Faced with a busy weekend of yard work and weeding, I rummaged around my equipment bin, gathering up my go-to hand tools. Over the years I’ve amassed quite a collection of implements designed to make the task of digging and weeding a bit easier, but I seem to fall back on a few old favorites every time. I’ve even been known to use a butter knife in a pinch.

While looking through all these tools, I noticed a trend toward scary and ominous shapes. Sharp claws and blades of forged steel and rough black wrought iron; I imagine they are supposed to leave weeds quaking in fear at the sight of them. I couldn’t help but imagine them as murder weapons in a garden-themed game of Clue. Yes, it was Lady Hyacinth in the fernery with a hori-hori knife.

Most of my well-worn tools are simple and traditional; there’s probably a reason why these steadfast standards remain in use today. But occasionally I make room for new and improved versions in my gardening arsenal. However, what works for one person might fail another. Tools are very personal; they need to feel good in your hand with the right ergonomics in size and heft.

That said, here’s a list of tools I can’t do without.

1. Dibble

Also called a dibber; you decide. An old-fashioned tool deserving of respect, it has a T-shaped wooden handle tapering to a sharp, conical metal point. I call it my speed planter. Plunge it into the soil, twist and you’ve got the perfect hole for young seedlings and small annuals, quicker and more precise than a trowel. With a shallow poke, you can control planting depth in the soil and create a uniform hole for larger seeds like beans, squash and peas. I then use one blunt end of the handle to tamp down the sowing for good seed-to-soil contact.

2. Soil Scoop

There are lots of scoops out there; this one is relatively new and patented with that name. It features a large leaf-shaped metal scoop with serrated edges. While some people use it to excavate deep-rooted weeds or dig small furrows, I like to use it as a scraper to effectively eliminate tiny weeds as they emerge early in the season. But I believe it’s more brilliant for planting containers. The curved shape of the scoop follows the curve of the flowerpot while you add potting soil around your plants, meaning less waste and mess.

3. Fishtail weeder

This tool, sometimes called a weed fork, has been around forever but is still by far the best for grabbing and lifting the tenacious taproots of weeds like dandelion and plantain in problematic places.

4. Trowel

My trusty red Corona Comfort Gel Trowel proves that sometimes you can improve upon a time-tested design. The sturdy stainless-steel construction provides good leverage to dig deep, while the softer handle reduces blisters and sore joints, plus strategically placed protrusions for thumb and fingers on the underside keep it from slipping. It also has helpful depth markings from 1 to 4 inches on the blade. I like this one so much I often buy them as gifts for other gardeners.

5. Cultivator

While some folks use this simple claw-like tool to loosen soil, I employ it to groom my ornamental grasses in spring, as they start growing. I freshen them up by “combing” the tufts to pull out dead thatch and debris so they look better and are less prone to opening up or uneven growth. It’s also great for raking dead leaves from under perennials when a regular rake is too clumsy for the job.

6. Pruners

This may be one case when it really pays to invest a bit more. My fancy Felcos (Classic Model 2) have endured after other pruners have proved unworthy. They come in a number of sizes, according to purpose. You don’t have to go super expensive, but be sure to purchase bypass pruners that make a clean cut, as opposed to anvil pruners that crush stems instead.

7. Secateurs

Otherwise known as snips, I find these compact clippers are indispensable when it comes to fine work like deadheading or thinning delicate plants. The small blades are more precise than pruners or scissors. I especially like to use them for harvesting herbs.


Rhonda Fleming Hayes is a Minneapolis-based garden writer who blogs at thegardenbuzz.com. She is the author of “Pollinator-Friendly Gardening: Gardening for Bees, Butterflies and Other Pollinators,” available at Amazom.com/plt.