Although 19th-century garden writer Charles Dudley Warner insisted that the only tool a gardener really needs is a strong back with a hinge in it, most of us are grateful for implements. But few gardeners agree on what constitutes an adequate armory of garden tools. Twentieth-century garden writer Ruth Stout, famous for her no-till garden, believed in only three tools - a trowel, a spade and a fork. (I can't imagine what she did for pruning.) At the other end of the spectrum is Martha Stewart, who confesses to being something of a tool junkie. Most of the rest of us fall somewhere in between. We simply want effective tools for the jobs we do.
There is a wonderful variety of garden tools available today. Assuming you already have Stout's basics, you can enhance your collection and your gardening life with a few of the newer offerings and maybe a cutting tool or two.
One relatively new entry in the arsenal is the Soil Scoop by Garden Works. Part trowel, part weeder, the deep-bowled scoop can hold a healthy handful of dirt for potting, comes to a sharp point for gouging into dry or dense earth or weed roots, and has serrated edges on its sides to hack away woody stalks. Available at local garden centers, the Soil Scoop retails for around $15.
Another handy digger is the dibble ("dibber" if you're English). A pointy-ended prod about 10 inches long and 1 to 1.5 inches in diameter with a 5-inch cross-handled grip, it can plunge open the perfect hole for planting seedlings and small bulbs like crocus and gladiolus. (Smith & Hawken offers several sizes ranging from $15 to $29.)
Weeders and cultivators
We may dream of no-till gardens, but reality usually dictates a weeder or two. Local plant physiologist Francis T. Gouin swears by a new hoe called the Weed Bandit (Earthmade, $49), which has an adjustable 5-foot handle.
"It's the best improvement since the Egyptians invented the hoe," Gouin says. "The blade is corrugated and has shallow teeth in it, and the teeth are sharp, so when you draw the blade through the soil, it acts like a pair of shears. I've used it for a year and wouldn't go back [to the old kind]."
Smith & Hawken's hand weeder ($15) is a superb hand-held hoe. Eighteen inches long with a triangular knife-sharp blade, it will go through even the most hard-packed earth and slice the weeds from their roots. (It will also cut through a pair of cross-trainers if you're not careful.). The relatively small size and sharp, pointed end offers accuracy in closely planted beds.
Roger Swain, host of PBS's "Victory Garden," has three favorite cutting tools - a pocket knife, No. 6 Felco pruners, and a Japanese folding saw.
"I always have a pocket knife. You can do anything with a pocket knife. After that we go to Felco No. 6's really fast," Swain says. "Every gardener should have a pair of Felcos. They are the most expensive, yet they are the most popular because they are the best, especially for women and men with hands my size. You get more power when you don't have to fully open your hand."
As with the pen knife, Swain likes the versatility of the saw.
"You can cut anything as big as the blade is long," Swain explains. "I like the Japanese tri-cut saws. Each tooth has three edges. But be careful, because they are very, very sharp. Wear a glove on your free hand and keep it out of the way."
Felco pruners range from $25 to $75 depending on size and weight. Japanese saws, aka turbo saws, are available through A.M Leonard ($18.77 to $24.41), Smith & Hawken ($35 with sheath), and at most garden centers.
Mud Gloves ($5 to $10 in garden centers) are a great innovation. Made of knitted cotton coated with nonslip latex rubber, they don't get soggy or caked with mud and are machine washable. Light-weight and close-fitting, they offer great dexterity but are tough enough to provide protection from all but the most vicious thorns. They also wear extremely well.
There are two main rules for choosing tools.
First: Buy quality.
"You can buy quality the first time or the second (or third) time," says Swain, adding. "You're going to buy it in the end."
To determine quality, examine the tool. How heavy is the metal? Is the joint between the handle and the metal held with one or two fasteners? Is it snug? Loose joints work and soon wear out the handle, the collar, or both. For durability, Martha Stewart recommends ash handles. (Garden forks with stainless-steel shanks are a godsend.).
Note, too, whether the jaws open wide enough to cut the branches you plan to prune. Test for ease of action. Don't hope to break them in like shoes. If they're hard to work at first, you won't want to use them, and they'll never get broken in.