Try tools on for size. You can’t dig a hole in the aisle at Home Depot, but you should spend time handling tools, mimicking the actions you perform in the garden. If the tool feels too heavy, you risk injury; if the handle is too long or too big, it won’t be comfortable. Look for D-shape handles on short-shafted tools, such as shovels and digging forks: They are easier on the wrists. If you buy online, make sure tools are returnable.
Opt for tools with wood or coated-metal handles. These are strong but not too heavy. Ash and hickory are the most durable woods. Avoid Douglas fir, which is used for lesser-quality tools, and painted handles (paint is often used to disguise inferior wood). The closer and tighter the grain, the stronger the wood. Manufacturers make many confusing claims about quality, but the words “single forged,” “solid socket,” “carbon steel,” “stainless steel,” “tempered,” and “epoxy coated” are all indicators of well-made tools. Tubular-steel and fiber-glass handles, used on professional tools, are generally too heavy and expensive for use by anyone but professional landscapers.
Store tools properly. Long-handled tools should be hung neatly on a peg rack, which will protect edges from dulling. Short-handled tools can be stored in a garden bag that travels with you as you work.
Hand rake: For picking up piles of leaves and garden trash and gently removing debris from under and around plants without damaging roots or crowns. Choose one in bright colors to help you keep it in sight as you work. Lee Valley Tools (similar to what's shown bottom left), $22, amazon.com.
Water breaker: For gently irrigating new plantings or soaking established ones. Dramm Handi-Wand (similar to what's shown bottom right), $18, amazon.com.
Japanese gardener's knife (or hori-hori): This favorite of many professionals does five jobs well. Use it instead of a trowel for digging, planting bulbs, and weeding. The saw blade cuts roots and divides small perennials. The pointed end is a crevice tool. Lee Valley Tools (second from bottom, right), $27.50, leevalley.com.
Shears: For trimming grass around tree trunks and shrubs; edging beds and paths; and cutting back ornamental grasses and clumps of perennials. Fiskars Softtouch Shears (second from top, right), $18, amazon.com.
Scissors: For deadheading (removing dead flowers); cutting soft-stemmed plants, such as herbs; pruning small or delicate plants; snipping twine; and thinning perennials. For ease of use, look for one with a spring action. Fiskars Multi-Snip Snip (second from top, left), $13, amazon.com.
Hand pruner: For cutting branches less than ¾-inch thick; cutting back clumps of perennials; cutting larger flowers; and scoring and slicing root balls before planting. A.M. Leonard Felco Traditional Pruner (third from top, with red handles), $33, amleo.com.
Hand weeder: The thin, sharp blade removes shallow-rooted weeds; the long handle lets you reach far into beds. Grampa's Weeder (similar to what's shown above), $25, gemplers.com.
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Best Long-Handled Tools
From left to right:
Long-handled pruner: For cutting branches more than ¾ inch thick. Dramm Telescoping lopper ($57, amazon.com) is lightweight and adjusts easily from 24 inches to 31 inches for greater reach.
Round-headed shovel: For digging holes to plant trees and shrubs and moving loose materials, such as soil, gravel, sand, and compost. This A.M. Leonard Razorback shovel ($46, amleo.com) has a comfortable footrest.
Transplant spade: For digging holes in confined areas of a densely planted bed. Lee Valley Tools, $39, leevalley.com.
Bow rake: For leveling soil for planting; spreading mulch, gravel, sand, and compost, and removing heavy debris. A.M. Leonard, $44, amleo.com.
Digging fork: For turning and cultivating unbroken soil, mixing amendments into soil, breaking up clods, and lifting bulbs and perennials for transplanting and dividing. Lee Valley Tools, $38, leevalley.com.
Leaf rake: For raking leaves, twigs, grass clippings, and other light debris from lawns. Available at garden centers, about $15.
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Protect Your Hands
Garden gloves are as essential a tool as a shovel or a rake. It may seem extravagant, but owning three pairs will make a multitude of tasks easier. (Your cuticles will thank you, too.)
Washable synthetic gloves: For general maintenance, such as deadheading, weeding in dry soil, and handling seeds. The thin fabric and snug fit allow your fingers maximum dexterity. Foxgloves (far left), $21, foxglovesinc.com.
Latex-coated cotton gloves: For dirty, wet jobs, like picking up leaves or planting shrubs, and for working with thorny plants (the latex coating is puncture-resistant). Mud Gloves (center), $10, amazon.com.
Heavy-duty leather gloves: For tough jobs, like digging holes, clearing brush, and carrying firewood. Womanswork suede pigskin gloves (left), $27, womanswork.com.
Arm protectors: Consider elasticized sleeves if you often prune brambly shrubs. Little’s Good Gloves arm protectors (similar to what's shown in background), $7 a pair, amazon.com.