In early spring, there's nothing quite like getting one's hands dirty, planting flowers, fruits, and vegetables to mark the beginning of the season. Even if you're a gardening newbie, your foray into the fields (or onto your fire escape, if you're a city dweller), can be a breeze provided you equip yourself with 10 essential gardening tools.
Before you get down and dirty, you'll want a trusty pair of gardening gloves to protect your hands. Leather gloves are certainly durable, but tend to stiffen and contract when they get wet and then dry out. Gloves made of new composites and man-made leather last longer and offer better protection. Check out the G&F Florist Plus Gardening Gloves Set (from $13.79 with free shipping, a low by $1). You actually get two pairs with this order: a water-, oil-, and slip- resistant pair with high abrasion protection in breathable spandex and synthetic leather, and a second pair of mud gloves.
One of the gardening challenges many folks face is not from plants that won't grow, but those that won't stop growing when they reach their ideal size. This is where a good pair of pruning shears will come in handy. Whether you choose bypass shears (which work like scissors) or anvil shears (which have a pinching function) both can cut branches up to 3/4" in diameter. Just look for pruning sheers made with fully hardened steel, which can be resharpened, and a non-stick blade coating. The Fiskars 9124 Professional Bypass Pruners ($19.21 with free shipping, a low by $2) features adjustable blade tension that gives the user increased control over desired cutting force and precision. And since this is 2013, shears also come in left-handed models. The Felco F9 Left Handed 5-1/4" Bypass Pruners ($47.99 with $4.99 s&h, a low by $1) will make a difference for left-handed gardeners!
Unlike pruning shears, lopping shears are longer-handled and designed to cut larger branches up to 1 1/4" in diameter. They too come in bypass and anvil configurations, the former featuring a hooked blade to hold the branch in place so it doesn't slip away while being cut. Longer handles increase leverage and make for cleaner cuts, which can make a difference in the health of your plants. The Gilmour 25 AT Gear-Driven Anvil Lopping Shears ($27.99 with free shipping, a low by $13) have a 1 1/4" diameter capacity, use gears to triple the force of the cut, and have telescoping aluminum handles to extend the tool's reach.
To tame even larger limbs, you'll need a bow saw: a simple C-shaped saw with a blade that spans the open end of the "C." You could spring for a chain saw if you have a lot of timber to cut, but for occasional use this tool is the ticket. Look for a hardened carbon steel blade for long life, and keep it oiled between uses to reduce rusting. The Fiskars 7031 30" Bow Saw ($15.92 with free shipping, a low by $3) boasts an aforementioned hardened carbon steel blade, a lightweight tubular steel frame, and comes with a lifetime warranty.
With the exception of the rock, the trowel is one of the most primitive tools and useful for planting, weeding, and generally moving dirt around while on your hands and knees. And unlike the rock, the scoop is sometimes marked with a scale to aid in planting seeds at a specific depth. A narrow trowel is good for planting bulbs; a wider model is suitable for digging holes for plants. When picking out a trowel, look for good steel and a comfortable handle, as this tool will probably be with you for a lifetime. The Shanghai Worth Garden Products Green Thumb Carbon Steel Trowel ($7.15 with free shipping, a low by $2) has a durable carbon-steel blade and a resin ergonomic grip.
Hand or Whisk Rake
The hand rake is the small version of the fan rake and is used to move soil and chase down weeds. It combs through soil like your fingers do through hair. Look for a rake with steel tines ("teeth") that spring back completely when spread, and a handle that fits your grip. The Lewis Lifetime Tools WHR-6 Yard Butler Whisk Rake ($14.99 with free in-store pickup, a low by $3) has a durable, all-steel construction, a cushioned grip, and at 18", extends your reach to maximize efficiency. It also carries a lifetime warranty.
If you'd rather not spend time tending to your garden on all fours, the bow rake is an important tool. Gardeners use it to move soil, spread mulch, and pull out weeds. Look for a model with a sturdy steel head and 12 to 14 tines to do maximum work with minimum effort. Also make sure the handle is long enough to extend your reach comfortably. The True Temper American 14-Tine Bow Rake ($11.99 with $4.95 s&h, a low by $1) features a welded head with a 54" ash handle.
When it comes to digging a hole, nothing beats a round-point shovel. Look for one made of forged steel for better strength; stainless steel is pretty, but not necessary if you simply keep your shovel dry between uses. A longer handle gives you more leverage, and the common wood handle should last a lifetime if you treat it with linseed oil occasionally. Fiberglass handles are lighter option if you're willing to spend a little more. The Fiskars Long Handle Digging Shovel ($29.97 with free shipping, a low by $1) has an all-steel construction, pre-sharpened blade, and the teardrop-shaped shaft provides ergonomic comfort and control during use.
A flat-end spade is the right tool for planting larger objects. It allows for digging deep, narrow holes. Wider models move more soil, but result in heavier loads; if you don't want to do much heavy lifting, consider a narrow-bladed spade. Make sure the spade handle is comfortable in your gloved hand, and invest in one with a non-stick coating, which minimizes dirt clinging to the blade. The Truper Tru Tough 30" Garden Spade ($17.15 with $4.95 s&h, a low by $4) has a heavy-gauge steel blade and a lacquered handle with d-grip for balance and control.
Scuffle or Stirrup Hoe
This lesser-known tool is brilliant for keeping your garden weed-free with minimal effort. The bottom of the hollow rectangular blade, shaped like a stirrup, slips beneath the surface when used in a push-pull action, cutting young weeds off at the waist. Look for a stirrup hoe with a steel blade (rather than aluminum) for an extended tool shed life. The Ace Scuffle Stirrup Hoe ($20.99 with free in-store pickup, a low by $3) has a 1" double-edged blade and a hardwood handle.
These 10 gardening tools may each last a lifetime, so shop wisely. The result of your smart shopping and diligent labor could result in something delicious, fragrant, and beautiful. Certainly that's worth a modest investment in gardening tools.Note that this feature has been updated since it was originally published last year.