Retooling for spring: A good gardener is only as useful as her instruments

File photo. File photo.

My circle of acquaintances happily includes many who make their lives in horticulture. Their answers to my idle query, “What is your favorite tool?”  ranged from humorous—a professional gardener, 5-gallon bucket and a radio—to the obscure, among them the intriguing swan hoe, an ingenious asparagus knife with scuffle attachment and a number of beloved Japanese tools such as the Hori Hori soil knife and the Hida long-handled hedge shear.

A question like that is like asking a parent to pick a favorite child. Practicality jostles with sentiment and the answer often depends on what stage of life you’re in. I lost one of my favorite tools in the asparagus patch last summer, a soil knife with a handle crafted from an old University of Virginia boxwood. Fit my hand just fine. I was digging the deep-rooted dandelion and somehow came out of the patch without it. I could never deface such a work of art with a spray of orange paint, but bright handles are a help. Plus a bucket to throw things in instead of on the ground. I’ve never been one to hang things on my pants or belt, sagging weight around the middle being a problem as it is.

People who do a lot of weeding have their preferences. Vegetable gardeners love a variety of hoes—those that scuffle, those that chop, held as a hand tool or a long-handled implement. I gave all that up long ago, though I did my time tending the roundabout and vegetable garden at Monticello and perennial beds at Morven, but I find what I really like to do now at my own place is cut back and prune. Consequently, my most frequent companions are my Felco folding saw and hand pruners stuffed in the back pockets of my jeans. I also like a long-handled narrow-bladed ditch or poaching spade that pops out a small plant or tenacious weed in a jiffy.

Only an inveterate weeder who spends a lot of time on her knees and has a tendency toward Zen needs a collection of hand cultivators: asparagus knives (like a screwdriver with a fork at the end) and various little plows or claws that fit into the fingers for scuffing along the soil surface among new plants to dislodge tiny weeds. I used to use a Clawdia that looks just like it sounds and put blisters on my palm after a good session.

The soil knife vs. trowel debate is moot. If you do hand cultivation, you need both. The classic U shape trowel (I prefer a deeper blade over the stubby ones) gives a good scooping action especially in well-prepared soil; the pointed dagger design of the soil knife is best for fierce digging in inhospitable ground.

If you’re going to start or refurbish a tool collection this spring, have a dedicated space. Whether a potting shed, garage, basement, pantry or mudroom, find somewhere out of the elements—running water and sink a plus. Aspire to keep tools clean and blades sharp. Learn to do it yourself or use a sharpening service at a local hardware store.

Brush clods from dirty shovel blades and plunge several times into a bucket of oil and sand, wipe with a dry rag (bar rags are perfect) and put each back in its place. If you have room, a wall for hanging is ideal. You can see and reach everything at once. Have linseed oil (for wooden handles), mineral spirits (for cleaning pine sap, etc.) and WD-40 on hand. Visit local tool departments like Southern States, Martin Hardware and Fifth Season Gardening, as well as look into A. M. Leonard online. Start small and buy quality.

Around March 21 spring will turn our faces to the sun with new smells to dispel the empty cold of winter and we will feel a visceral desire to get moving. Everything wakes up. Even the tool room.


The basics

Hand clippers

Cut everything under an inch. Bypass scissor-type like Felco is the standard. Always carry one when you walk through the garden.

Folding saw

Branches too large for hand clippers.


Larger branches, good for reaching into tangles.

Hand claw, potato hook

Fine weeding and breaking up bare soil in newly planted beds; also useful for fluffing up old matted mulch


Break up soil and uproot larger weeds in the vegetable garden


You’re always going to have to dig something.

Digging fork

For the serious gardener

Leaf rake

Clean up small debris and keep things tidy

Heavy tined “dirt” or “steel” rake

Smoothing seed beds for vegetable gardens or lawn renovation


Haul debris, cover things from rain

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