Sep 152020

Written and Photographed by Mary Plantwalker


Try cooking a meal without a sharp knife and a clean cutting board, or riding a bike with a flat tire, or playing the fiddle with an unrosined bow—doing so would really defeat the purpose and make these acts of joy unenjoyable! Similarly, attempting to garden without the right tools is a set-up for struggle and frustration. In this article, you’ll get acquainted with the essential gardening tools that can do what your hands alone cannot (cut through wood, carry water, haul large loads, dig through rocky soil). You’ll also find links to some of the businesses that sell these tools, and learn how to use and care for them properly.

The Right Tool for the Job

Many of these are multipurpose gardening tools, but I have given them specific “Division of Labor” categories as you may want to zero in on where you currently need the most support in your garden. Quality tools are not cheap—it really is a waste of time and money to buy cheap tools, not to mention adding to the landfill. If you are just starting out, assess what you need most, so you can buy slowly and wisely. Think long-term.


Best Gardening Tools for Hauling

Garden Cart

Some might prefer a wheelbarrow for more narrow areas, but for the steadiness and spaciousness, I prefer using a garden cart most every time. We got ours from the Vermont Carts store 25 years ago and we still use it daily for all kinds of hauling. Our cart may be found packed with weeds, headed up to feed the chickens, full of perennials with a bucket of compost and a shovel en route to be planted, or loaded down with wood chips to mulch a garden bed. We transport rocks around in it for landscaping and use it all winter long to bring firewood into our house. We’ve had to replace some nuts and bolts over the years, but other than that, our garden cart is still in great shape, as we make sure to store it under shelter and keep it empty when not in use. Be sure to sweep your cart occasionally so dirt does not rot the wood. One piece of advice I wish someone would have told us way back: spend a little more and get the semi-pneumatic wheels as they are more durable, will last much longer, and save you time and money in the end.


Beloved gardening tools

Some beloved tools: the gardening cart, 5-gallon bucket, pruners, and tool pack.


5-Gallon Buckets

My theatrical earthy friends once put on a play called “The 5-Gallon Bucket Brigade” that was a spoof on how reliant we gardeners have become on the 5-gallon bucket. Really, what did folks do before these were invented?! If I am about to plant a tree, I use it to hold the dirt I’m digging out, then pour back into the hole to fill around the tree once planted, or I steep comfrey leaves in the big bucket to make compost tea. I use my bucket to carry a freshly dug plant to be transplanted in another part of the garden and then fill it with water to bring to the plants. Harvests of root medicines are placed in it before processing. Cut flowers rest there in a tiny bit of water before they are turned into bouquets. It holds the winter rye seed so that we can sow the seed by hand. I could write a novel about the life a 5-gallon bucket experiences on this land! Also mighty useful to have around are 3-gallon and 1-gallon buckets. These days you can buy them new at hardware stores, but reusing or repurposing them is more environmentally sound. Check cafes, restaurants, and bakeries for used food-grade buckets they may be discarding. Do not stack when wet, or you may not be able to pry them apart!


Easy to handle, hardly takes up any room, back saver, weed killer—all this and more describes the terrific tarp! Skip the garden cart and wheelbarrow and go straight to the tarp if you have autumn leaves to move, or long-dead stems and/or fallen branches, or a big pile of hay mulch. And if there are some gnarly weeds you want to knock back in a small area, lay your tarp down over them for a while and watch them suffocate. Dry your tarps out between uses so they don’t become musty.


woman wearing toolbelt in the garden

Find the best tool belt or pack for your body. Carrying some tools on your person allows for spontaneous gardening! I always carry a pocket knife, phone, pruners, and surveyors tape in this pack.

Tool Belt

This is a personal preference kind of thing, but the main point here is—have some kind of way to haul small tools on your person. I’ve tried different tool belts, but because my hips are narrow and bony, all of them irritate me. Then I carried a bag around for a few years with my hand tools in it, but I often would leave the bag in a pile of weeds only to remember I had left it there once I had moved on to a new project! Mindfulness is a good practice here, but if you don’t want to walk back and forth more than you have to, having something attached to your body is the best way to go. Eventually for me, I found that a custom-made fanny pack was my best bet. I hardly go anywhere outside without it, as it has my pruners, pocket knife, herbal offerings, and either a pen/notepad or my phone. You never know when you might need to tend to some plant or bring in a bouquet, or make notes about things that need to be done, or take a photo of a praying mantis shedding its skin. I hang my tool pack by the front door so it is always in the same place and I can grab it easily when I go out to the garden. My friend Wheeler Munroe handcrafts leather tool belts in North Carolina that are both stunning and sturdy!


gardening baskets

Baskets of all sizes and shapes come in handy—from seed saving to planting to harvesting!

Peach Baskets

We call them peach baskets because I was born in Georgia and raised in South Carolina, but really what I’m talking about are 16-quart wood-slat baskets. These haul in the harvest. They hold the produce until we eat or process it. They get filled with cut flowers to make into bouquets. We fill them with small containers to walk around and collect seeds. Every peach basket we have was either a gift or from the purchase of peaches, tomatoes, or some other delicious produce, and we just stockpiled them over the years and use them literally until they wear through, which takes a long time! Do air dry them between uses so they don’t get moldy! The smaller sizes are great, too!


Best Gardening Tools for Planting

Digging Fork

Using a digging fork is my preferred method for turning beds instead of a rototiller. Some prefer starting with broadforks, but I am petite and find them too large to wield the way I can a digging fork. (Read up about broadforks or borrow one if possible because this may become one of your favorite tools. Valley Oak makes top-quality ones.) Usually, I sheet mulch and let biomass and time do the work, but if I want a place to plant sooner rather than later, I use a digging fork. With its flat, sturdy tines, I lift the soil and the roots of grass or weeds, turn them over, and then let them sit a bit before coming back to shake out and remove the weeds/grass, which frees up the soil for planting seeds or transplants. The digging fork also doubles as a great harvesting tool for edible or medicinal roots.


Woman holding hori hori gardening tool

The hori hori. Let your tools be an extension of you!

Hori Hori

I’ve used this tool for so long I forget that not everyone knows what a hori hori is—that it’s just not a common household word! I will be talking gardening with a friend, and of course the hori hori comes into the conversation, and then I remember to use the terms weeding knife or trowel. For light digging, this is my favorite tool. It also suffices as my favorite transplanter and sod cutter. Make sure to clean it before putting it back in its case, and it will last decades! You might be able to find a hori hori at a local garden supply store, or you can easily purchase one online, such as here and here.


woman with transplanting shovel

Tibetan Gentian about to enter the ground with a transplanting shovel.


Well, I even have an opinion about the common shovel! Choose one with a plastic, metal, or fiberglass handle as the wooden-handled ones eventually wear and give splinters! Not only that, the wood rots! That is a poor trade for all the hard work you do digging. It is helpful to have different types of shovels too, like transplanting and square-headed ones.


planting a red maple tree

Planting a red maple in the mulch. Fiberglass-handled shovels are more comfortable to use.



Hey ho, the mighty pitchfork! Not to be confused with a digging fork, the pitchfork has long, rounded tines that curve and usually come in threes, fours, and fives. In our experience, the three-tined fork is the best for lifting and moving hay, while the five-tined fork lifts and spreads leaves and composted manure best. No other tool comes close.


woman planting daffodils with a bulb planter

Planting daffodils is a breeze with a bulb planter.

Bulb Planter

If you have a lot of bulbs to plant, a bulb planter is worth owning! Its pre-measured length and width digs out just the right amount of soil for you to have the perfect hole to plop your bulb inside, while it holds the soil in the tube until you’re ready to fill up the hole again. Simply press the soil back out, cover the bulb, and tamp down. But don’t let the squirrels see you doing it.


Best Gardening Tools for Watering


If you buy a cheap hose, it will crack in a season or the brass fittings will leak, so you might as well go ahead and spend the money on a sturdy one—but make sure it’s not so sturdy that it’s too stiff to coil up when not in use! Some of the industrial ones can be impossible to manage for the gardener. A couple more tips for making your garden hose (which costs a pretty penny) last as long as possible is to make sure the connection pieces are not near areas where cars and lawn mowers can run over them, and, in the off season, coil hoses up and store them out of the light and off the ground.


one touch hose nozzle

One-touch hose nozzles are easier to use and last longer than trigger nozzles.

Hose Nozzles

How many hose nozzles does a gardener have to go through in their lifetime? Too many! I can give some advice here but by all means if you have figured out something better, please do tell! Our most commonly used hose nozzle is the threaded brass shut-off valve that allows for determining what amount of pressure you’d like for hand watering large garden areas. For our greenhouse, nursery, and planters, we use Dramm One Touch nozzles that hold up better than other brands and don’t get stuck or jammed like the trigger nozzles. In general, though, it seems that all of these nozzle pieces are made cheaply and won’t last for more than a year or two. Someone needs to go into business making high-quality hose nozzles because this is an essential gardening tool!

Watering Can

I love my watering cans! If I have areas where dragging around a hose is too tedious to do, I pull out the watering can. I have different types for different jobs—the little metal one alternates for watering houseplants, small outdoor planters, and as a background prop for pictures! The big-mouthed plastic 2-gallon watering can is great for larger planters, transplants, and filling up the chickens’ watering bucket! I like the big mouth ones so I can easily fit a hose inside. And for the greenhouse, when we aren’t using a hose, Haws watering cans can’t be beat for their attachments and durability. Please don’t leave your watering can full of water and unattended for long, as it will become a mosquito breeder!


Best Gardening Tools for Weeding


Wheel hoeing between the rows

Wheel hoeing between the rows.


Wheel Hoe

Oscillating hoes are our preferred way of weeding instead of a regular hoe as they are less back-breaking. The Swiss brand we have is called the Real (pronounced ree-all) hoe, but they no longer manufacture it. Valley Oak and the Glaser wheel hoe from Johnnys’ are both good options. My husband, Hart, has been gardening since the late 1960s and he adores his “Ree-all” hoe.

“Hoeing is an art that you have to do at the right time, like after it rains but before it gets too dry. Too wet and the soil will stick to the hoe and bog it down. Too dry and it will be too hard to cut the roots. The two most important things in wheel hoeing are to pick the right window to do it and to walk backward. You pull the wheel hoe toward you, underneath the soil, then push it up to cut off the weeds’ capillary action. Hoeing is not about outright killing the weeds but disturbing the capillary action that the weeds need to live. By walking backward, you don’t step on the weeds you just uprooted and replant them with your feet. If you hoe and then there is a thunderstorm, you will have to do it all over again. But if you get it right, you’ve done the work of many hands in a short time,” Hart, my champion gardener, says.



Weed Eater or String Trimmer

We live in a temperate rainforest and have acres to keep trimmed, so doing it all with scythes and reel lawn mowers would take an awfully long time, and for this, I sure am grateful for the use of a power tool in the garden. The weed eater is the tool that provides definition to the hard work that has gone into making garden beds, and it makes the bounty accessible. I’m a fan of battery-operated weed eaters as they are less smelly and noisy. However, they are not as powerful and they need to be recharged or “refueled” more often than fuel-operated ones. I recommend the Husqvarna or EGO trimmer.


Small yard or smaller areas to weed? I use a sickle—a serrated one. This is the most meditative tool I own. I love edging with it or weeding around the fruit trees. See the video below for another reason to use a sickle when you can instead of a weed eater! Hand tools can give you the chance to interact with the creatures of the environment in a way power tools do not afford.



Best Gardening Tools for Pruning


Felco pruners worn on a belt

Trusty Felco pruners worn on a belt

Hand Pruners

Pruners come in all shapes and sizes. For overall use, Felco pruners are tops! I’ve had mine for a couple decades and am still sporting them. Always place them back in your holster or tool belt after each use or you can easily lose them. Clean often with soapy water and dry them out before closing. You can choose from a variety of Felcos here.


woman using loppers on bittersweet vine

Loppers weeding out bittersweet vine


Garden loppers are for the places your hand pruners cannot reach or for plant material too thick to cut through with pruners. They are especially important to use for pruning fruit trees and getting out invasive vines. Here is one option.


The more you steward a piece of land, the more a folding handsaw will come in handy. It is light and can be carried around safely in your tool belt to saw off broken tree branches or cut saplings for staking your tomatoes or to saw down a locust tree that has sprouted in your field. Lee Valley, my favorite tool company, sells the well-made and useful silky pocketboy folding saw.


A few more essential tools worth mentioning are a notepad/phone to keep track of the “to-dos,” a pocket knife, gloves, and a rake.


Maintenance Practices

Always clean your tools before storing. Washing them off with the hose or in a stream or pond (if you have one), storing them off the ground and out of the weather, and occasionally oiling and sharpening them when needed will add years of life and integrity to your precious tools!

Looking for more blog articles about medicinal herb cultivation?

Remember, we’ve got a wheelbarrow-full of herb gardening and seed starting resources on the blog. Come on over to browse, pick up our personal gardening tips, and learn about our can’t-live-without garden medicinals.

MARY PLANTWALKER (Mary Morgaine Squire) is a devotee of the plants and healing path. Steeping herself in the plant world for almost 30 years, she has also woven in yoga, meditation and prayer as acts of daily life. She is a mother, writer, avid gardener, ceremonialist and plant ambassador. In the 1990s, she earned her BA in Journalism and Sustainable Living from Fairhaven College, and has since traveled the world meeting and learning from as many plants and indigenous healers as possible. As an active earth steward, Mary is called to protect and care for Herb Mountain Farm, the incredible land she stewards in western North Carolina, while encouraging others to create sanctuary wherever they are on the planet. Mary is gifted in facilitating ceremony and enticing mindfulness into the everyday, and is passionate about welcoming people into the walk of embracing plants as allies while living in harmony with all beings. You can follow Mary's plant escapades on Instagram.

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Mar 082019

By Juliet Blankespoor and Meghan Gemma
Photography by Juliet Blankespoor

All crafters have a cache of special tools—and foragers are no exception. I’ve been gathering food and medicine from wild places for nearly three decades and these are my tried-and-true tools of choice. As a bonus, every single one pulls double duty in the garden and around the yard.

In addition to the tools on this list, some of your best foraging allies will be those that allow you to forage safely and ethically. This means having a stack of reliable field guides as well as a firm grasp on sustainable gathering practices. Please see these articles for references and tips:

From left to right- a pruning saw, a sharp compact knife, and a pair of garden scissors

Please note that we are not affiliated with any of these businesses: we aren’t receiving any compensation for these recommendations. We’re simply sharing what has worked for us over the years. If you have any recommendations for products or businesses you like, please share in the comments below. We love learning about new products and forward-thinking businesses!

Now, without further ado, THE TOOLS

Felco pruners

Pruners are the tool I use most often when gathering and processing foraged herbs. They snip right through herbaceous stems, twigs, small branches, and roots. I reach for them so often that I keep them in a leather holster on a belt at my hip. If you can only purchase one tool to get started, pruners are the way to go!

I recommend Felco brand pruners, as they are very high quality and may be sharpened. Blade and spring replacements are also available. I have used my pair of Felcos extensively over the past 25 years and they are still in good working order! The blade and the spring have both been replaced multiple times and I sharpen the blade several times a year. Dull pruners are a party pooper.

Felco pruners come in a wide variety of models. Look for a pair that will reduce hand fatigue and strain. The pruner handles, when fully opened, should not exceed the width of your extended grasp. Felcos are sold at some garden centers and online. Here are other recommendations for pruners from Gardening Products Review, Empress of Dirt, and Wirecutter.

Hori hori weeding knife

This tool looks like it sounds. Heavy duty and compact, it’s a sturdy wildcrafting tool and excellent weeding implement. I use my hori-hori to break up soils and dig small- to medium-sized roots from the earth. These garden “knives” cut through most clay soils and can even pry rocks out of the ground. You can also use it for transplanting and dividing roots.

Mine has seen its share of soils across the land and is still as strong as ever after 25 years. Again, a holster is quite handy and will protect your pack as well as your person. The wooden-handled varieties are purported to be stronger than the plastic. However, if you’re prone to losing objects, consider buying one with an orange plastic handle to lessen the chances of misplacing it.

Whenever I garden or forage, my pruners and hori-hori accompany me as my most trusted companions.

Hori-horis are available through seed catalogs and landscaping outfitters as well as some specialty garden centers. Look for models that have a “lip” at the base of the blade to protect your hand if the knife slips. See this article for hori-hori reviews: 5 Best Hori-Hori Knife Reviews.

Digging fork

This is the tool of choice for digging most roots. The tines of the fork effectively loosen soils and lift branching roots free from the earth. Digging forks are much less likely to damage roots than a shovel or spade. I also use my digging fork in the garden to weed, loosen soil, and harvest medicinal roots.

Note that digging forks have square and sturdy tines, unlike manure or hay forks, which have flat, bendable tines. You can find affordable options at garden supply centers or big box hardware stores, but remember that you get what you pay for, so I wouldn’t go with the cheapest option out there. Here are some recommendations.

4. Shovel

You likely already have this tool hanging out in your garage or garden shed. Having a couple of different types is useful. Make sure you have at least one long-handled shovel with a pointed blade (as opposed to flat).

I use shovels primarily to help begin the excavation process of large, tap-rooted plants like burdock (Arctium lappa, A. minus), or when I’m digging in heavily compacted soils.

5. Kitchen scissors

A sharp pair of kitchen scissors is my go-to tool for gathering tender-stemmed greens like chickweed (Stellaria media), violet (Viola spp.), and cleavers (Galium aparine). Pruners can make a muck of this job as they’re meant for tougher stems and the reach of their blades is limited.

Kitchen scissors are handy for harvesting young greens

A foldable pruning saw is handy for cutting small- to medium-sized tree limbs and branches. I use mine most often in the spring when I’m gathering medicinal tree barks like wild cherry (Prunus serotina) and black birch (Betula lenta).

Pruning saw

7. Sharp Compact Knife

Sharp compact knife for peeling the bark of medicinal trees

8. Assorted Baskets

Baskets will reward you in more ways than one. They’re handy for gathering and drying herbs, and they are beautiful to behold. It’s helpful to have an assortment of baskets on hand. You can typically find used baskets in thrift stores. Look for a few that have an open weave and are broad and flattish (helpful for increasing ventilation when drying loose herbs).

I have a small collection of buckets in my storeroom, and they get used more frequently than you might think. I pull them out for large-scale harvests like elderberry (Sambucus nigra var. canadensis) and wild blueberry (Vaccinium spp.), as well as for muddy root harvests. A little water in the bottom will also help to keep the stems and leaves of herbs fresh on a long car ride home.

These can be repurposed food-grade buckets; I like both the 3- and 5-gallon sizes. Try asking for empty buckets at the bakery counter or food prep section of your local grocery store. You can also purchase 5-gallon buckets at home improvement and hardware stores. Tubtrugs—pliable buckets with handles—are an alternative that can be quite useful for harvesting. They can be expensive but last a long time.

10. Gloves

Foraging can be hard on the hands, and your fingertips will thank you for stashing a pair of gloves in your pack for prickly situations (think: picking stinging nettles or wading through a berry bramble). I actually keep two pairs of gloves on hand—a thin, supple pair for delicate tasks and a thicker leather and/or canvas pair for moments when I need more protection.  

11. Heavy-Duty Chopping Knife

You will want to have a Japanese butchers knife or a heavy-duty kitchen knife for chopping tough roots.

A sturdy bristled brush is extremely helpful for scrubbing the soil from the cracks and crevices of your root harvests.

I highly recommend purchasing a hand lens, also called a jeweler’s loupe—preferably 10x to 20x (10 to 20 times magnification). These nifty little tools allow you to gaze at wee botanical parts (helpful for plant ID) and have a much higher magnification ability than plain magnifying lenses (the kind used for enlarging print). Many have an LED attached, which is ideal because the increased lighting makes it much easier to spy on flowers. Available at university bookstores or naturalist stores.

Hand lens

Meet Our Contributors:

JULIET BLANKESPOOR founded the Chestnut School of Herbal Medicine in 2007 and serves as the school’s primary instructor and Creative Director. She's been a professional plant-human matchmaker for close to three decades. Juliet caught the plant bug when she was nineteen and went on to earn a degree in Botany. She's owned just about every type of herbal business you can imagine: an herbal nursery, a medicinal products business, a clinical practice, and now, an herbal school.

These days, she channels her botanical obsession with writing and photography in her online programs and here on her personal blog, Castanea. She's writing her first book: Cultivating Medicinal Herbs: Grow, Harvest, and Prepare Handcrafted Remedies from Your Home Garden. Juliet and her houseplants share a home with her family and herb books in Asheville, North Carolina.

MEGHAN GEMMA is one of the Chestnut School’s primary instructors through her written lessons, and is the principal pollinator of the school’s social media community—sharing herbal and wild foods wisdom from the flowery heart of the school to an ever-wider field of herbalists, gardeners, healers, and plant lovers.

She has been in a steady relationship with the Chestnut School since 2010—as an intern and manager at the Chestnut Herb Nursery; as a plant-smitten student “back in the day” when the school’s programs were taught in the field; and later as a part the school’s woman-powered professional team. Meghan lives in the Ivy Creek watershed, just north of Asheville, North Carolina.

COCO VILLA designed, sewed, and botanically-dyed her green tunic worn in the photos above. Coco creates one of a kind conceptual pieces for seasonal collections and private clients. Creations are wildly crafted in small batches and naturally dyed by hand with locally foraged plant matter. All goods are stitched together from natural fibers, folk fabric, hand printed textiles, or salvaged materials. Coco's website:


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You’ll befriend THE most common edible and medicinal wayside plants, including dandelion, stinging nettles, violet, yarrow, burdock, rose, goldenrod, and many others. The printable manual is hundreds of pages long and filled with close-up photos for identification, medicinal uses, and loads of easy-to-follow recipes. In fact, most of our plant profiles contain more detail than you’ll find in any book on wild foods and herbs.

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