This story was originally published in April of 2020. Some businesses that closed at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic may have changed their hours.
First time gardeners may be surprised by the array of gardening tools available. However, with a few good tips — and a solid list of must-haves — you can stock up on what you need for a successful gardening season.
And stocking up early is going to be key this year, according to Tom Estabrook, vice president of Estabrook’s Garden Center which has locations in Yarmouth and Kennebunk.
“There are going to be challenges this year,” Estabrook said. “Not as many people are going to be able to come into the garden center. If you’re doing online orders for supplies, think of it like Hannaford-To-Go: we’re going to get overrun at some point.”
The rush on tools has to do, in part, to the pandemic. Many people who are stuck at home are suddenly interested in gardening. On top of that, some local community gardens, like the Bangor Community Garden, will not be opening their communal tool sheds in order to be extra cautious during the coronavirus, so even experienced gardeners may need some tools they haven’t before.
Here are the tools you need to start, and tips for choosing the best ones, according to local experts.
A handheld trowel is useful for all gardeners, whether they are tending to a single raised bed or a large in-ground plot.
Beginning gardeners might want to go for a trowel with measurements etched into the blade.
“I think that’s helpful for sure especially for new gardeners,” said Kate Garland, horticultural specialist at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension. “A lot of times people get a little bit nervous about depth recommendations and they want to be accurate. If you do buy a trowel, I would suggest buying something that has some measurements on it. There’s a lot of wiggle room with planting, though, so don’t stress out too much on planting depths.”
Garland also recommended a right angle trowel for transplanting seedlings.
“I really like that one,” she said. “That way, you’re not disturbing the soil [as much]. It’s very fast. If you’re ready to do a whole bunch of transplants it’s very, very efficient.”
Spade or shovel
Spades and shovels are ideal to loosen, break up, scoop and move soil. The type of head you choose for your tool will depend on the tasks you wish to accomplish.
“If you’re doing edging work like around a flower bed, you want a straight edge shovel,” Donna Coffin, extension professor at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, said. “A spade is a better all purpose tool. It’s easier to dig with. The straight edge shovel, if you’re spreading garden nutrients, that comes in handy, but you can use a spade to do that, too.”
There are several different types of handles to choose from, including wood, plastic composite and even fiberglass.
“If you’re purchasing fiberglass, it’s going to last forever,” Estabrook said. “If it’s your first shovel, all shovels are going to do great, so don’t feel like you have to get the best shovel right off the bat.”
For extra ease in your gardening tasks, Melissa Higgins, wholesale manager at Sprague’s Nursery, recommends a Radius garden shovel.
“The [ergonomic] handle is the key here,” she said. “It has the nicest widest kick plate to rest your boot.”
Garland said that a good garden fork is essential for loosening, turning and lifting soil.
“It’s kind of a one-stop-shop tool,” Garland said.
The type of gardening fork you choose will depend on the style of your garden.
“I really like a long handled garden fork in an in-ground garden versus a raised bed,” Garland said. “Equally so, I like the short handled forks for raised beds. I like to use either one of loosening the soil before I get into weeding. It helps me get into more of the roots.”
Rakes help to gather garden debris or distribute mulch without disturbing the soil beneath.
The material that you choose for your rake will depend both on personal preference and on the task you wish to accomplish. For example, Estabrook said that a good heavy iron rake for raking out mulch. On the other hand, a soft plastic or wire rake is good for leaf clean-up.
Alicyn Smart, assistant extension professor and extension plant pathologist at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, said that she generally prefers metal rakes for garden tasks.
“They are able to grab matted down leaves that may have been there for a couple of years,” she explained.
Whether you are cutting through brambles, pruning roses or thinning seedlings, a pair of quality pruners will make gardening tasks much easier — and safer — than if you were to tackle your plants with craft or kitchen scissors.
Expert gardeners recommend spending a little bit more on pruners. Once you make that investment, they will last a long time. Smart, Garland and Estabrook all recommended Felco pruners, which averaged around $60 a pair in 2020.
“It would probably be the last pair of pruners you would ever buy,” Estabrook said. “Starting out, you can buy a lesser grade, but your hands will not like you after a bit.”
If you are investing in quality pruners, proper care is essential.
“I can’t talk about pruners without mentioning they should be cleaned often since you are creating a wound and potentially spreading disease with each cut,” Smart said. “You can clean them with 70 percent rubbing alcohol, which is non-corrosive compared to bleach.”
No matter what brand you choose, though, Higgins said to make sure you are choosing bypass pruners, which have two curved blades that bypass each other in the same manner as a pair of scissors
“The spring is the trick here,” Higgins said. “[It] makes for easy pruning for everyone even with those who have arthritis. Many versions of these from cheap to expensive.”
Beginning gardeners should invest in a good set of gardening gloves, not just to protect your hands from getting dirty, but to prevent injury from sharp objects, gardening chemicals or fungal pathogens.
When choosing gardening gloves, you should consider the fit as well as the material, the best of which will depend on what you want to do. Estabrook and Garland both recommended nitrile-dipped gloves, which have a semi-waterproof coating on the palm and fingertips that will allow for wet and dry gardening tasks.
Garland said that, generally, the thinner the glove, the better. However, for heavy duty tasks — like moving rocks or for gardening in the cold — thicker, insulated leather gloves might be preferable.
Wheelbarrow, tarp or tub
A wheelbarrow, or some other mechanism to move large piles of soil, compost and debris, is an essential garden tool. Though Estabrook said that one-wheeled wheelbarrows can be easier to turn and maneuver if you know how, he and other experts recommend two-wheel wheelbarrows for easy maneuvering.
“You want to pick one that makes you most comfortable,” he said. “A two-wheel wheelbarrow is going to be much more stable if you have a hard time lifting things and balancing them.”
When it comes to the size of the wheelbarrow, Garland said to make sure you don’t pick a wheelbarrow that is too big for you to move once it is filled with debris.
“It really needs to fit your body type and how much you’re able to really move,” she said. “Bigger isn’t always better.”
Estabrook suggests considering the weight and durability of wheelbarrows when purchasing. Plastic and hard resin, for instance, will be lighter than steel wheelbarrows. But when it comes to durability, the steel will last a lifetime.
However, as Estabrook puts it, wheelbarrows are a “storage nightmare.” If you do not have space for a wheelbarrow in your home, Smart and Garland both recommend using a large tarp to lug around soil and debris.
“That’s pretty much what I use,” Garland said. “It’s easy to pack. I just lay it out and put the debris on it and bundle it up in my hands and drag it to where I need to bring it.
Garland said that a 5 foot by 6 foot tarp should suffice.
“You don’t want to overload yourself and then have it be something that you can’t pull or drag to where you need it,” she said.
If a tarp is not your speed, Estabrook recommended a lightweight, flexible tub for hauling debris, like Tubtrugs.
“It’s a nice kind of gel plastic tub that you can put waste in,” Estabrook said. “You can keep it next to you as you’re working. They come in multiple sizes and colors.”
Garden wagons are another option.
“Now they’re selling little wagons that you can use too, depending on how much stuff you’re going to haul around,” she said. “[For a raised bed], you wouldn’t need a very big wheelbarrow. One of those little garden wagons would work for a while.”