The most important garden hand tools are those used to cultivate the soil such as the spade and fork. Careful selection is important with these two tools, especially their size, weight and balance. When choosing a garden spade and fork, pick them up and go through the motions of digging with these tools to ensure they feel comfortable to use.
There many designs of spades available in either stainless steel or forged steel. Stainless steel is the best choice (although the most expensive) as it will cut through the soil more readily, is easy to keep clean and should not go rusty. An important feature to consider is the comfort of the handle, many handles are now made from plastic and moulded to fit the hand. Some also have shafts made from alloys to combine strength with lightness. Female gardeners especially will appreciate the smaller and lighter types of spade. These are normally termed 'border tools' and have much smaller working heads. They are ideal for working between plants in the borders and are equally efficient at ordinary digging tasks.
As for spades, forks also come in many designs and sizes, available in both stainless steel or forged steel. The most important part of a fork is the strength and rigidity of the tines (or prongs). If you buy a low quality fork, forged from thin mild steel for example, you may find that the tines will just bend and twist the first time you use it, rendering it almost useless for the task, except for very light forking over of light soils. Therefore it is worth spending just that little bit extra on a good quality garden fork, which should last a lifetime if used correctly.
The rake is other important basic tools, and quite a versatile piece of equipment when used for breaking down the soil ready for sowing and planting. It can also be used on its edge for forming seed drills. After sowing, the rake is then used to pull back the soil to cover the seeds. The more teeth a rake has, the finer the tilth or surface it can produce. Ideally a minimum 30 cm (1 ft) wide rake with at least 12 teeth should be selected.
Some special rake designs have many more teeth than this and the head can span a metre wide (39 in). Other rakes have a wide head and thin tines, that are excellent for the lawn for their big sweep will quickly remove fallen leaves, mowings, general thatch or debris.
Hoes come in all shapes and sizes and their selection will depend on what job they have to do, for example hoeing weeds in the borders or for earthing up work. It can also be used on its edge create seed drills.
Hoes are a key tool for weed control and surface tilling to prevent the surface becoming hard or panned. The best type of hoe for this work is the Dutch hoes. Some special designs have a two-edged blade so that, with a push-pull action, they can deal with weeds very quickly and efficiently. Others incorporate small side-guards on the blade to prevent damage to plants in the row, which is especially useful where the hoe has to be used between closely-spaced rows.
Soil cultivators have a number of curved prongs or teeth, which can be pulled through the soil to keep the top inch or so nice and friable. They are excellent for working in top-dressings along plant rows. Some designs can have extra tines that can be attached the head, to give variations in working widths.
A very useful tool if you have a large garden, where a considerable amount of carrying about is necessary. The humble wheelbarrow can be a vital piece of equipment, enabling you to quickly transport bags of compost, soil, sand, gravel, paving slabs and another other heavy or bulky materials.
Strength is important and wheelbarrows are usually manufactured from steel or rigid plastic. A capacity of about 3 cu. ft. is generally adequate for most gardens but barrows of larger capacity can be purchased.
An alternative piece of carrying equipment is the two-wheel truck, or sack truck, also handy for the transportation of heavy materials, bags compost, etc. Many designs are folding so can be carried in the car to collect heavy items from shops and garden centres. Other designs can be quickly converted to a hose reel carrier or can have a large-capacity plastic bag attached, so that weeds can be put in as the gardener works around the borders.
Pruning tools will be required and a good pair of secateurs is a sound investment. Many different types are available and the capacity required (i.e. the size of cut) will depend on the average type of growth which will need cutting. A general-purpose design will be adequate for most garden usage. However it may be a good idea to purchase two pruners - a heavy-duty model, such as loppers for the really tough wood and a pair general-purpose secateurs for pruning roses and small shrubs.
An augmentation to loppers is a pruning saw, of which there are many types and sizes.
A garden line is essential when setting out rows of plants or seed drills. An all-plastic design with reel is durable and easy to use.
Regular watering is vital if plants are to grow well both indoors and outside. Most modern plastic watering cans are suitable for general watering tasks. Choose a size that you will feel comfortable carrying when full. Also choose a selection of heads, a fine rose is necessary for watering seedlings and a larger rose for general work.
If you own a greenhouse and/or have a large number of hanging baskets and containers you may have a problem at holiday times unless an obliging neighbour is available to water for you.
The use of a capillary mat watering system is very useful for the greenhouse owner. It is a relatively cheap form of automation and thoroughly reliable. Comprising of a special absorbent mat that can be laid on the staging and kept constantly moist via a water trough, water level controller or mains water tank with a ball valve and float system. Pot plants stood on this damp mat automatically take up their own individual water requirements and can be kept watered for long periods without attention.
In the garden an efficient sprinkler system or seepage hose will be adequate for most requirements. This can range from a simple rotating sprinkler with adjustable nozzles or more sophisticated models with oscillating action and setting controls to regulate the throw of the water. Strong reinforced hose piped should be used, which it must be kept in good condition and neatly stored-away on a hose reel. Automatic water valves can be attached to garden taps and set to water the garden at set times, ideally at night when the moisture won't evaporate quickly in the suns heat.
Sprayers are a must for the efficient control of pests and diseases in the garden. For small gardens and in confined areas such as a glasshouse, the 1 pint capacity hand sprayer is quite adequate. Larger areas need bigger sprayers and a 2 litre capacity sprayer is a wise choice. There are pressurized designs that reduce effort, requiring a few initial priming pumps, where sufficient strong pressure is built up to provide several minutes of useful spraying. Battery-operated sprayers are also available to reduce time and effort still further. Long-reach lance attachments are handy to get right into trees and shrubs.