gifts for gardeners: my tried-and-true gear

EVERY YEAR I do a guide of “gifts for gardeners,” and every year it’s the same stuff, basically (how unoriginal and embarrassing). But how can you improve on the gear you have relied on year after year, as I have on each of my tried-and-trues? At this point in my garden career, it’s unlikely that some gimmicky new thing will catch my eye, so at the risk of boring you…

MY GO-TO PRUNING BRAND: My most-used pruning tool of all are ARS needle-nose snips, or fruit pruners (above). Did you ever use a regular pair of pliers when a needle-nose was really called for, or otherwise over-effort a task? I have confessed before that I rarely use my pricey, famous-name pruning shears these days, instead doing many jobs with what are variously called grape scissors or needle-nosed fruit pruners, specifically ones by ARS. A traditional pair of bypass pruning shears might weight 8 or 9 ounces—like 224 or 252 grams—and the fruit pruners weigh like 4, or about 110 grams. Why place unneeded strain on your hand? In carbon steel, or stainless steel.

As in the case with my choice of snips versus pruning shears, I got tired of over-efforting when pruning slightly larger branches with the wrong tool for the wrong job. My big old lopper, about 10 inches longer and a pound heavier, hardly get used any longer since I bought the ARS 19-inch Vineyard Lopper (model LPB-20S) at just 1.8 pounds (and just 19ish inches long). It has become hard to find the shorter-length one lately, but I tracked down one source, and Felco also makes a lightweight vineyard lopper, the 201-40. My third most-used pruning tool is from ARS, too: the indispensable 4-foot lightweight long-reach pruner that means skipping the ladder on many cuts I could not otherwise get to.

FOR THE BIRDS: I do think the Brome brand, as I have said repeatedly, has built a better birdfeeder with its Squirrel Buster line of various-size models. If an animal of squirrel weight grabs on, the seed ports are automatically covered to prevent access. Plus: These feeders seem to keep seed in fresher, drier condition than conventional tube types, with a patented ventilation system as part of the design. Important note: I still place feeders about 10 feet from anything that a squirrel could leap from, and use metal baffles on the poles my feeders are hanging from to limit their attempts, like the ones Audubon recommends in either wraparound style or “torpedo” (canister) style. You will never stop squirrels from try, try, trying again (and again, and again).

TROWEL WITH AN EDGE: One fall, while planting garlic with help from a friend, I noticed that I was having an easier time of it as we worked our way toward the middle of a long, multi-row bed from either end. Compared to the usual garden-variety trowel, the Sneeboer flower bed version (pictured above)—with a not-too-big, nicely scooped blade of stainless steel–just cuts into the soil better and gets the job done. The handle is nicely turned for a comfortable fit (there is a bulb-handle version too, which is longer); browse all the Sneeboer trowels at Garden Tool Company.

Want a slightly narrower blade for tight spots? Try the Sneeboer Great Dixter model...and there are even narrower choices, for digging dandelions and such.

PART TROWEL, part weeder, divider, and just general all-round workhorse: my stainless hori-hori Japanese weeding knife, by Nisaku. My original hori-hori wasn’t stainless so though it lasted and lasted (actually, I still have it!) it is a slightly rusty mess. The stainless (shown above) is the extra-good version of this extra-good tool, particularly suited to cracks and crevices where no trowel will go. There are models with plastic handles, too, but I prefer the wooden grip.

EVERYONE WHO VISITS the garden wants one: a super-lightweight, drinking-water-safe, beautiful hose. No more dragging around heavy, kinked-up traditional hoses for me the last decade or so, since I found the made-in-America ones from Water Right Inc., an Oregon-based family business. There are various colors (I love the olive, above) and three diameters, each in 25- to 100-foot lengths: The 400 Series (7/16-inch diameter), 500 Series (½-inch diameter, delivering about 25 percent more water than the 400) and 600 Series (5/8-inch, delivering another 25 percent more water). There is also a coiled version, if you have a small space, like a terrace.

SHORT RUBBER BOOTS: I have a thing for ankle-height boots to garden in, usually in basic black. I keep promising myself to reserve a pair that I don’t go out into the mud with, for wearing when I need to look a bit more presentable. But then the urge hits and there I go, into the muck, and every pair I have starts to look like the rest of my footwear (and trouser knees, and gloves, and … sigh.) Sadly—like with my favorite tip bag and edger— the model I love eventually goes out of production, so now I’m back to where I started with my first garden boots ever, long ago: the Hunter brand. The ankle-height Chelsea comes in most every imaginable color (the red, above, is currently calling my name).

LIKE LINUS WITH HIS BLANKET, I drag it behind me wherever I go. It’s my trusty tip bag, a debris-collecting tool I never thought I’d take a fancy to, having been a bushel-basket or wheelbarrow type for years. But bushel baskets got harder to score, and there are some spots in my lopsided garden where the wheelbarrow won’t do. So drag a bag I do, when I’m doing things like this:

  • When edging, for instance, trimming off bits of turf where lawn meets bed.
  • When weeding, of course.
  • When deadheading.
  • (When pruning or raking leaves, a tarp is probably a better choice, and I’ve got them in many sizes to suit the scale of the job. It’s easy to drag branches, or piles of fallen leaves, away on a tarp.)

I’ve worn out a number of tip bags in my time, but generally speaking they’re pretty resilient creatures. My trusted brand had long been Bosmere, but in recent years most of their models sadly seem to be in short supply in the U.S. The more upright ones (like a giant beer can) are still to be had, and also the square (that’s my friend Ken Druse’s favorite Bosmere model, pictured above), but not so much on the basic size-XL round ones with lower sides (pictured below with my favorite rake).

RAKE REQUIRED: I have moaned in the past about the death of the bamboo rake, and about how much I hate rakes with plastic tines, but the Yard Butler LT-20 rake helped me get over it. The Yard Butler has 20 steel tines arranged in a fan that is 18 inches wide at the broadest part, and enough strength to do tougher jobs, but what’s best is how springy those teeth are. Their flexibility means I can work among shrubs and perennials, removing unwanted debris without doing harm.

I KNOW, there are fancier, more stylish garden gloves. But for years I have worn nitrile-coated ones by Atlas, in basic black. I have many pairs, and even put them in the washer (not the dryer). They’d last years except for my habit of eventually poking through the middle finger on my right hand. Oops; I guess I’m not supposed to dig with my hands, but old habits die hard.

WEATHER WATCHING, ANYONE? One of my favorite stocking stuffers for gardeners is Johnny’s Selected Seeds’ acrylic rain gauge (photo below from Johnny’s website). It’s $8, and it’s my longtime, low-tech analog weather friend. At the other end price-wise and technically, I also have a digital weather station, as I have forever. The Davis Vantage Vue is up on a pole on the hillside above the backyard, and transmits wirelessly to a console in the house, recording temperature and humidity plus wind speed and precipitation in realtime. I gifted one to my brother-in-law Christmas before last, and he and their next-door neighbor erected it on the shared property line and got an extra console for the neighbor’s house, too…and both instantly became as addicted to it as I have been all these years.

(Disclosure: Purchases from Amazon affiliate links yield a commission.)

  1. Johanna says:

    I got a 100 ft Water Right hose on your recommendation, and I love the weight of it. So easy to move around the yard. But I am left handed and it kinks awfully when I try to coil it for storage. Any advice?

    1. Not-karen Karen says:

      This may not work for you, but I have taken to not coiling my hose in the traditionally tight way. I make the coils 5 feet when I’m storing for the winter, and run the hose next to the foundation during the season, which means they are more like 10 feet long. I started doing this because I had hand issues, but wish I had thought of it years ago because it’s so much easier.. saves time, too.

    2. Eva Munday says:

      I accidentally learned how coil anything the right way! My vacuum cleaner cord would drive me crazy because it would never coil right! Then I read to start coiling it where attaches to the vacuum and Voila! it worked. So try to coil your hose from the faucet hookup end and see if it doesn’t coil better!

    1. Eileen says:

      Love love love everything that you write about! Your book and newsletters have been quite important to me in the past decade! I bought the hari hari knife cuz i’m about to split and spread iris to more places . Thanx!

    2. Rita says:

      I love tip bags.. drag mine with me every time I am in the yard.. have learned I always find something that need cleaning up . I have a tendency to leave little piles of stuff everywhere if I don’t. We live on a slope and even my nice wheelbarrow with bicycle wheels is still to bulky to haul around. I too have ruined them by dragging around. The last one I bought has a plastic bottom.

  2. jan says:

    Love your list. Thank You. Always nice to see “tried and true” stuff.
    I’ve purchased several garden knives, and MY favorite is the Barebones. It has a very comfortable handle, sharp edges (smooth and serrated), a string cutter/bottle opener and the metal pommel on the top of the handle to pound in stakes/etc. I still have my others “basic” ones from Garden Supply and AM Leonard – but use this one the most. I gave one to my husband, have one in the car, and use one when I do volunteer work (no chance of losing my good one). Got mine from Garden Supply (I think), although not currently on their website…did notice it at BedBathandBeyond though…with a sheath.
    I like your “collapsible trug” – will have to look into it. I am a trug fan myself…the large flexible buckets. Great for everything. Ikea bags work well also for debris collecting (and the price is right!).
    As far as bird feeders, living in Northern CT, I need to get ones that I can put back together or inexpensive ones since we have plenty of bears – even in the winter when they are supposed to be hibernating. we have a ban on “purposely feeding any wildlife” from April 1-Nov 30, which I can’t blame the town for enacting. Bears were getting too “comfortable” around people, even walking through screen doors looking for food. Some end up getting shot because they’ve attacked people or just got too close.

    1. Shawn McMurtry says:

      Wow…. the boots are SO comfy! Gifted myself a pair last month & I need a taller pair next (if they sell them). They keep my feet warm & dry and I wear them everywhere, including hiking and it’s been really wet here around Phila. Looking forward to trying out the tarp, hose & pruners I also got!!

  3. Maria Kent says:

    Margaret, just wanted to say, this year I went with the Noble Outfitters Muds boots versus my usual low hikers. I used them in my landscape gardening work and also at the garden center nursery where I am part time employed. They are the BEST! Kept me dry but not sweaty and I felt they gave me enough support. So grateful for them with all the hose watering I did this year.
    Thank you, thank you!

  4. Maggie says:

    Great selection of gifts (for myself, of course). I want to say that the hori hori has become my most indispensable tool I have ever had. I use it for everything. Every gardener needs one!

  5. Gary says:

    Upon your recommendation, I ordered a WaterRight hose to try out. I liked it so much I gave it away to a coworker and ordered myself two 100 ft and one 50 ft for my three outdoor faucets. I would never use another type now. Please continue to bore us as I always study each of your lists.

  6. Julie Oldach says:

    Love your list ! Just filled my Xmas list for the family with your suggestions! Can’t wait for Christmas!!!! Thank you !!

  7. Gail Morrell says:

    Years ago you recommended Okatsune pruners. They are the best pruner’s out. I am a professional gardener, I use my pruners’ daily. They are very sharp and stay sharp and they are easy to open and close. I have also purchased Okatsune hedge trimmers, love them equally as much. I always look forward to your gift list and I never find it boring! May have to put the garden hose on my wish list!

  8. karl zimmerman says:

    Any recommendations on a stand up weeder? My friend is over 70 & her knees ain’t what they used to be & she’s having trouble controlling her garden. Thanks.

    1. Ashley Harvie says:

      Hello, I highly recommend “Grandpa’s Weeder” as a stand-up weeder. Truly a pleasure to use and very effective. I got one for the first time this year and now look forward to weeding, no joke!

  9. Carol Kelly says:

    I have seen cheap imitations with plastic handles, but I have had one of the original (i.e., not stainless steel) hori-hori knives like the one pictured here for many, many years. I clean it religiously after use, and (when I remember!) rub a bit of linseed oil into the handle at year’s end and store it in my basement till spring. If I could have only one hand garden tool, that is it! And if I could have only one long-handled tool, it would be my scuffle (stirrup) hoe. I have dug many a planting hole with it, slain countless weed seedlings as well as well-established ones, created a weekly dust mulch among my plants and more. With those, along with my [Felco] pruners, I am SuperGardener!

  10. Cindy says:

    The big Brome squirrel buster feeder is the real deal. It solved my problem with squirrels getting into the feeders. And when it’s 18 or more inches away from the deck railing, it keeps the raccoons away, too! The other plus is that I don’t have squirrel poop/pee all over the deck. Even though they’re cute, they do make a big mess.

  11. Marguerite says:

    Just wanted to mention that I have bought 2 Brome Squirrel Buster feeders through my local Wild Birds Unlimited (in Darien, CT, who also own a branch in Bedford, N.Y.) and they are lifetime guarranteed. The beauty of supporting a small local business is the kind folks at WBU stock extra parts , and over the years have replaced parts on them immediately and free of charge . I couldn’t be happier with them. I have noticed that even though they weigh down the ring which closes the holes, the larger woodpeckers like Northern Flickers have such long beaks that they sit on the ring and wrap themselves around the feeder to hole down the and can still jimmy out some seeds. Darwin at work!

  12. Nancy Johnston says:

    I love the Atlas gloves you have on your Christmas Gift List! I have had the last pair for four years and they are still in perfect condition. The coating seems to repel moist soil and they wash like a dream.

    1. margaret says:

      My only issue is I dig with my hands a lot (!!!) and push through the middle finger on the right hand. So I have a lot more perfect left gloves than right ones. :)

      1. Kathy says:

        I have a left handed friend – and we bust through the opposite gloves from each other. She gives me her leftover ‘rights’ and I give her my leftover ‘lefts’ – so we each have pairs.

  13. Ouida Drinkwater says:

    I ordered the hori hori knife for myself and my sister in law this Christmas and plan to order it and the Bosmere bag for my daughter’s Mr h birthday. Thanks for sharing your best loved too.s.

  14. Pamela Stone says:

    Hello Margaret!
    Based on your recommendations I have purchased the Noble garden boots and the ARS fruit pruners. Agree with you on the Atlas gloves, after too many pairs of others not holding up. You mentioned your battery lawn mower in your latest NY Times article. Could you weigh in on what brand you have and maybe it’s pros and cons. Love your newsletter and all of your writings. Especially love your photos of your massive Clivias. I had always wanted one, but never got around to getting serious about purchasing. Last summer in a hardware store I overheard an older woman lamenting that she had divided up her Clivia, but couldn’t find anyone that wanted the fans and so she was going to bring them to the dump! They now reside with me and I hope they will bloom someday.

    1. margaret says:

      Love how you inherited the Clivia. Sweet! I have tried two brands of electric mowers over the last 6 years or so and will think about your suggestion of writing about them.

  15. Geri Sprague says:

    What brand is the adjustable telescoping rake you recommend? I can’t find it on your lists now.

  16. Sally says:

    What excuse should I use for spending $150 on a hose? I am experiencing hose envy though I only need one in the Spring and early summer for the most part. My husband/friend/partner is frugal as possible about every purchase. I have no idea why we are still together after 40+ years; he’ll howl over the hose. Keep your windows closed for a few weeks to avoid the howl.
    The hori hori is necessary daily. I am also enamored with my Dutch hoe, Sneerboer edger for clay chops, and my hand spork.
    I’m 7b and can mold terracotta from the rain drenched red clay earth. Digging is another issue entirely.

  17. Kate Kern says:

    I purchased a Bosmere Garden Tote in July based on your recommendation. I had been using the lightweight Fiskars bags, but had been in search of a more long lasting bag like the Bosmere. When it first arrived I was so excited!!! Felt durable and still lightweight! Used it hard for two months (yes, I garden every day, no, I don’t drag my bags on the ground) and it pooped out on me:( The wire came apart as it was only held together by tape, and then of course the wire proceeded to poke through the bag. I would have happily replaced the bag in hopes that I got a lemon, but after two weeks of trying, I can’t get the Bosmere customer service to respond to my query….Hoping it’s just a pandemic glitch and they will get it together, but in the meantime, I will have to go back to Fiskars. LOVE YOUR PODCAST!!!!! LOVE YOUR WEBSITE!!!!

  18. Ray says:

    I’m trying to buy a garden tool through your website so you get the commission, small as it likely is. But there are no live links to take me to the product I want.

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