Can you feel it? That shift in the wind? The faint whiff of waking soil resounding with the chorus of sprightly spring peepers in the forest? Winter’s losing its grip, and for those of us with gardens and itchy green thumbs, the final thaw can’t come soon enough. It’s time to bust out the tools and get to work again.
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So appropriately, as the seasons turn, garden shops and home improvement stores are about to roll out the red carpet to vie for your dollars in exchange for seeds, starts, and a universe of gardening tools. You’ll find products out there designed to suit your every whim and inclination. Some of the more savvy among you, however, may well suspect that not every tool is useful or practical.
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With this list, we hope to share some of our favorite garden tools for your consideration, and cut through the noise of flashy advertising and kitschy gimmicks. I hope you’ll take my mud-caked example photos as proof that these tools are worth the purchase — as they’ve certainly been put to good use in my own garden.
1. Pick Mattock
I don’t know what I’d do without a pick mattock in my garden. In the spring, summer, and fall, my trusty pick mattock is constantly in my hand, ready to do my bidding at a moment’s notice. I’m not usually a fan of 2 in 1 type tools, but this one actually makes sense. The mattock side easily uproots stubborn grass clumps, and can move a surprising amount of soil in a short amount of time. The pick is invaluable in removing in-ground rocks. For those of us living on rocky soil, being able to move soil, wrench out a rock, and refill the hole — all with the same tool? That makes it an AMAZING tool. It is also my go-to when it comes to planting bulbs and roots, making a hole big enough and stone-free enough to get the job done successfully.
2. Hori-Hori Knife
Japanese for “dig-dig,” this knife is an indispensable tool in many gardens. Good for harvesting roots, removing pernicious weeds, cutting through tree roots, loosening soil before planting, and digging neat slices of earth out of the ground before planting; you’ll wonder how you ever did it without this handy knife.
That said, not every knife is made equal. I bought a popular name brand tool that was labeled a “hori-hori knife” that happened to be on clearance, and I quickly found out exactly why it was on clearance. The inexplicably forked tip was probably meant to be a weeding tool, but it completely weakened the knife’s integrity and snapped the first time I put it in the soil.
My recommendation, therefore, is to avoid any knife that seems to have a modernized, gimmicky element added. When it comes to the hori-hori knife, the traditional shape is that shape for a reason — it’s been working since the 16th century. Also, knives forged in their Japanese birthplace will probably be made with much better quality than U.S. copycats.
3. Japanese Weeder
With a perfectly angled, sharp blade on a handle, this tool is ideal for garden bed maintenance. It slices neatly through most weeds (though it admittedly doesn’t handle grass clumps or woody growth quite as well). When it comes to routine, day-to-day weeding, this handy little weeder is easy to whip out and nip those unwanted plants in the bud, so to speak. As a bonus, it skates along the surface of the soil, leaving the layers undisturbed, and allowing you to quickly accumulate a tidy pile of greens to throw to the chickens or use as insta-mulch.
If you’re establishing a new garden, the pickaxe is a lifesaver. I’ve tried breaking sod with a hoe (like I thought I was supposed to) and all I ended up with was a backache and a frustratingly small amount of work done. The pickaxe, however, rips through grass and soil with uncompromising fury, quickly turning an uncultivated field into a future hope for food sustainability. When your hand mattock is too small to lever out a boulder, the pickaxe fills in with its size and strength (and if you still can’t get that boulder out, call for the Brute Squad of the San Angelo Bar to finish the task).
5. Stirrup (aka Oscillating Scuffle) Hoe
The bladed head on this strange-looking hoe is supposed to be loosely attached, so don’t worry when you hear it wiggling. Used correctly, this hoe slices on both the push and pull stroke, cutting weeds while only disturbing the top quarter-inch of the soil. If you have established garden beds and don’t want to disturb the layers of richness you’ve worked so hard to achieve, the stirrup hoe can remove weeds effectively with surprisingly little effort. As a bonus, you can work it while standing up, saving your back from potential ache.
I don’t like recommending specific name brands unless I really like them, which is why I’m wholeheartedly recommending the CobraHead weeder and cultivator. This thing is basically a glorified fingernail, but it scrapes through soil in ways our own human fingers wouldn’t be able to manage. You’d be surprised how useful it can be. It can burrow under weed clumps and wrench them out and make a neat little furrow for planting seeds, and it has the weeding dexterity that larger hoes and tools lack. I’ve accidentally nicked or killed plants with heavier tools. It gives me a lot more control among leafy and tender plants.
My pitchfork is vital to cleaning out animal houses. All that soiled bedding is worth its weight in gold to me, and the many-tined pitchfork I’ve photographed here does a great job of scooping it cleanly. That manure and old straw isn’t waste, of course. It’s magnificent, soil-improving mulch. If you are hard at work improving your garden soil, or mulching it with care, then pitchforks like these are excellent for layering mulch, manure, and leaves over a garden bed.
8. Sun Hat
We’re all guilty of it, probably. You only meant to head out to the garden for a minute, but found yourself weeding, harvesting, or enjoying the ripening tomatoes for far longer than intended. Now you can feel the sunburn heating your face, and your head hurts. Shoulda had a sun hat! Airy, broad-brimmed hats are a must for folks doing hard work in the bright summer sunshine. It really doesn’t matter how it looks — only that it keeps you cool and covers that sensitive back of your neck.
9. Garden Harvest Basket
I used to carry a picturesque basket from the thrift store to bring in my harvests, but it didn’t stand up to getting wet or muddy very well. Though it’s not as appealing, this sturdy tote from Fiskars is a great partner when it comes to bringing in a load of sun-ripened produce. I like that it has a colander section for rinsing muddy roots because it makes cleanup easier before making my way to the kitchen. The division also allows me to sort veggies when harvesting, keeping my picture-perfect tomatoes and clean lettuce leaves separate from my dusty onions.
10. Grass Sickle
Not only will you look downright intimidating wielding this formidable blade, you’ll be able to finally get the grass trimmed in those awkward places. I use this tool for trimming the grass that encroaches the edges of my fenced garden where the string-trimmer and mower can’t reach. It’s also excellent for cutting handfuls of dried grasses when you want to hand-harvest a small amount of grain or some dry bedding.
11. Roo Gardening Apron
Full disclosure: My own gardening apron is a rather janky homemade affair and I haven’t used these, but Kane at Insteading heartily recommends these waterproof gardening aprons. They have a roomy pocket for on-the-go harvesting, and are extremely durable. You can get them here at our sister site, Pantry Paratus.
12. Heavy-Duty Hoe
The hoe I have pictured here isn’t just any hoe. It’s a monster of a hoe forged of old agricultural implements, giving it a much heartier heft (the one pictured here is from Rogue Hoe). As you may surmise, my gardens are new enough that I’m still trying to improve the stony soil and get stubborn bluegrass clumps out from between my tomato starts. As such, the lightweight hoes sold in garden stores barely make a dent in the still-being-developed beds. Not so with this hefty thing. Though it will give you a workout, it doesn’t hold back when it comes to chopping rough soil.
After you’ve tired yourself out with the pickaxe, a heavy hoe like this comes in as the second level of attack. Someday, perhaps I’ll be able to hang up the hoe for good and take a no-till approach to my garden. For now, this beast and I still have some important work ahead of us.
Do any of you depend on these sorts of tools as much as I do? Is there any specific one that ends up being an extension of your arm through the gardening year? Or, is there a vital tool that we’ve missed? Sound off and share your stories and tips in the comments below.