The tools you choose can make working in your garden easy, or they can get in your way every time you pick them up! You’ll develop your own list of favorite tools, if you haven’t already, but here’s a good list to get started with.
For in-ground vegetable gardens:
Great for moving soil or soil amendments, digging holes for planting trees or setting fence posts, and scraping off annual weeds. It can be used for many different garden tasks.
Digging fork (Garden fork, Spading fork)
This is good for aerating soil in the middle of the growing season, and for loosening soil when digging. If you will be digging established garden beds, a quick going-over with the fork may be all they need in the spring. A fork is also much easier to use than a shovel for turning compost or picking up rough materials like straw or leaves: while a pitchfork is perfect for this, a digging fork will do the job.
Both forks and shovels come with long or short handles. Even if you are a short person, a long handle gives you better leverage and makes working with the tool less physically stressful.
Use this for smoothing out beds after they have been dug, to form a suitable seedbed for small seeds like carrots.
There are dozens of different designs of hoe, and they come in two main groups: digging hoes and weeding hoes. A digging hoe is meant for digging out large weeds, making furrows, and scraping surfaces. This is the kind of hoe you will find in every garden center, and the most important factor is the quality of the steel: you need to be able to sharpen it and have it hold an edge. Weeding hoes are meant to skim along just under the surface of the soil and cut off tiny weeds so that they dry out and die. They come in many different shapes: if you can borrow different kinds and try them out, you may be able to get a feel for what will suit you best. Learning to use a weeding hoe is one of the things that will save you huge amounts of work!
Hand trowel and fork
Good for helping remove stubborn weeds, mixing potting soil, transplanting seedlings and planting seeds. If you have extremely poor arm strength you may find you are able to use a trowel when you can’t use a full-size garden spade or shovel. It will take longer to mix soil this way, but if you can’t use the larger tool, this will do the job eventually. If you like to use a garden fork for digging, you may also like a hand fork, which is good for hand weeding.
Allows you to cut off ripe fruit, squash and other vegetable fruits, deadhead flowers, prune smaller bush and tree branches, and do other cutting tasks. Get a pair which fits your hands and which can be sharpened when the blades get blunt, as they will.
For container vegetable gardens
Unless you have truly enormous containers, a full-size garden spade and fork aren’t going to be much use to you. A trowel and hand fork are likely to be much more use. You’ll still want a pair of bypass pruners if you are growing squash or other larger vegetables.
For all vegetable gardens
Whatever tools you get, it is a good idea to buy quality if you plan to make much use of them. Good quality garden tools can last for decades because they are stronger and less likely to break. Metal parts should be made of stainless steel (for tools which don’t need to be sharpened) or carbon steel coated so that they are resistant to rust. Ideally it shouldn’t be a soft grade of steel so that they don’t lose their edge as soon as you sharpen them. It shouldn’t be brittle, either, or you can run into problems with tools breaking.
Sharpening metal tools like shovels and spades makes them cut more easily through the soil, and saves you effort when you use them.
Watering can or hose with shut-off valve
You will need a way of watering your plants. For small gardens close to the house a watering can may be enough, but for larger gardens a hose with a spray nozzle that shuts off will be a major help. There are also more complex systems, but they aren’t essential to most gardeners. However, they can be extremely convenient: if you have a large in-ground garden or a lot of containers, a drip watering system will save you lots of time and may save your plants in a heat wave.
Bucket or wheelbarrow
Really useful for moving soil and soil amendments around, and mixing potting soil. Many people are put off by the fact that a standard wheelbarrow has just one wheel, and think it must be unstable. In fact this is not so: it makes the barrow much easier to steer and get around in tight spaces, and allows you to tip the contents sideways just as easily as forwards in exactly the right spot.
Finally, don’t forget… personal protective gear.
A good pair of gardening gloves will save your hands much grief. Make sure you find a pair that fits reasonably and that won’t become stiff when they’ve gotten wet and then dried out a few times. If you garden in cold weather, thermal gloves with a waterproof coating are a blessing. If you need to be able to feel what you are doing, then medical exam gloves will do the trick while protecting your hands.
More versatile than a kneeling mat, these will protect your knees and make kneeling much more comfortable. If you do a lot of gardening, it is best not to get the cheapest foam ones, as these will become damaged fairly quickly. Fit is critical here: try them on over your gardening pants to find out if they will stay up, or if the strap swill dig in and cut off the circulation.