Carol Michel is a freelance writer with a degree in horticulture. She blogs about gardening regularly at

This article applies to:



Tool Time
by Carol Michel       #Tools

The Best Tools for the Vegetable Gardener

What tools are the ‘must haves’ for the serious gardener? Which tools might make good holiday gifts? Here are a few recommendations.

Illustrations from the book “The Vegetable Garden” by Ida Dandridge Bennett show how a wheel hoe was used in a large garden in the early 1900s.

In her 1909 book, “The Vegetable Garden,” Ida Dandridge Bennett of Coldwater, Mich., wrote, “…if the amateur gardener tries to get along with a hoe, a rake and a spade, he is sure to have long, tedious hours of hard work.” She also wrote that the hoe would be used most in a season and specifically promoted the use of a wheel hoe with several attachments, including “ploughs, rakes, cultivator-teeth, flat-hoes and seed sowers.” She claimed that with just her wheel hoe and its attachments, she could keep a three-quarter-acre vegetable garden in good shape all summer long.

Today, few gardeners know what a wheel hoe is and might not recognize one if they did see it in an antique store. Plus most gardeners do not have as large a vegetable garden as Bennett tended. Many of us choose to grow our vegetables in small raised beds which don’t require long, tedious hours of work or a wheel hoe with all its attachments to tend to them. We might still use a hoe, a rake and spade for initially preparing the vegetable garden for planting, but beyond that we often take care of the garden through the season with just a few good tools.


Hand Digging Hoes

A hand digging hoe and a good trowel are two basic tools for tending raised bed gardens.

If you look in my garden tool box, you’ll find a well-used hand digging hoe, often called a Dutch hand hoe or a Japanese hand digging hoe. It is sharp and I keep it sharp through the season by filing it with a regular file every few times that I use it. I primarily use it for weeding the raised beds, cutting the weeds off at or just below ground level, then gathering them up and dumping them in a nearby compost bin. One source for these hand digging hoes is Garden Tool Company, Ft. Collins, Colorado,, 1-800-830-4019. The hoe head is angled, so there is a right-handed version and a left-handed version.



I also keep a trowel ready for planting tomatoes, peppers, eggplants and other vegetables that aren’t generally started from seed sown directly in the garden. Finding a trowel that I love to use took a few years and some trial and error. In the process, I found out that cheap trowels often bend or break and are uncomfortable to use. I eventually found a trowel with a wooden handle that works well for me. Like many gardeners who have searched for years to find the perfect trowel, I keep a close eye on mine and rarely let others borrow it. There are many sources for good trowels, including garden centers that carry better tools.


Sharp Pruners, Knives, Gloves

My tool box also contains pruners and a sharp knife for harvesting those vegetables that aren’t easily pulled out of the ground or off the vine, a well-fitting pair of gardening gloves for weeding and a roll of green plastic plant tie ribbon to tie up my tomatoes. All of these are available at most garden stores.


Digging forks come in several sizes and are useful for digging up root crops, loosening the soil and turning compost.

Digging Fork

For some of the harder work of the garden, in addition to a hoe, a rake and a spade, I also have a digging fork. A fork is often better than a spade for breaking up the ground and is also a good tool for turning compost, if you choose to do that. Strictly speaking, turning compost over or mixing it up occasionally isn’t essential but it does speed up the composting process. Digging forks are also available at most garden centers.


Terrific Trug

A trug is ideal for carrying the harvest from the garden to the kitchen.

Once you have vegetables to harvest, you need a good basket for carrying the harvest from the garden to the kitchen. My favorite basket for this is actually a long shallow basket called a trug. The trug design lets you carry a lot of produce without worrying that the vegetables at the bottom are being crushed by the weight of those on top. Trugs were originally made from strips of curved wood, but my favorite trug for carrying my harvest is a plastic trug from The Walt Knicke Company, 978-887-3388, It’s easy to wash out between harvests.

I’m not sure what Ida Dandridge Bennett would think of my garden tool recommendations, which don’t include a wheel hoe and all of its attachments. I like to think that she would approve of the idea that a gardener can tend a small vegetable garden with a few well-made tools and in the process, harvest trugs full of vegetables — enough vegetables to eat right away, preserve for a winter’s day and share with others.


Make Them Last

How to care for garden tools that can be handed down to the next generation of gardeners:

Buy the best tools you can afford.

Clean them after every use.

Store them in a dry location.

Sharpen edges before they become dull.


(From State-by-State Gardening November/December 2011. Photos courtesy of Carol Michel.)



Posted: 12/21/11   RSS | Print


Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter            

Other People Are Reading