March 23, 2013

6 Great Garden Tools

My definition of a great garden tool is multifaceted: It should be durable, practical, easy to use and helpful in multiple situations. Plus, it should not only aid you in accomplishing gardening tasks, it should also ultimately help you grow more food. Even for gardeners like me—someone who prides herself on reusing materials, making do with what I have, and gardening on a budget—these six tools are worth adding to the garden shed.

1. Long-Handled Circle Hoe

The circle hoe has a small metal circle at the end, one side of which is sharpened. This hoe style is ideal for weeding right up against mature plants and between tightly planted rows. You can even use a circle hoe in between tiny seedlings if you’re using the square-foot gardening method or other intensive planting techniques.

You can drag the circle through the soil tight against your rows, adding in a tiny chopping motion if needed. This minimal motion makes for a much more controlled weeding job, meaning you don’t have to worry about accidentally chopping into your seedlings. It’s also far easier on your back and knees than weeding by hand or with hand tools.

Keep your circle hoe sharpened, and it will even cut through heavier clay soils. Because of the hoe’s shape, it won’t move your soil toward you as you weed—the soil simply slips through the circle. However, turn the hoe slightly sideways and it will work just as well as a triangle hoe for creating small furrows in which to plant seeds.

Three sizes of garden circle hoes

2. Broadfork

The broadfork, also known as a U-bar digger, is an essential tool for no-till gardeners concerned with nurturing the soil food web. Even if you don’t follow a strict no-till philosophy, if you’re cultivating more than, say, 1,000 square feet of garden space, it’s time to befriend a broadfork.

Because your garden soil is home to extensive networks of critters, fungi and microorganisms—many of which form mutually beneficial relationships with plant roots—minimizing soil disruption will leave these networks intact, thus leading to a more successful garden. The broadfork allows you to loosen soil before planting and dig in compost with the least amount of soil disruption. The large tines of the fork dig deep while keeping the layers of soil mostly in place. Earthworm burrows and strands of fungal networks can be rebuilt much more quickly if soil layers aren’t inverted or completely mixed up as they would be with tilling.

This tool makes good sense for gardeners who try to maximize their harvest potential by succession sowing. Instead of hauling a tiller out every week when you want to sow a new area, you can easily loosen small areas with your broadfork. Even though a broadfork is a large tool, almost anyone can use it. The tines dig into the ground as your body weight rests on the U-bar and you make a back-and-forth rowing motion with your arms.

Gardener digging soil with a broadfork

3. Pitchfork or Garden Fork

With images such as American Gothic firmly planted in our minds, it’s more natural to think of pitchfork as a traditional tool for an austere farmer rather than a gardener. But I find that a pitchfork, sometimes called a digging fork or garden fork (depending, generally, on the thickness of the tines), is my go-to tool in many situations. If you have to loosen soil in a really small area—for example, if you’ve pulled out a spent plant in late summer and are about to sow a small patch a fall greens—a garden fork will work as a mini-broadfork. It doesn’t dig down quite as deep, of course, but it’s narrower than a broadfork so it won’t disturb nearby plants if you’re only loosening a tiny area. I find that a fork is much more effective at loosening soil than a hoe, plus it disrupts soil layers less.

A garden fork is also useful for picking up and moving around mulch material such as loose hay or leaves. In addition, you can easily use your fork to stir up your compost heap and to harvest root crops such as carrots, potatoes and sweet potatoes.

Finally, the garden fork is an unlikely ally in dealing with tough weeds. Many weeds, such as Bermuda grass, bindweed and ground ivy, will become far worse with tilling or vigorous hoeing as the root fragments are spread around and will sprout again, creating an even denser weed problem than you had to begin with. Minimize spreading the weed by using your fork to carefully dig weeds at the roots (this works best if done an hour or two after a heavy rain or watering). Because the fork digs down with only thin tines, it will potentially break and leave behind fewer roots than a shovel would. Use your fork to dig up weeds with a deep taproot such as dandelions, too.

Gardening digging in soil with a garden fork

4. Manual Hedge Trimmers

Hedge trimmers can be a gardening Godsend—and I don’t mean just for your landscaping. They work wonders when you want to take out large plants at the end of the season and chop the plants into manageable pieces.

For instance, your compost pile becomes wild-looking fast if you’re throwing whole tomato plants, pepper plants, okra plants and corn stalks onto it. With well-sharpened hedge trimmers, you can simply chop down these large plants bit by bit (you can choose the size, but I cut corn stalks into about 6-inch-long pieces), and then you have wonderful fodder for your compost heap. These smaller pieces of stalk, stem and vine not only make for more compact composting, but they’ll also break down much faster. This method won’t be realistic if you’re growing 40 long rows of corn, but it will work for many small-scale home growers.

As a bonus, you have the hedge trimmers on hand to shape and prune bushes and other large perennials. Use the trimmings for your compost pile, too.

Female cutting shrubs with manual hedge trimmers

5. Garden Shears

Garden shears are more heavy-duty than typical scissors, and they generally have a serrated edge that can grip tough stems. My favorite use for shears is harvesting. If you try to harvest certain crops that have thick stems (eggplants, peppers, okra, etc.) by using just your hands, you can actually damage the plant by accidentally ripping off a whole branch. Using shears to snip off mature fruits is faster and ensures you don’t damage plants.

Garden shears are handy to have in the garden for cutting string or twine you’re using to create a trellises or tie plants to supports. Shears also make quick work of harvesting herbs and cut-and-come-again crops such as Swiss chard. Use them for cutting off any diseased or damaged sections of plants and for small pruning jobs (you may want to use actual pruning shears for larger jobs).

This tip has an ick factor, but I don’t mind admitting that since I always have my shears close by, I often use them to quickly end the life of a tomato hornworm when I see one.

Yellow and gray garden shears

6. Hand Sickle

For thousands of years, growers around the world have been using sickles and scythes to reap grains (a scythe is similar to a sickle, but with a longer handle and usually a longer blade). If you grow a small patch of a grain such as wheat, use a sickle for harvesting by grabbing handfuls of the grain with one hand and, with the other hand, sweeping the sickle below where you’re holding.

Even if you don’t grow grains, a sickle can be useful for other jobs. For example, if you grow any cover crops and want to harvest the mature crops for mulch material, a sickle is the perfect partner for the job. Harvest the crop with the same grab-and-sweep method that you’d use for wheat, and lay the material down around plants to provide a beneficial mulch that will retain moisture, suppress weeds and add organic matter to the soil.

A sickle can come in handy for certain weeding jobs as well, especially if chopping down well-established weeds before digging out the roots with your garden fork.

Gardening chopping plants with a hand sickle

Sources for High-Quality Garden Tools

As with a piece of furniture, it’s best and less wasteful in the long run to buy an item that may cost a little more up front but that will last a lifetime (or more). In that spirit, these suppliers are known for making exceptionally durable tools for the home and market gardener.

Circlehoe: Specialty tool-makers of—you guessed it—quality circle hoes.
Grants Pass, Ore.; 800-735-4815

Clarington Forge: Classic tools from the only large-scale forge still producing forged garden tools in England (products available in the U.S. through Robert Larson Company).
England; 800-356-2196

Fiskars: A company with a global reputation for innovation that makes great garden shears and other tools.
Madison, Wis.; 608-259-1649

Green Heron Tools: High-quality tools, equipment and gear specifically created for women farmers and gardeners.
New Tripoli, Pa.; 610-844-5232

Hoss Tools: Owners of this company founded in 2009 are avid gardeners who grew up on a farm, and they’re on a mission to make great tools.
Park, Ga.; 229-769-3999

Johnny’s Selected Seeds: A seed company equally well-known for its large selection of both unique and traditional garden tools.
Waterville, Maine; 877-564-6697

Meadow Creature Artisan Farming Implements: Makers of a super-durable, effective broadfork that comes with a lifetime guarantee. (Bonus: This company donates three percent of all proceeds to sustainable agriculture projects in their community.)
Vashon, Wash.; 360-329-2250

Peaceful Valley Farm and Garden Supply: An environmentally conscious company that sells cost-effective, state-of-the-art tools and supplies specifically targeted to the needs of organic growers.
Grass Valley, Calif.; 888-784-1722

Hoe photo from; broadfork photo from Meadow Creature; garden fork photo from Clarington; shears and hedge trimmer photos from Fiskars; sickle photo from


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