Which are the most useful garden tools? You’ll be surprised….
If you choose the most useful garden tools, you won’t waste money on tools you rarely use.
And storing your tools will be easier. Space is tight in today’s homes, and many people don’t have room for a whole garden shed just devoted to tools.
So I asked Dan Cooper of Dan Cooper Garden to pick out the absolutely essential garden tools for a small or middle-sized garden.
Dan’s been gardening for forty years. He has a small courtyard garden (featured in How to Group Pots), plus an allotment. So he knows what’s most useful in typical town or city gardens.
When he chooses tools for his Dan Cooper Garden website, he only picks the ones he uses himself, so I asked him for tips on choosing the best tools, too.
And I was quite surprised by the list and the order he chose.
Note: These recommendations are not brand-specific and will help you buy garden tools wherever you are shopping. If you want Dan’s favourite brands, they’re available from Dan Cooper Garden (some are linked below). I have also mentioned brands I use regularly. Some of these available through Amazon links, which are affiliate, see disclosure.
The Most Useful Garden Tools (in order of usefulness!)
Read more about choosing them below.
- A hand trowel.
- Gardening gloves
- Dustpan and brush
- A really good bucket
- A strimmer or lawn mower, depending on size of garden
- A spade
- A hand fork
- A weeding tool
- Pruning saw
- Knee pads or kneeler
- A hose pipe or watering can
- A wheelbarrow or flexible trug
The Most Useful Garden Tool of All…
A hand trowel is Dan’s number one in his list of ‘most useful garden tools.’
‘A trowel is a good all-round tool. You can use it for planting, weeding, getting compost out of bags and all sorts of jobs.’
He advises you to avoid painted trowels, because the paint will flake off and you won’t necessarily know whether the metal is rust-proof underneath.
‘And make sure it’s got a nice sharp edge for cutting through soil,’ says Dan. ‘Especially if you’re gardening on heavy soil.’
‘If you want to avoid rust, you can buy copper trowels.’ Copper doesn’t rust and soil sticks to copper less. It’s also easier to sharpen, so it goes through the earth more easily.
However, Dan says that if you hit a really hard stone, copper is not quite as strong as a steel trowel.
Next – a garden tool that cuts…
I thought that Dan’s next choice would be a matching hand fork, but he says that a pair of secateurs (also known as pruning shears) are more important.
‘You want something that cuts. You’ll be dead-heading, doing a bit of light pruning or trimming things to make them a bit neater.’
It’s really essential to try a pair of secateurs out in your hand, says Dan. ‘Because everyone’s grip is different.’ Make sure that the cutting action works well for you.
Secateurs also need a good lock, so you can close them easily without the risk of them snapping open.
Dan’s choice: Niwaki Mainichi secateurs.
I love the Niwaki brand and also use Felco secateurs, which have lasted well for many years.
Gardening gloves are one of your most useful garden tools
While Dan admits that some people prefer to garden without gloves, he says that ‘gardening gloves are my number 3 most useful garden tool for lots of reasons.’
Once again, trying them on in person is essential. Some gardening gloves are uncomfortable to wear.
‘If you’re just doing some lightweight garden work, such as dead-heading, digging or moving a few pots around, then Dan recommends lightweight nitrile gloves which are almost like a second skin. He loves Niwaki gloves and I also use Showa.
For tough work, especially in the wet, Dan recommends leather gloves with a waterproof lining. Make sure you try them on, and can comfortably make a fist with them. ‘Gloves that are too stiff don’t get any better with wear,’ he warns.
Dan’s favourite: Gold Leaf Tough Touch Gardening Gloves.
The dustpan and brush – a surprising entry for smaller gardens!
Dan points out that whenever we do anything in the garden, such as re-potting or even weeding, we’ll get soil and other detritus on the pavers, terrace or patio.
In gardens of the past, there would have been some kind of dedicated work area. You’d have done your potting up out of sight, so sweeping up might not have been so important.
But in today’s smaller homes and gardens, many gardens don’t even have a potting shed. Dan’s own courtyard garden is about 30ftx20ft, mainly paved. He does have a garage where some of the dirty work can be done, but he says he is always sweeping up after himself.
In a larger garden, a yard brush or garden broom is essential. But if your garden is small then an outside version of a dustpan and brush is something you’ll use often.
Look for a sturdy brush with a good bristle. An outdoor dustpan and brush should be a bit larger than the ones you use indoors. Dan’s favourite Redecker outdoor dustpan has a painted finish, and he also likes the Redecker brush.
My garden is larger than Dan’s, so I need an outdoor garden broom (although I also use a dustpan and brush to finish the clearing at the end.) Go for an outdoor broom that’s bigger than the indoor ones, and also it should have really strong stiff bristle brushes.
A really good bucket!
You need a bucket for transporting small amounts of compost, collecting weeds after weeding and a number of other jobs.
Dan recommends getting a galvanised bucket from hardware shops, where they tend to be cheaper than in fancier garden stores.
An example is this heavy duty galvanised bucket from Amazon. (Heavy duty means hard-wearing rather than heavy, although Dan says the metal is a little heavier than plastic buckets).
A strimmer or a lawn-mower
In a small garden, you may not need a lawn-mower. A strimmer will cut longer grass, help chop up leaves and may be more useful.
However, if you have anything larger than a very small patch of lawn, you will need a lawn mower as a strimmer takes longer to cut grass. And it doesn’t leave as neat a finish.
Dan says this is one of the most useful garden tools, and is more useful than the full-size garden fork. You can plant larger things like shrubs, dig trenches to plant potatoes or bulbs and dig up plants to move them.
Once again, check you’re comfortable with the weight and feel of a spade before buying it. Some spades are too heavy. Also look for sharp edges at the digging end.
Dan’s favourite: the Sukoppu lightweight ‘gold’ spade, which cuts through soil sharply.
A hand fork
‘If you don’t go for the big border fork, then a hand fork is certainly one of the most useful garden tools’, says Dan. Look for sharp tines and a comfortable handle.
Sharp tines are important because they are the pointed ‘fingers’ that dig into the soil. They’ll dig in better if they’re sharp, especially on heavy soils.
A weeding tool
Dan says that which weeding tools you like is a matter of personal preference. He likes a claw cultivator, which is like a bent hand fork. As well as weeding, it can also be used for preparing the top of the soil for seeds, raking and generally clearing up.
I like this dandelion weeder tool because it goes straight down into the earth without disturbing the plants around it. And we both like hand hoes.
Dan’s other favourite is a Signature Hand Hoe, because it’s compact enough to go between plants without disturbing them.
If you’re on a tight budget you can deadhead with scissors or secateurs, says Dan. But snips make dead-heading super-quick and easy. They have sharp pointed tips that can get into groups of flower-heads.
Dan’s favourite are the Niwaki snips. And I’ve used Darlac snips for many years and love them. They were recommended to me by Frances Moskovits in How to Make a Herbaceous Border Look Amazing. She keeps a few pairs of snips in handy places, such as the greenhouse and by the back door. So she can dead-head several times a day!
One of the most useful garden tools, ‘even in a small garden’, says Dan. ‘Secateurs cut up to 1.5cm but you need a pruning saw for larger stems and small branches.’ A pruning saw should have a narrow, slightly angled blade, so that it can get into awkward spaces when pruning shrubs.
Make sure it folds and locks so you can handle and store it without being cut by an exposed blade. Dan’s favourite is the Niwaki Folding Pruning Saw.
If you have any kind of hedging or topiary, you’ll need shears. That can include any shrub that is cut evenly all over (rather than having individual stems cut out), such as lavender.
Look for sharp blades and long handles. If you’ve got a lot of hedging, you’ll probably want an electric hedge trimmer.
Knee pads or a kneeler
Dan says he often just kneels on an old compost sack when he’s gardening. It’s free and will keep your trousers dry.
But you get better protection for your knees from a kneeler or knee pads.
The advantage of knee pads over a kneeler is you strap knee pads on, and they stay there until you take them off. I find that I often leave the kneeler out in the garden, where it gets sodden.
I use Burgon & Ball’s Kneelo Knee Pads, and I spotted exactly the same brand on Dan’s table.
A hose pipe or watering can
In a small garden, you probably only need a watering can or cans. Dan often buys second-hand or vintage watering cans. But he advises you to make sure they are water-tight first. ‘Get the seller to fill the can with water, then leave it for about 10 minutes to see if it leaks.
The search for a truly kink-free hose continues. I have had both Hozelock and Gardena hoses, and they have been good, but do kink more after about five years. I’ve found that expandable hoses, such as this Hozelock version, work well in smaller gardens or for watering pots on a terrace or patio, and they don’t kink. However, they don’t seem to go far in a larger garden.
A wheelbarrow or flexible trug
You may not need a wheelbarrow in a small garden and it’s a large item to store. Dan suggests that neighbours could share larger items like a wheelbarrow. Or you move compost, weeds etc with a flexible trug.
We definitely need a wheelbarrow in the Middlesized Garden (Dan says make sure it has a good well-inflated tyre on it.) However, we do get more use out of the two flexible trugs we also have. Our 120 litre Fatboy wheelbarrow came from Wheelbarrows Direct. We’ve found it excellent.
See Dan demonstrate the tools on video
Dan talks more about why he’s suggested each tool in the video:
Essential tools list for middle-sized gardens
If you’re dealing with larger spaces, such as my garden, which is 100ft long and 80ft wide at its widest, the list of essential tools is very similar. I wrote this post on what gardening tools you need six years ago, and the tools I mentioned in it are all still working.
Pin to remember the most useful garden tools
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