Beginner gardeners can often feel frustrated when they start to garden. Especially with the wrong tools it can feel like much harder work than it is. That plastic trowel makes planting almost impossible. The scissors you're using wont cut through that stem and are blunt. Your spade is missing its handle. If this sounds like you then my top 5 tools for beginner gardeners will help make that first step into the garden much easier and even fun!
Starting to garden as a beginner gardener can be a daunting process. You search the shed and find a rusty trowel maybe a wobbly handled spade that has seen better days. They may have even been left by the last owners, too ashamed to even take them with them. You have a go at using them to find they’re now bent or in a worse condition than when you started. It all feels like a lot of trouble and hard work. Don’t be put off fellow gardener help is at hand!
With the help of the trusty Gardening Twitter community, I asked what everyone thought where the essential beginner tools. There was plenty of lively debate. Here are my top 5 tools for the beginner gardener, in order of which to buy first and a rough idea of costs before you get the gardening bug. Let the discussions begin!
“You’re starting with a trowl?” established gardeners may cry. Surely you should start with a spade or a fork? Let’s not get all chicken and egg my friends. I would always start with a trowel for this simple reason; new gardeners in my experience want to get some quick wins under the belt first. The trowel, in my opinion, is the first tool you need for even the tiniest garden adventure. People don’t usually start off gardening in acres, they do so in pots, window boxes and small manageable borders.
A trowl will become your new best friend as you take on your first gardening journey. Small enough to store anywhere and with so many uses. Trowels are typically used to move soil for planting, smaller excavations, lifting compost or grit. They are multi-useful. Now you can go nuts and spend a small fortune on tools with beautiful waxed wooden handles, hand forged metal work and other lovelies. The alternative is to go cheap and cheerful. It’s your first investment during your tentative steps towards gardening so you decide!
What to look for in a trowel?
My best advice for the new gardener is to choose a metal steel or carbon steel headed trowel. Plastic trowls are completely useless anything other than light airy compost so don’t wast your money. I also used to prefer wooden handled tools but knowing how lazy I can be with cleaning them, I now opt for a rubberised handle instead. They have less chance of splitting warping or cracking when you inevitably drop them. Also beautifully waxed wooden handles soon become dusty and dirt covered.
Max spend: £5-£10 (discount stores often have some awesome cheap metal options)
Ok so now the majority of experienced gardeners can finally jump for joy! It’s time to take about spades, the weapon of choice for all gardeners. Spades are used for lifting more significant amounts of soil than say a trowel. They can dig, cut and excavate pretty much anything in the garden. They also make great leaning posts and to let others know that you’re a ‘real gardener’. Just position it around your garden for an instant Instagram worthy shot of you going all hashtag ‘Grow your own’ or ‘GYO’ for those in the know! Don’t forget though once the camera flash stops, you are going to need to actually garden. We will have no fakers here thanks!
I’ve been burnt a few times in the past when I was a new gardener with cheap spades. They’re lighter, leave more cash in your pocket and are a tempting offer for new gardeners awash with endorphins! Especially when packaged up with the matching fork and flowery gardening gloves. However, they will crack at the first sign of pressure, that tree root you didn’t see or those bricks left by the builders an inch under the soil. Then it either bends, cracks or worst case, the head snaps off. It’s a waste of money and time.
What to look for in a garden spade?
You’re going to want a spade that will last so again look for a spade a substantial metal once piece head. Something that doesn’t bend or look paper thin is a good starting point. It will spend its life being put under extreme pressure, a bit like Bear Grylls so you need something that can handle it.
If you have clay soil you’re certainly going to need something much more heavyweight, even maybe a drain spade for your digging. I use my drain spade when excavating horrendous clay or heavily compacted soil. At Chelsea flower show 2018 I pretty much used it non stop to get everything deeper than 5cm into the ground. You wouldn’t use it all the time just to break up the soil and improve it.
A good spade should be able to be sharpened which is why you don’t want a flimsy head. If it can be sharpened you can maintain it and extend its life. Also for slicing through turf and small roots, a sharp spade is essential.
I use my awesomely named ‘Golden Spade’ from Niwaki. It’s Japanese, is made in one piece, can be sharpened and is gold. It’s the Diana Ross of garden spades, it just keeps going and going whilst looking totally over the top at all times. It cost me £28 and has been worth every penny so far. I would definitely go and ‘feel’ some spades, check the weight size and comfort of them in a garden centre or shop. It’s a really personal thing but some spades will feel awkward and others just right. It’s a bit like choosing a wand in Harry Potter.
Max Spend: £35 Definitely goto a decent garden centre and always have a feel first. This is your investment piece.
Now secateurs can be another contentious tool, This is usually because everyone has their own prefered style of secateurs from the handle, material weight, length of the blade, cutting diameter and what not. Shrug that off, for now, it’s really not that important for new gardeners. What’s important is choosing the correct type of secateurs.
Anvil vs Bypass secateurs
The biggest mistake gardeners make is using the wrong type of secateurs to cut plant material. For new gardeners, I would advise that you simply avoid anvil secateurs. They are used for hard thicker woodier stems, dead plant material and very specific pruning. You may only use these infrequently if at all when you start. Anvils have a sharp blade that then presses into a plate. Like a knife pressing into a chopping block. See below these gorgeous Rolcut vintage anvil secateurs, yes once you start to garden tools become items you covet! They may not look it at first but these are gorgeously crafted!
If you use anvil secateurs on fleshy material it crushes and tears through them leaving you with battered plants. Prime for disease and plant necrosis (death of plant tissue). What new gardeners should look for is Bypass secateurs.
What to look for in secateurs
Bypass secateurs are far more multi-functional. They have a blade, usually mounted on a spring or coil system, that passes over another metal blade. They can be used for roughly 95% of all pruning and tidying in my experience. They can be sharpened, cleaned and maintained for years of use.
Now again I’m probably going to set the cat amongst the pigeons on this one. For a brand new gardener, I would actually recommend buying a relatively cheap pair to start with. This is because you may not use them consistently until your garden is more established. Also, the money you save would be better spent on a sharpening block or file to keep both the secateurs and your spade sharp! There’s no point having expensive tools if you’re going to use them until they are blunt. If you are totally confused by pruning why not check out my pruning guide on Youtube here.
Max Spend: £10 as a beginner but if serious then £40-£75 for a lifelong Japanese steel investment.
4. Kitchen Knife / Hori Hori
You wouldn’t believe just how useful an old kitchen knife can be in the garden. Whether it’s for opening the tops of bags of compost, digging out hideous tap-rooted perennial weeds or even marking out seed drills in an allotment, a knife is a must-have gardening tool!
Now there two options for this category of garden tool. The budget option is to grab an old knife from the kitchen. In which case, there’s little more to be said. Cheap cheerful and easy. The alternative is to go pro and buy a Japanese Hori Hori. I’ve discussed in detail why they are simply the best tool for garden maintenance in this previous post. The main difference is the width and strength of the blade. With a kitchen knife, you’re not going to want to exert too much pressure before it snaps. They’re not made for flexing in soil or dense roots; a hori-hori is.
With a hori-hori, it’s far stronger and can be used to clean out around roots and dig really deep in one motion to loosen compacted soil. However, it’s probably not the first thing a beginner gardener would want to invest it due to the cost and scary size of the blade! I’d say start with a kitchen knife and then if you’re finding it really useful, stick a Hori Hori on your Christmas wish list!
What to look for in a gardening knife
You’re going to need a knife that is robust and has a sharp blade, not serrated. The serrated blades cause far too much damage in my experience as a beginner gardener. Old non-serrated bladed breadknives can be useful. It doesn’t need to be sharp in fact if it is dull it’s probably better. You’re going to be using it to move small amounts of earth, dig out weeds and sever small roots. So it’s more the shape of the knife and blade that’s important rather than its sharpness. Safety first!
Max Spend: £2-£25 (A good hori-hori is around £25)
5. Kneeling Pad
Fancy kneeling on rocks, sitting on wet ground or trying to carry seedlings as they spill spoil all over you? Of course, you don’t and this is where the humble foam kneeling pad comes in. (I’ll explain about seedings a bit further down!)
Now I’m sometimes known for grand statements, I’m always the eternal optimist. A kneeling pad is the best value for money gardening tool you will ever buy. You will become lifelong best friends forever with this gloriously self-defacing item. Costing around £1 from a humble discount shop it will see you through years and years of rough unstable ground and screaming knees.
The kneeling pad is not just for kneeling on as you weed and plant. It can be used as a makeshift bum guard from wet ground as you have your lunch. I also use it as a mini tray for seedlings and carrying small light tools too. It also doubles up in my van as an anti-squeak device slotting in-between tools or padding out a gap between plants.
What to look for in a kneeling pad
Now there’s gel-filled options, pads ones with gorgeous flowery covers, endorsed by the RHS or Cath Kidson and the like. However, all that is a mere distraction and likely to bring heartache as it gets covered in mud. The humble foam version can be washed, abused and neglected. It never fails to provide its loving knee protection. Simply put: all you need is the most basic foam kneeling pad spend the rest of your cash on Gin and handwash.
Max Spend: £1-£2
What garden tools should I buy next?
So in trying to condense the top tools for a new gardener into just five tools, there are some close contenders that just missed out. Now I know some of you will be jumping and shouting for your favourite, but remember this top 5 list is the start, not the finish line! There’s room for every tool at this party.
6. Garden Fork
A garden fork is a quintessential tool for breaking up ground, unearthing spuds and working in organic matter to beds. The reason it missed the top 5 slots was that for beginner gardeners who may start on small plots or even container gardening, I deemed a spade to be sufficient, to begin with. Now before the backlash starts, if you’re going to be gardening and cultivating soil a fork will be essential. Trying to break up large amounts of soil with a spade alone is back breaking. However, if you’re blessed with loose crumbly soil or working with containers it’s probably not needed straight away.
The biggest issue with garden forks is bent teeth, usually from tree roots or heavy clay soil. If you start to work the ground with a fork and it becomes really difficult, stop and re-position the fork. Follow the same buying advice as the spade above and you can’t go wrong.
7. Sharpening block / Diamond file
If you’ve got some spare cash or are feeling flush the next must-have tool would be a sharpening block or diamond file. These beauties will last a lifetime and are used to help keep your tools nice and sharp. They work with spades, secateurs and knives alike. They take up hardly any room and will help reduce damage to plants and your garden by keeping your tools sharp!
So you’ve started to garden and things are growing, awesome! But then whats this? Weeds?! Inevitably weeds will appear in your garden from time to time and that’s where the trusty garden hoe comes in. If you don’t like the idea of being on your hands and knees to weed a hoe will take the pain out of this chore for sure!
I prefer an oscillating hoe which has a horseshoe-shaped head. The sharp blade cuts through the ground making quick work on annual weeds and does some minor soil cultivation to boot. They are expensive at £40 and cheaper dutch hoes may be more effective for your garden or budget. It just depends on the size and frequency with which you hoe. Grow your own gardens will require more hoeing in between rows than say an ornamental flower garden.
There we have it my top 5 tools for beginner gardeners. This list should help you on your journey into gardening and give you an idea of what you need to take those first steps into the happy world of horticulture. If you want to know more as a beginner gardener, why not check out my Youtube channel?
Many thanks to everyone on Twitter who engaged in the lively debate. Please leave your comments and feedback below or why not get in touch on Social Media Tweet, Facebook or Instagram me! I’d love to hear from you.