The 3 Essential Hand Tools Every Gardener Should Have

Photo: Linda Ly
Photo: Linda Ly

Truth: You don't need a whole arsenal of hand tools to be a great gardener. Sometimes too many tools can be a hindrance or a waste, and often times we're made to believe we need just the right tool to get the job done. But for the beginner gardener (and even a seasoned one), you can get by with these three basics.

#1 Scissors. And I do really mean scissors. Out of every tool I have for the garden, a simple pair of scissors is one I use daily — above all the other pruning shears and snippers I own. It's the least fancy of my hand tools but the most used in tasks you usually don't think about when you're out in the garden. For example, a decent pair of household scissors can be used to thin out seedlings; cut twine or open a bag of soil; snip herbs or harvest small veggies; and deadhead flowers or prune small vines. These are things you don't need a set of heavy shears for, and scissors are so cheap that I don't bother to clean them and I definitely don't baby them the way I do my expensive shears. I just leave the scissors out in the garden, easily accessible every time I need them, and buy new ones when they get lost or broken. Above all else, every gardener should have a dedicated pair of garden scissors!

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#2 Japanese soil knife. Also known as a Hori Hori, this multi-purpose tool does the jobs of many tools: cutting, weeding, scooping, digging, transplanting. It has one smooth edge, one serrated edge, a pointy tip and a slightly concave blade. Here are some of the ways I've used my Hori Hori this week: to dig up carrots and tap the dirt off them, dig up lilies and divide their root balls, dig up stubborn weeds from walkway cracks, saw off dead artichoke stems, break up clumps of heavy clay soil, carve out a planting trench to sow new seeds, and spread out mulch over a small area. I like carbon steel blades since they're more durable and have a nice, heavy weight in my hand for tough jobs; but stainless steel blades have the advantage of being rust-resistant and low-maintenance.

#3 Trowel. Essentially a small shovel, the trowel is a workhorse. Besides digging holes, scooping dirt and filling pots, I also use mine to scatter amendments like bone meal and blood meal on the soil, or to hold and transport seeds and bulbs around the garden. Trowels can be narrow or wide, shallow or deep; I personally prefer a wide and deep shape (as well as one with a sharp, not rounded, tip) since my Hori Hori fulfills the other end of the spectrum. You don't need an expensive trowel, but you definitely want to stay away from a plastic trowel, especially if you have clay soil. It just doesn't stand up well to use and abuse, and over time, exposure to the elements can start to disintegrate the plastic. Choose a steel trowel with a comfortable, ergonomic handle that won't fatigue your hand as you dig hole after hole.

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