The right gardening tool for the job can make gardening easier by allowing us to accomplish the task with less work, by putting less strain on our muscles and joints and even by allowing us to keep on doing what we love through all the seasons of life.
I love great tools, equipment, accessories and gadgets, and I have learned that quality doesn’t cost — it saves. I could fill a bucket with cheap hand pruners, trowels and other devices that I’ve tossed over the years. It is worth spending a little time researching and a little more money on durability and workmanship to get tools you will use and enjoy for years or even decades.
Here are a few of my latest favorite tools, accessories and gadgets that make gardening a more productive and pleasant experience.
The biggest game changer for my indoor seed-starting has been the addition of quality lighting. Growing your own transplants opens the door to a world of new varieties not available locally, and quality lighting opens the door to superior transplants.
High-output, compact fluorescents and LEDs are an investment that will pay off in expanded selections, quality plants and personal enjoyment. Make sure to include an inexpensive timer for carefree operation. (See “Lighting for Seed Starting” in the January/February 2020 issue for more on lighting.)
A seed-starting mat provides the warmth needed to give plants, such as tomatoes and peppers, a boost even when air temps are a little on the cool side.
Bottle-cap sprinklers are plastic caps that screw onto plastic soft-drink or water bottles, turning them into mini-sprinklers that trickle or provide a stronger spray with a squeeze of the bottles. Available online for a little over a dollar apiece in packs of several pieces, they make seed-starting and houseplant care easier and less messy.
The lightest density row-cover fabrics weigh about a half-ounce per square yard and work well as a protective cover for seedlings or new transplants outdoors. When starting seeds, add a bent wire or PVC hoop to hold the cover above the soil until plants are large enough to prevent soil contact.
These lightweight covers allow air movement and plenty of light penetration, so they can be left on the plants long term to block out hungry pests looking to turn your seedlings into a salad bar.
Planting Seeds in the Garden
If you have a medium-to-large garden, stooping to plant a long row of seeds, or repeated squatting and standing, can take a toll on back and leg muscles. A precision seeder rolls down the row dropping seeds at the perfect spacing, while covering and firming soil around the seeds. Different seeding plates can be switched out for each size of seed you are planting. These work especially well with larger seeds.
A precision seeder costs about $125 but is a worthwhile investment that frees your time for other fun gardening activities. Plus, it may pay for itself in chiropractor bills! For those who know the aches and tedium of planting a long row, a mechanical seeder is a welcome relief.
For most of my life I knew of only one type of garden hoe, the standard type designed to move dirt and chop out large weeds. Thoughts of using that tool bring memories of sweat and blisters. I still own one of those traditional garden hoes, but it has been retired from weed duties.
There are many new hoe designs on the market now that are much better for weeding (unless you wait until the Johnsongrass is waist high). I won’t go into all the types here (see “Specialty Garden Hoes,” July/August 2007) but will mention a few of my favorites.
Three things to keep in mind when weeding are: 1) the younger the weeds, the easier they are to remove; 2) the less soil you turn over in the process, the less weed seeds you will bring to the surface to begin the Sisyphean task of weeding all over again; and 3) the more you follow numbers 1 and 2, the less work it will be.
The stirrup, hula or oscillating hoe has a rectangular blade that resembles the stirrup on a saddle. You use it in a back-and-forth motion as if playing shuffleboard or vacuuming the floor. It is great for quickly cleaning up small weeds prior to planting or clearing weeds out of the sides of a bed or garden walkways.
The diamond hoe is a type of scuffle hoe — sharp edges on all four sides for cutting in both a push-and-pull motion. It can be used like the stirrup hoe, but I like the narrower-shaped types for precision weeding in and among my garden plants. Rather than chopping weeds, the diamond hoe glides just at and below the soil surface to slice them off.
Other weeding hoes have thin blades at a right angle to the handle and are used in a motion like sweeping the floor. All in all, they make weeding with a hoe much easier and faster with less unearthing of weed seeds. If you are using your hoeing energy to move soil around, you’re doing it wrong.
The Cobrahead weeder, with a simple design, is a remarkably efficient and easy-to-use tool. I am including it with other weeding tools but think it should be in the general-activities tool category. The arched metal shaft with flattened head is great for removing even established weeds, and it is equally useful for cultivating, digging a transplant hole or opening a seed furrow. It comes in small-handheld and long-handled versions.
When it comes to pruning tools, you pretty much get what you pay for, and paying less up front will cost you a lot in the long run. Hand pruners are a must-have in every gardener’s toolbox. I find the bypass or scissor types to be much better than the anvil types. Well-made pruners have removable blades so you can replace them with sharp new blades, which significantly reduce hand strain as well as make clean cuts that heal faster.
Quality brands usually offer various versions for large or small hands, left-handed gardeners and various types of pruning. Some offer a rotating handle. If you’ve not used a rotating-handle hand pruner before, it will seem a bit awkward at first; but if you are pruning all day or have limitations such as minor arthritis, the rotating handle can be very helpful.
Loppers allow us to make cuts too large for hand pruners yet small enough to not require a saw. Again, bypass types are best, and quality pays off. I prefer the old-fashioned wooden-handled types, but aluminum handles and good ergonomic design can also make pruning less difficult.
While choosing a good pruning tool is important, equally important is keeping it sharp and oiled to prevent rust. This not only extends its life but greatly reduces the work involved in cutting through woody branches.
When a saw is required, there are many options. I find curved handsaws to be the most efficient. Unlike a carpenter’s handsaw that cuts on both the push and pull strokes, a curved pruning saw cuts only on the pull stroke. The limb-hugging curved blade makes removing a branch easier and faster.
I have recently found myself using a battery-powered reciprocating saw a lot. Make sure to purchase a large-toothed blade designed for pruning branches. The tool’s weight may make it less desirable for all-day work, but the powered motion, and a blade that cuts to and fro, make each cut very fast and easy.
General Gardening Activities
It may be a bit out of place in an article primarily about tools, but I have to mention the importance of great garden gloves. Having for many years settled for “one size fits almost all” when it comes to gloves, I can now appreciate the value of the right glove for the job too.
Quality gloves that fit well are important, and there are many types of gloves for numerous tasks in sizes to fit every gardener’s hands well. You can spend a lot on specialty gloves, and in many cases it may be worth the investment.
Not all great gloves cost a lot, however. I’ve recently become fond of simple, inexpensive nitrile-coated nylon gardening gloves. Made of flexible, breathable nylon-knit fabric, with a very durable nitrile coating on the palms and fingers, these gloves can be washed and reused. At about $4 a pair, they are economical and protect hands through most gardening chores, from digging in the dirt to gripping tools and squishing bugs (hooray!). Purchase them to fit snugly since they move and stretch well, and a snug fit provides the most manual dexterity.
Do you remember the first time you woke up sore but couldn’t remember what you did to cause it? This recently happened to me. At first, I thought the day before was spent just puttering around in the garden, but as I replayed the day, I realized that I must have got down on my knees and back up a hundred times. This up-and-down is what caused me to waddle around sore for a day or two.
Enter the kneeling bench. I first purchased one for my older sister (our comparative ages being a fact that she only points out when desiring to add validity/authority to her latest suggestions/commands). It didn’t take long before I bought my own. More versatile than a standard kneeling pad, it does double duty as a kneeling pad and a convenient seat when working out in the garden or yard.
Perhaps the best feature are the handles that make getting down and back up so much easier on the body. If you know the pain that follows a day of gardening ups-and-downs, but think kneeling benches are just for the decrepit, get a grip and get yourself one. If you don’t believe me that you need one, just ask your older sister!
Every gardener knows that drip irrigation saves on the water bill. But it also saves a lot of time. If you have numerous containers to water, a drip system can really free up time for other fun gardening activities. Go ahead and spring for a good timer also. If you have both beds and containers, purchase more than one hose-end timer or a multi-zone timer, since the run times and frequencies for watering containers are different from garden beds.
One final tool to mention is the soil knife, also called a hori-hori knife. Soil knives are made of thick, hardened carbon or stainless steel and have a concave blade for scooping, with one edge serrated for cutting roots and other plant parts. There are many versions of this tool that include other features, such as a notch for cutting twine and depth markings on the blade.
I use mine for all kinds of soil work, including weeding, removing spent plants at the soil line, transplanting, making a furrow for seeding, cutting through the outside of a root-bound plant’s root ball, or even tapping in a garden stake. Some come with a sharpening rod for keeping the serrated edges sharp and a leather sheath with a belt loop. If Jim Bowie had been a gardener, I’m quite sure he would have had a soil knife.
In addition to the many great tools for gardeners, it is fortunate that we often have the option of ergonomic designs to ease strain on muscles and joints. Special “D” handles are another accessory available for attaching to the handles of rakes and shovels to minimize bending and stooping, while making lifting easier.
These are some of my latest favorite gardening tools, gadgets and accessories. They make gardening work easier and more productive, and free up time from tedious chores to do what I really enjoy out in the garden. You likely have some favorite tools and accessories of your own. Drop us a line to tell us about your favorite gardening tool, gadget or accessory and maybe include a photo too.
By Robert ”Skip” Richter
Brazos County Horticulturist
Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service