Conventional wisdom is to buy the best-quality, and therefore most expensive, tools that you can. If plants are the software of your garden, then tools are the hardware. And, just like with computers, the more you spend, the more powerful the hardware.

Back in '96, when I started gardening for real, I called a few experts for advice. With their help, I cobbled together a list of all the tools considered necessary for becoming the proficient and respected gardener of my dreams. (In my woolly headedness, I feared missing out on something obvious that would doom my inexperienced efforts or, worse, make me the object of scoffing by my elders.) The universal advice was: Pony up for the quality stuff. I came away with the following list of necessities:

  • Pruners, both anvil and bypass type
  • Pruning saw
  • Trowel
  • Spade
  • English digging fork (above right)
  • Crevice hoe (see below)
  • Bulb auger
  • Ties and stakes to hold up what I didn't cut down with the Felco pruners and the pruning saw

There is good science behind this list: The rationale is that, if you have the right tool, gardening is a lot easier and more enjoyable. Bill Kennedy, president of Stillbrook Horticultural Supplies in Connecticut, took the time to advise me, saying, "If you buy quality tools, they last you a lot longer. And you won't lose them as often because you might watch them a little better."



These are my two hoes. The circle, or stirrup, hoe (also called a stirrup hoe) on the right is terrific for weeding or breaking up the top inch of soil. The crevice hoe on the left then makes perfect seed drills.

I bought into this for a long time. Only Felco pruners would do for me, and my digging fork had to come from Lee Valley or Stillbrook (until they disappeared on me). But in the end, given my careless nature and other personality traits, all I had were a bunch of spiky, specialized, expensive implements that I could potentially leave out in the rain.

No matter how much I spent, and despite Bill Kennedy's predictions, I just left them out in the rain anyway. (Everything I own eventually gets left out in the rain because I am woolly headed. Cats, cameras, quilt tops, you name it, they get wet around here.)

And I ruined untold numbers of Felco No. 2 pruners after succumbing to the temptation to cut something inappropriate with them -- like plastic or just a teensy-tiny bit of aluminum that SURELY wouldn't harm these sturdy pruners. If it wasn't that, I'd squeeze them with all my might to cut a twig that, whoops, should have been cut with a pruning saw, except that the pruning saw had rusted back to nothing back in the winter of '98. That will dull a pair of pruners very quickly.

But that's the way it goes around here. When I dig a hole, I want to turn around and find the shovel stuck in the ground next to the last hole that was dug. Ideally, a trowel is stuck somewhere in every garden bed if I just look hard enough. Caring for tools just seems like a lot of trouble to me, and boring.

So, if my circle hoe (the one absolutely indispensable tool in my garden) edges toward the decrepit end of the spectrum, I buy another. But I keep the old one & tuck it into the garden somewhere - it'll do in a pinch if the shiny, new one is a couple of hundred feet away.

Here's my favorite trowel, right where I'll first need it in the spring. Somehow, it gives me comfort to spy it there on dark winter days.

That's not to say that everyone doesn't have their favorites - every spring I start out with a couple of sharp, strong pruners that I try really hard to keep nice but in truth breathe a sigh of relief once they get damaged and I no longer have to pay them much mind. And my huge, strong trowel from a now-defunct nursery is a keeper. My welder neighbor even repaired it for me after the initial fittings rusted. But that doesn't mean I go looking for it if I need a trowel and spy an inferior one stuck in the dirt just a few feet away. And my favoritism doesn't mean that "Frank" doesn't get left out in the rain with all his compatriots. Because, at the end of the day, there's a lot on my mind and a lot of tools scattered over an acre of gardens. And it's just not worth it to me to try to corral them and put them all in the garage. For heaven's sake, I don't garden in the garage! Why should my tools be THERE?!

As with everything else, sometimes it's best to understand your weaknesses and play to your strengths. So if you're like me, you have my permission to buy the cheap stuff.

Unless you think that the expensive stuff might last longer out there in the rain.