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.
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.