.
Look For: Buy gloves that fit, first and foremost. Too much extra material flopping at the ends of your fingers makes it hard to feel what you’re doing. They should also fit snugly to the wrist, to keep soil and bugs out. Latex-coated fingers are water-resistant, and leather will help protect you from thorns and sharp sticks. Some styles are machine-washable, but you can still expect to have to replace your gloves every year or so in many cases.
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