10 Essential Garden Tools

What are your essential gardening tools?. DUSAN ZIDAR/Shutterstock

Do you have a favorite garden tool? Something that you keep within arm’s reach every time you go into the garden?

What do you use to make digging, pruning, growing or harvesting better for the back or more soothing for the soul?

The “can’t-live-without-it” tool will vary from gardener to gardener, region to region and season to season.

Here’s our top 10 list, based on interviews with gardeners in the Southeast who range in experience from serious home gardener to nursery owner — and everything in between.

It’s just the start of a discussion. Tells us in the comments section if we’ve overlooked one of your favorites – or how you use the items in our list differently than we’ve described.

In the meantime, in no particular order the tools that made our list:

1. Scissors

Scissors in a garden

Karen Converse, a master gardener in DeKalb County, Ga., says plain household scissors, nothing fancy, are her first choice of garden tools. She just sticks them in a pocket and uses them to deadhead flowers, snip herbs, harvest small vegetables such as peppers, open a bag of potting soil or a seed packet or cut string. She still remembers the day a professional nurseryman saw her using them in her community garden plot and remarked that any real gardener always carries a pair of scissors. Robert Wyatt, a retired professor of botany at the University of Georgia, uses a pair of heavy-duty garden scissors with plastic-coated handles to harvest vegetables.

2. Weeders

Manufacturers give them different names, but one that is at the top of several lists goes by the common name of “dandelion digger.” That’s appropriate because these little tools are perfect for prying up weeds with taproots (like dandelions!) and crabgrass. They work well because they have a long, slender business-end that looks like a cross between a notched screw driver and a two-tine fork and are made to penetrate easily into the soil and remove weed roots from deep in the ground. The fork points are narrow and sharp enough to surgically coax out wood sorrel, spurge and annual bluegrass that like to hide in ground covers.

3. A Soil Knife

Hori Hori knife

The Hori-Hori is a hands-on favorite of several gardeners we talked with. This is a Japanese tool with a stainless steel concave blade with a sharp edge on one side and a serrated edge on the other. It can be used for cutting through roots, transplanting, dividing perennials, slicing through sod, weeding, removing bonsai plants from pots and many more garden tasks. Van Malone, an avid gardener in North Atlanta, recalls forgetting it was in his car when he went on a business assignment to a federal nuclear facility in South Carolina. Because it has a seven-inch blade and the maximum blade length allowed at the facility was six inches, guards at the entrance to the plant told him that he would have to dispose of the tool. He complied by driving back down the road, hiding the tool in the woods off the property and retrieving it on the way home. (Now that’s a favorite tool!)

4. Pruning Shears

Andy Sessions of Sunlight Gardens Nursery in Andersonville, Tenn., loves her Saboten Model 1210 from Japan for one simple reason: the blades are sharp. How sharp? At the local farmers co-op, where she buys her pruners, they are called sheep toe trimmers. She also likes them because of their small size and light weight. She uses them to prune woody perennials and finds them so effective that she gives them as Christmas gifts to gardening friends. Other brands that drew praise were Felco and Corona.

5. Water Hoses and Water Wands

Watering hose

What could be more important as much of the country suffers through record-breaking heat and drought? Amanda Campbell, manager of display gardens at the Atlanta Botanical Garden, says these are a staple. Her favorite brands are Gilmour hoses and Dramm wands with a shut-off valve. The shut off is the little brass piece that lets you turn the water on and off without constantly going back and forth to the spigot.

6. A Shovel

But not just any shovel. Wyatt, the retired UGA professor, likes the Sharpshooter. It is a small, compact shovel with a long, narrow blade that is curved and digs deep holes. He says he finds it a lot more efficient than a long-handled, broad-bladed traditional shovel for digging in hard clay soil where he may hit occasional rocks. The Sharpshooter blade can also be sharpened. Rene Freie in Peachtree City, Ga., likes the Kombi shovel, which looks as much like a Samurai weapon as a digging tool. Its jagged edges make it efficient for cutting through roots and compacted soil. Campbell also likes to use a snow shovel for spreading mulch, scooping debris and putting out topdressing. Just when you think you’d thought of everything! As an alternative to a shovel, Shelby Singleton of Carolina Native Nursery in Burnsville, N.C., likes to use a mattock. She says they are great for digging out small stumps or digging in clay. They are available in a small, hand-held size and a large shovel size. Singleton likes them because she says they are more effective than a shovel and don’t require as much strength.

7. Rakes

As with shovels, not just any rake will do. Different rakes serve different purposes. Campbell particularly likes a shrub rake because it will fit into tight and small spaces better than a big fan rake. She likes to use fan rakes to rake off leaves, mulch, and tidy up when collecting the last debris. She also uses hard rakes to move leaves and mulch, but likes to flip it over and use it to move soil and compost, fine-tune grading in annual beds and smooth out soil. After putting soil in a planting hole, she says the hard rake is a great tool to smooth out the soil and blend it in with the rest of the bed.

8. Saws

Wyatt likes a fixed, pull-to-cut saw with a slightly curved blade to prune woody plants. He uses a Corona RS 7385, for example, to cut cleanly and quickly through fairly large limbs. It can also be used to cut down small weedy trees. Others prefer a bow saw for pruning and shaping trees or clearing out undergrowth. Still others prefer a folding saw for its portability. The type of saw depends on the need. Anyone see a pattern here? Of course, you can always keep a pair of loppers handy. But, with pruning shears and a sturdy saw in your gardening tool kit, you likely won’t need it.

9. Loop Hoe

Shawn Bard, another master gardener in DeKalb County, Ga., loves this modified hoe for edging and weeding. By using a back and forth motion, she says the blade is perfect for slipping beneath the top layer of soil and scraping the roots out of the dirt. Because the weeds come up very easily and the corners on the loop hoe make excellent edgers, she says it’s a great tool to tidy

Gardening with a hat on

up beds. The other thing it does very well is cultivate the top layer of soil, which makes it perfect for mixing fertilizers or compost into the top layer without disturbing the soil structure beneath. This is especially handy if you want to add fertilizer or compost to a bed that is already planted or if you want to remove weeds or overgrowth in a bed that's already planted.

10. A Hat

Alan Armitage, a professor of horticulture at the University of Georgia, told the 2011 Cullowhee Native Plant Conference at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, N.C., that he makes any student who comes to an outdoor class without a hat write an essay on skin cancer. That’s worth remembering each time you head into the garden.

The Almost-Made-It List

There were many other worthy suggestions that didn’t make our top 10 list. Some of these include:

  • A Tip Bag by Bosmere (for debris)
  • A kneeling pad
  • Gloves
  • A corn husk broom
  • A rolling cart to carry large shrubs or trees to a planting destination.
  • And this one, offered with a smile and a chuckle: a golf bag and cart with wheels and a handle – to carry shovels, rakes and other tools into the garden.

In the end, the list differences aren’t important, Campbell points out. What’s important, she says, is to always buy quality products. Quality tools, she emphasizes, make all the difference in the world in enjoying working in the garden.

What tools are your favorites, how do you use them and how do they make gardening more enjoyable?


Scissors: USDAgov/Flickr; Hori Hori: Tom Oder; Watering: nicgep114; Flickr; gardening hat: jeffreyw/Flickr