12 Essential Tools for Frugal Gardeners

View as:


Gardening is more popular than ever. Community gardens are overflowing, youth gardening programs are blossoming, and more than one-third of American households cultivate vegetables either at home or in a community plot, according to the National Gardening Association. Starting a garden from scratch takes time and effort, whether you're growing edibles and/or perennials, but is sure to prove rewarding.


Both of these long-handled tools have a blade but serve slightly different purposes. A garden shovel has a rounded blade that's good for moving soil, gravel, mulch, compost, etc. from one place (like a wheelbarrow) to another (like a garden bed). A spade has a longer, flatter blade for easier digging into hard soil or big roots. If you only buy one, choose the shovel, which is more versatile. Make sure the handle fits your hand easily, the tool isn't too heavy, and the shoulder at the top of the blade is large enough to step on for extra oomph.


A gardener needs two kinds of rakes. The first is a garden, or bow, rake, which looks like a long, heavy comb with rigid tines. Use it to level ground when planting seeds or making a new garden bed. The second is a leaf rake, an essential tool if there are trees in the yard. Come fall, the leaves will drop and you'll use the leaf rake to gather them up as mulch for the garden. (Bonus tip: To make mulch, put the leaves in a big black plastic bag, punch holes in the sides, water the contents, and let sit for a year or so.)


An absolute must for container gardening, a trowel lets you get up close and personal with dirt. The pointy blade can break through tough sod or packed earth, and is useful for making holes in the ground for small things, such as bulbs or nursery-potted plants. If you do a lot of planting, your hands will be around this tool quite a bit, so choose one with an ergonomic handle that feels good. (Bonus tip: Buy tools with brightly colored handles or wrap them in fluorescent duct tape. Either way, they'll be easy to find when you drop them in the garden.)


Also called a cultivator, this hand tool has curved tines and is invaluable for breaking up soil before planting seeds, sifting out small rocks when digging a hole, or pulling out weeds by the root. Once harvest time comes, this is the tool to use to get those root vegetables out of the ground. Again, an ergonomic handle makes it easier to hold.


Like it or not, weeds are a given in any garden. You must get rid of them as they pop up or by summer's end they will have overtaken the plants. In a vegetable garden, a hoe will help you clean between rows; in a flower bed, it will help remove the weeds between the plants. A hoe has a long handle and a small blade at a right angle, which also makes it ideal for creating planting furrows.


Pruning is necessary in any garden, particularly those with shrubs and ornamental trees. Pruning enhances a plant's beauty and lessens the possibility of disease that can occur when branches are too close together or dying. And once the flowers begin to grow and the vegetables ripen, a handy set of pruners makes them easy to cut and bring into the house. There are many types of pruning shears, but the most essential is the bypass pruner. It works like scissors but is more powerful and usually can cut branches up to one-half inch in diameter. (Bonus tip: To make plants bushier, snip just above the leaf node where new leaves come out.)


Even if you don't have any hedges to trim, hedge shears (like scissors with very long blades) are worth owning. Many perennials, such as catmint, coreopsis, and salvia, benefit from a light shearing after flowering to encourage reblooming. Another reason to shear: Doing so prevents plants from setting seed and saves you from pulling out lots of little volunteer plants next spring. (If you want the plants to seed and spread, that's another story.) Hedge trimmers are also useful for cutting perennials back to their base foliage at the end of their season, or early in the spring, enabling new growth to begin.


Gardening is literally dirty work. Aside from grubbing around in the soil, you may need to work with chemicals, perhaps with plants that can irritate skin or are thorny or spiky. And gripping tools for a long time, particularly when you're hot and sweaty, can cause blisters. In other words, a good pair of gardening gloves is essential. Choose gloves that fit well and are flexible enough to pick up small items. If you work with roses or raspberries, choose gloves with a leather palm that the thorns can't puncture.


Because the sky doesn't always supply enough water for the foliage, you must step up. Container gardens dry out with alarming rapidity and in the heat of summer might need daily watering. Vegetables and most perennials (except those that thrive in drought conditions) require an inch of water weekly. And immediately after planting, watering is necessary to get the root system going. Although mulching the plants helps retain moisture, there are times when nothing but a hose will do. Hoses usually run 50 to 100 feet in length and can be joined together to cover a larger area. But a very long hose is also a really heavy hose, hard to lug around and roll back onto a hose reel or holder. Many gardeners swear by lightweight hoses that are a cinch to carry and coil. (Bonus tip: Water at the root, not at the tops of plants, where excess moisture can cause rot.)


Without proper support, tomatoes, cucumbers, beans, peas, and many taller perennials would flop over or not grow properly. You can tie your hollyhocks and delphiniums to inexpensive bamboo stakes, but tomatoes are happier in cages, and most plants that vine need some sort of trellis. If you're really handy, you can make supports yourself with wire and posts set into the ground.


With a garden, there's little doubt but that you'll be hauling things around. Wheelbarrows are essential for getting bags of manure or potting soil from the car to the garden, for mixing compost with dirt before planting, for piling yard waste to bring to the mulch pile. Sturdiness is a critical criterion but beyond that, the type of wheelbarrow is a matter of personal preference. Some people like two-wheeled models because they're more stable than the traditional one-wheeled variety, but they're harder to maneuver, particularly on hilly ground. There are also different types of handles, from the old-school two straight bars to the new ergonomic grips. If you expect to be hauling and dumping a lot, a wheelbarrow with a curved front, rather than a straight front, makes the dumping much easier.


A garden knife is another tool that comes in handy for a number of tasks. Sometimes the roots of a potted plant are bound up together. Sometimes the day lilies or irises seem to be dying in the center of their clump and cry out to be divided. To cut through thick roots you need a knife, preferably one with a serrated edge. Many gardeners favor a Japanese hori-hori knife, but improvisers know that an old bread knife will work just as well.