When it comes to choosing my wardrobe, I go for hardworking and practical over the latest fashion statement. A few well-made, nice looking, easy-to-care-for basics (no handwashing or ironing for me) with only the occasional decorative accessory serve me well. (I'm still trying to figure out how to arrange those popular, colorful scarves properly!)
I use the same strategy when it comes to choosing garden tools and equipment. I don't have lots of bells and whistles, just some well-made, sturdy basics that I can count on using for many seasons. A flat-bottomed spade, a garden fork, a steel rake, a narrow bladed hoe, and a leaf rake are my long-handled tools, while loppers, hedge clippers, and hand pruners take care of most cutting and trimming chores. Add in a couple of trowels and hand weeders and I'm set.
But beyond these basics, there are a few tools and pieces of garden equipment that I've really come to value. Here are some of the things that have become garden and landscape must-haves for me.
Two-wheeled garden cart I bought my garden cart way back in 1984, and it's probably hauled tons of soil, mulch, garden debris, and autumn leaves over the years. Made of sturdy plywood with large wheels with tubed tires, the back panel slides off so it can be loaded or unloaded from either end. Moving stuff with this cart is SOOOO much easier than using a tippy wheelbarrow, and its ample dimensions hold a good size load. My cart has stood up incredibly well over the years, in spite of often being left out in the weather. But sadly, it is at last beginning to show its age. My husband placed a patch over a rotted out spot in the bed last spring, so I could eke out one more season. But I really can't complain after 31 years of good service. I'll order my replacement cart from Carts Vermont. (Note: Their smaller carts have the handle attached at the top of the cart box, which I think could be awkward. My suggestion is to choose the larger model with the handle attached at the bottom of the cart box, like my original cart.)
Sturdy tarp This is my favorite piece of equipment for hauling fall leaves, plant trimmings, and other lightweight plant debris. I toss the stuff on the tarp, grab a corner, and drag it all to the compost bin or the wooded ″back forty″ section of my yard. No bending or lifting! This is a huge help in the fall when I'm cutting back plants in my extensive perennial beds. I pay a little more for a tarp with a thick ply and usually get several seasons of use from it. Find tarps at your local hardware store or home center.
Hori-hori knife (pictured) I received this as a Christmas present a couple of years ago and I'm smitten. It's great for digging out perennial weeds, roots and all; evening up an unkempt edge of a garden bed; or dividing and transplanting small perennials. It's also useful for planting bulbs, and there are even measurements on the blade to help you set bulbs at the correct depth. My only complaint is that its light wooden handle blends into the background when I set it down in the garden and then I have to hunt around for it! Someday I'll fix this by wrapping its handle with brightly colored electrical tape so it's easier to spot. I know, I know it only takes a minute, yet I never seem to get to it! There are lots of online sources for this tool; Gardener's Supply is one.
Cape Cod weeder This runs neck in neck with my hori-hori knife as my favorite weeding tool -- and it's been well-tested on my abundant supply of weeds. It has a short blade at a right angle to the shank. You pull the blade across the soil towards you, lopping off the weeds as you go. It's great for getting in tight spaces around existing plants in perennial beds or near young transplants in the vegetable garden. And yes, this also needs a colorful handle to cut down on lost tool search time! This weeder is available at most garden and hardware stores.
Felco Pick and Trim snips While they won't replace hand pruners, these little snips are perfect for cutting a few stems for a bouquet, deadheading, trimming houseplants, harvesting peppers, clipping sprigs of herbs, and myriad other light duty cutting chores. Because they are so lightweight and easy to slip into a pocket, I find I use them frequently as I stroll through my garden. Look for Felco pruners at gardener stores and online.
Dramm watering wand Great for watering containers, hanging baskets, or newly set out transplants, this wand makes it easy to get water where you need it without lots of bending and reaching. And its watering head breaks up the stream of water so that newly planted seeds or small plants aren't washed away. Being able to turn the water on and off at the wand makes it easy to move around the garden, watering as you go. Many garden stores, home centers, and online retailers carry Dramm products.
Five gallon buckets My gardening often happens in spurts. I dash outside and begin deadheading or perhaps do a little weeding, or I start raking up fallen leaves. But before the chore is finished, it's time to attend to something else, and my landscape used to be left littered with many small piles of debris. To remedy this, I acquired a multitude of 5 gallon buckets. Now I toss clippings and weeds into a bucket rather than on the lawn; then tuck the half-filled buckets in an inconspicuous spot in my yard. To prevent them from catching rain, my husband drilled small holes in the bottoms of some of the buckets so water drains through while keeping the plant debris corralled. I use different buckets to separate materials that are headed to my compost pile and stuff like the roots of perennial weeds and diseased plant debris that I plan to discard. Empty used buckets are often available for free from restaurants or cafeterias, or you can purchase them new at big box stores quite inexpensively.
Sun hat This is my one indispensable piece of gardening equipment -- I don't leave the house without it! Because I'm gardening out in the sun so much, finding a well-designed, broad-brimmed, washable hat that I like enough to wear consistently was a must to avoid the perils of too much sun exposure. My current selection is made by Sloggers in heavy, brushed cotton in dark brown (so the dirt doesn't show) with a strap that can be cinched with a sliding clip to keep it in place on windy days. Other stylish and lighter-weight styles are available from online retailers of sun protective clothing such as Coolibar, Sun Precautions, and Solartex. Buy two hats and keep one in the car to have on hand when you spend an afternoon plant shopping at a local nursery or garden center.
Portable potting tray Gardening indoors, whether it's repotting houseplants or starting seeds early for the spring vegetable garden, is fun -- but messy! That's why one of my favorite pieces of equipment is my portable potting tray. Made of sturdy but lightweight plastic and measuring about 2 feet square, with 6 inch raised sides with a cut-away front for access, it corrals potting soil, water, pruned off plant parts -- whatever you don't want all over the tabletop or floor. I even use it for catching all the seeds, strings, and pumpkin pieces when I carve my Halloween jack-o-lantern! I bought mine years ago, but the Greenhouse Catalog lists one similar to mine for $14.95.
Susan Littlefield is the horticultural editor for the National Gardening Association.