My community garden neighbor and I were clearing weeds from our joint border when she generously loaned me her weeding tool. The minute I held it in my hand I knew I had come in contact with a tool I wanted to spend the rest of my gardening years with.
It has three thin curved claw-like tines that slide into the earth with authority, pulling up the target weed, roots and all, with no nonsense. I turned to where I was just about to plant my beans this year, and found that the tool dug deep and aerated the soil with almost no effort on my part.
This was a tool designed for a gardener like me who wants to be up close and personal with the soil and the plants. What's more, it has a brightly colored handle, a real plus when you are looking for a tool in the garden (don't ask my husband how many times I've asked him to help me find the tool I had just been using a minute before I set it down...somewhere...).
The tool I had just fallen in love with is the Wolf Garten Hand Grubber, and it is now near the top of my list of essential garden tools. Every gardener has a different list, depending on what feels comfortable in the hand, how tall the gardener is, what is being grown, and where the garden is. A flower gardener may not need the long handled pruning shears and tree saws that someone growing fruit trees needs, and a community gardener may prefer tools that can be disassembled for easy transport to the garden and back home.
Over the years, the garden tool that has best proved its worth for me is my pair of Felco handheld bypass pruners. They work for my right-handed husband and left-handed me. I love the cutting power you can feel!
Mine are not the straight-edged anvil kind of pruning shears that crush the plant material being trimmed, but curved bypass shears that make a clean cut. They can do big jobs like trimming out crisscrossing branches on shrubs (up to the thickness of your finger). They are also useful for quick little jobs like deadheading petunias and pansies in our . I carry them back and forth to and from the community garden; I don’t want to be without them.
It’s fun to ask experienced gardeners about their favorite gardening tool. JP community gardener Tori Hatch couldn’t help smiling with pleasure when she identified her garden pitchfork as the indispensable tool. She had just been standing barefoot in the middle compost bin, using it to pitch loads of ripened compost into the third (final) bin. The pitchfork is her go-to tool for digging or moving soil in her extraordinarily productive garden plot.
Tori explains that she really likes her garden pitchfork because "it is very gentle on plant roots when you need to split a large plant. It's also less likely to get stopped by small rocks than a shovel, and it's great for loosening up weeds or soil. You can do a lot if you bring your fork into the garden!"
Tori must take her fork into her garden often, because everything is growing there as it should, from her fragrant strawberries to her bumper crop of plump English peas.
“Favorite garden tools?” mused John Lyons, my own personal gardening guru. “Well, I’d have to say the fork and the spade.” I have to explain that John is more than a community gardener. His backyard hosts one of the handsomest perennial gardens in JP, giving dog-owners on their way to the Beecher Street dog park a generous glimpse of color and beauty.
He regularly moves the splendid flowering perennials in that garden from one setting to another, and for that, only the spade will do. He describes the spade with his hands, a flat one-dimensional tool with a semi-circular blade. With its straight vertical edge, John explains, the spade keeps the plant together when you are transplanting it.
Japanese garden tools, including the Hori Hori garden knife and the Nejiri Kama weeding sickle, have their ardent fans. For , well-known as South Street’s hairdresser but privately a gardener of accomplishment, the most useful tool is the handheld Japanese sickle. The pleasure,she explains, is in the fine control it offers the gardener.
When I asked Jeremy Dick, the horticulturalist for Boston Natural Areas Network, to name his favorite garden implement, he said without hesitation, “My Italian grub hoe.” He went on to identify what makes this hoe different: “It has a slightly longer handle [maybe that’s especially useful for Jeremy because he’s so tall]. The blade is wider than a typical hoe, a little more beefy. It does more work with less effort.”
In his blog, Grub Hoe, Dennis Modzelewski recounts his search for a grub hoe after he used one without knowing its proper name and went on a quest to find one of his own. It took persistence. When he began to search the web for the hoe he wanted he kept being directed to porn sites, but he stayed focused and finally found grub hoe blades. His search continued until he found the slightly curved handles that give the tool its advantage.
Handles are important in making a tool work for you. Garden wisdom is that handles made of hickory, ash, or high-strength fiberglass give you high quality garden tool experience. When you are in the process of shopping for a tool, make sure that the handle is well connected to the head; if the handle wiggles even a little, look further.
Don’t be shy about trying out the feel before you buy the tool. The handle of a tool you use standing up should be the right length for you to use it with your strong hand at the end of the handle. The wrong length handle or a head set at the wrong angle can turn gardening into back-breaking labor.
The grips provided should feel natural when you move in the repetitive motion that will be required. I like the gel grip on the Ames Hand Trowel, for example and I love the 25 year warranty, which suggests to me that I will still be planting bulbs 25 years from now. The one thing missing from this trowel is the measurements in inches on the inside of the trowel that help the gardener know how deep tp go for different kinds of bulbs.
There are some preferences that are determined by your gardening style. Do you want heads of steel or stainless steel? If you sometimes leave tools out where they could get rusty, stainless steel is a good idea for you, even if it means that your blade will not be as sharp.
Your tools are only as good as your care for them. JP gardener Duna Pechstein recently admonished her fellow community gardeners that putting tools away in the tool shed when they are caked with dirt is like putting unwashed dishes back in the cupboard. Many gardeners recommend storing your tools in a bucket of sand mixed with lubricating oil (anything from WD-40 to vegetable oil). The idea is that the sand scrapes the little particles of mud off your tools and the oil coats them and retards rust.
So many tools to help us do our gardening! We haven't mentioned rakes (This Old House has a great review of rakes. For urban gardeners dealing with soil that may contain some rubble, a kneeling pad can make time spent in the garden a little pleasanter, and gloves are recommended to protect us from the harmful PAHs and lead commonly found in urban soil.
While I was writing this column, I asked my sister what her favorite gardening tools were. Now we have gone very different garden routes – she has created massive perennial gardens and a pond garden on the grounds of her country inn, while I garden in a community garden plot in the city. But her response to my questions was, “First, my favorite is my pair of garden clippers." She looked down at her waist instinctively for the familiar tool, and added, "I’m surprised I am not wearing them; I usually have them in a holster on my hip. [I was not too surprised, as we were having this conversation in a nice restaurant and had dressed for the occasion.] And then," she added, "I’d say my curved, three-tined cultivator.” The exact same tools I had identified as my favorites! How about that for the mystery of sisterhood?!