Want to get into gardening? Here are the essential tools you’ll need to get started.

A large selection of gardening tools on display at City Farmers Nursery in San Diego.
Talking with nursery staff can help them determine what your garden goals are and what kind of soil you’re working with, which can make a difference in the type of tools you buy. Here, a large selection is on display at City Farmers Nursery in San Diego’s City Heights neighborhood.
(Eduardo Contreras / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

If you’ve ever bought or rented a house, you remember the first one, especially if you were acquiring your first garden as an adult. If the garden is already established and you love it, what do you need to maintain it? If there’s just the space but garden potential, what do you need to get started?

For Erin and Jacob Wood, it’s the latter question. The couple, who had been living in a small apartment in Pacific Beach, just bought their first home at the end of May in Tierrasanta.

Their new backyard isn’t big, but it has three distinct areas with enough space for them to get creative, with one area already elevated to establish a raised bed for the tomatoes and cucumbers they want to plant. Erin also wants herbs, while Jacob’s thinking of fruit trees. And they need room for their chocolate Lab puppy, Daisy, to play.

Now their question is, what tools do they need to start planting and then maintaining this new environment?

“We’ve got some hand-me-downs,” Jacob said. “That’s what started our outdoor tool portfolio. We’ve got a shovel with a pointy end and a pair of little clippers I use to cut flowers, and one of those three-prong things that scratch the dirt. And this tool that’s like a metal hook about 10 inches long with a point. I guess it has to do with removing weeds. Oh, and we have gardening gloves, but I got the cheapest ones.”

Beautiful plants for sale at City Farmers Nursery.
The knowledge base at independent local nurseries can be invaluable, area garden experts agree. At family-owned City Farmers Nursery, staff members work with customers to help them find the best tool for the job, according to operator Sam Tall.
(Eduardo Contreras / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Jacob’s other question is how to select the tools he knows he needs to invest in when there are so many choices.

“When can I just buy, like, the $6 version and when should I buy the $40 version?” he wants to know. “Because there’s always such a big array. I know probably the expensive version will last longer — at least that’s what I’m guessing — but I don’t know if it performs better.”

When her restaurant clients shut down, Farm to Fork San Diego founder Trish Watlington cultivated new customers — and gardeners

Aug. 29, 2020

Trish Watlington has lots of experience with gardens, dating back decades to when she and her husband, Tom, bought a home on 32 acres in Maryland with a barn, an orchard, woods and sheep. When they moved to Indiana, they had a huge garden that fed the couple and their young son. Today, Watlington, who used to own The Red Door restaurant in Mission Hills, operates Two Forks Farm on a third of an acre in Mount Helix and works with area restaurants and independent chefs.

“Our first garden tools were the basics: shovels, rakes — both leaf and metal — hoes, trowels, and loads of baskets,” she recalled. Back in the day, she bought well-made tools at farm sales and estate auctions.

A large variety of garden hand tools for sale at City Farmers Nursery.
A trowel made out of aluminum resists rust, and a bright ergonomic handle is easy on the user and keeps it from getting lost in the garden.
(Eduardo Contreras / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

She has a list of tools that she can’t live without. Because she’s a small person, she finds a short-handled, narrow spade more useful than a big shovel. She’s a huge fan of the hula hoe, a miraculous weeding device that, as she said, “makes speedy work of weeds.” She has both a hand-held hula hoe for her raised beds and a long-handled one. The tool’s head shape is an open metal square that’s sharp. When you pull it through the ground under a patch of small weeds, it lops off the taproot so the weeds won’t reproduce.

Watlington also said that if you’re going to plant any trees, you need a cross-cut saw and loppers. For flowers, shrubs and vegetables, you’ll need pruning shears. Her favorites are grape pruners — pointy with small handles.

at the counter ready to help, a smiling Sam Tall at City Farmers Nursery
Sam Tall is known as the go-to guy at City Farmers Nursery for advice on selecting garden tools. “The first thing to do is bring in a handful of soil to a nursery — not a garden center — and photos of the space you’re working on,” he said. “A nursery can run a soil test to let you know what your soil is like and how to amend it so the right tool can be selected.”
(Eduardo Contreras / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

“They’re inexpensive, you can sharpen them, and they’re great for precision work and delicate vegetable plants,” she explained.

She also always has a cheap serrated knife in the garden for tasks that range from harvesting squash to cutting string. And a 1- or 2-gallon pump sprayer, which she described as a godsend.

“It makes speedy work of any spraying job, from foliar spraying to organic pesticide application.”

Sam Tall runs the family-owned City Farmers Nursery in City Heights. He fields garden tool questions constantly. And, like those who own other independent nurseries, he and his staff enjoy guiding customers toward the best tool for their situation. His approach is to take a step back and first determine what you’re working with and what you want to do in your garden.

“The first thing to do is bring in a handful of soil to a nursery — not a garden center — and photos of the space you’re working on,” he said. “A nursery can run a soil test to let you know what your soil is like and how to amend it so the right tool can be selected. Maybe you have sandy soil if you’re in a valley area. Or if you’re on a hillside, there will be more rocks to deal with. That makes a difference in even the type of shovel you buy.”

Propagation supplies on display at City Farmers Nursery.
Propagation supplies line shelves at City Farmers Nursery.
(Eduardo Contreras / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

As for shovels, most people will want the round point shovel for digging, not the square, which he said is more for scooping materials off a truck bed or doing a cleanup. And, Tall advised, look for those that have a step on it, so you won’t hurt your foot when you push the shovel into the ground. He prefers wooden handles.

“Metal handles will bend, and they’re really heavy. Fiber handles don’t have really good leverage,” he explained. “And if you’re trying to work rocky soil and your shovel handle breaks, is it a wooden one that can be replaced or one fused to the head of the shovel, which requires you to buy a new shovel?”

Do you think you need a hoe? Tall thinks a shovel will take the place of a hoe. He likened it to the Swiss Army knife of tools, pointing out that most hoes only go about 4 inches deep. With a shovel, you can get about a foot deep.

Like Watlington, Tall is a big fan of hula hoes.

“They come into heavy play right after our first rains occur.,” he said. “You’re going to get a bunch of seeds that are growing. When the weeds get to about 2 inches, you grab the hula hoe and you knock them down.”

Vintage tools on display at City Farmers Nursery.
Vintage tools are on display at City Farmers Nursery in City Heights, which also has plenty of new tools and staff that can help guide shoppers to their best fit.
(Eduardo Contreras/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Tall also recommends an adjustable rake. It can expand to about a foot and a half wide to rake large swaths of leaves and shrink to about 6 inches wide to enable you to get around plant materials in tight spaces. Plus, it doesn’t take up as much storage space. As for hard rakes, he said they’re more for specific projects, like smoothing out an area. The leaf rakes are more versatile.

Then there are the smaller hand tools, like trowels of different widths that help with planting in pots or digging holes in loose soil for small plants (look for one-piece aluminum, which won’t rust, with a bright ergonomic handle so you won’t lose it in the garden); a harvesting knife (like Watlington’s serrated knife); bypass pruners, which have crescent blades that will catch what you’re cutting (Tall recommends the Corona brand); and a pick mattock — a double-sided pickax hoe that can be used for everything from weeding and transplanting plants to breaking up compacted soil.

A hula hoe, adjustable steel rake, bypass lopper pruner and shovel.
Recommended large hand tools shown at City Farmers Nursery include (from left) a hula hoe, an adjustable rake, a bypass pruner/lopper and a wood-handled shovel.
(Eduardo Contreras / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

When it comes to hand watering, yes, a good watering can is always useful, but instead of buying a small nozzle for your hose, get a watering wand. They’re not just useful for watering hanging plants, but for easy access to the soil of plants in pots and the ground, instead of watering the plant’s leaves and perhaps encouraging mildew.

Speaking of watering, Tall is an advocate of using thick-walled terra-cotta ollas, vessels that you plant in the ground, leaving the top about an inch above ground, and fill with water to gradually distribute moisture to roots. He also doesn’t think sticking your finger in the soil is adequate for judging if watering is required. Instead, get a moisture meter.

“It’s about gravity,” he said. “The top inch may be dry, but water is going to be forced down by gravity and it’s hard to get your finger that far down. Put the meter in where the root ball is. Typically, there’s not a battery for moisture meters. They work off of the electrical charge in the soil. It’s a $10 investment and if you’re investing quite a bit into plant material, remember that 90 percent of plants that fail are due to water issues.”

A garden trowel, tie tape, harvesting blade, maddock and pruner.
Small hand tools recommended by Sam Tall of City Farmers Nursery and Trish Watlington of Two Forks Farm include (from left) a trowel, tie tape, a harvesting knife, a pick mattock and a pruner.
(Eduardo Contreras / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

You can easily go down a rabbit hole with cool tools, but before you invest in them, Watlington said, “start by growing what you love and find out what grows well in your area. The ‘Sunset Western Garden Book’ is an excellent resource. Read seed packets. They have a wealth of information from how and when to plant to how long something will take to grow. And plan before you plant. Install irrigation before you plant. Use the best soil, compost and mulch you can afford.”

Then let your local nursery experts guide you to the best tools you’ll need, that fit your hands and height, and your budget.

The essentials for garden novices

Large tools
• Round-point shovel with replaceable wood handle
• Adjustable rake
• Long handle hula hoe (and short handle if you have raised beds)
• Loppers
• Crosscut saw for trees

Tool extras in a mixing bin: pressure sprayer, clay pot irrigation, rain wand, ph soil tester, and soil moisture tester.
Other good items for gardeners (from left): a pressure sprayer, a terra-cotta olla, a watering wand, soil pH tester and soil moisture meter. All are gathered in a mixing bin.
(Eduardo Contreras / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Small/hand tools
• Trowels
• Pick mattock
• Harvesting knife
• Bypass and grape and/or floral pruning shears

A giant sunflower on display at a nursery.
A giant sunflower serves as color garden inspiration at City Farmers Nursery.
(Eduardo Contreras / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

• 5-gallon bucket
• Collapsible yard garden bag (if you have a lot of leaves or other debris to collect)
• Thick terra-cotta ollas
• Watering can with removable spray spout
• Heavy-duty hose that won’t kink (Gilmore is Tall’s preferred brand, and it has a lifetime warranty)
• Watering wand
• Moisture meter
• Garden gloves (long suede or leather if you’re pruning roses or other thorned plants)
• 1- or 2-gallon pump sprayer
• Metal file to sharpen tools like pruning shears
• Tabletop portable potting tray
• Stakes and trellises and garden tape to tie the plants to them

Golden is a San Diego freelance writer and blogger.