One question I'm often asked at talks is 'which tool I consider most useful to a gardener?' The garden centres are stacked full of boys toys and the catalogues are full of all sorts of gimmicks and gadgets. How is the novice to know which tool is essential or most use? Or even more important what type or size of tool?
Strange as it may seem it is only recently that tool manufacturers woke up and realised that although they were making tools almost exactly like they were a hundred years ago people had grown taller. We are now many inches taller on average than we were back then. That's why you have to stoop to get hold of most old spades and forks and bend double for such short hoes and rakes. So unless you are well below average height most tools will be more comfortable for you to use if they have, or are given, longer handles.
As to materials; try a new tool out for feel- remember heavy now is going to be too heavy to use for long! Tools should be strong but not cumbersome. Good steel and hard wood are not heavy; but cheap iron and plastic are not heavy either so beware. Stainless steel is excellent for spades (unless you have stony ground) and for trowels and forks as the soil is less inclined to stick but stainless steel is hopeless for hoes as it will not hold an edge. My favourite hoes are old ones with new blades attached made out of old scythe blade as that really takes an edge. When hoeing I always carry a carborundum stone to keep the hoe sharp with a few strokes every five minutes or so, buy one as it's indispensable and will last a lifetime.
There is much to be said in praise of plastic for some uses but in the garden it tends to get brittle and degrade so I prefer to avoid it for tools where possible. Mind you plastic watering cans are light and last several years. Don't buy a plastic or 'trendy' barrow; a builders barrow from the builders merchants is far better value and tougher and easier to use than most garden centre offerings.
Of course a hosepipe has to be plastic so purchase the more expensive reinforced sort and look after it well storing it out of sunlight and away from the frost. Likewise a backpack sprayer is plastic and an expensive item, only buy one if you really need it and then store it in a cool dark place to get the maximum life out of it. It's probably cheaper to use disposable hand sprayers if you do but little spraying. I love spraying seaweed regularly so I reckon the backpack was worth the expense -but I do have an acre.
Indeed the greatest problem besetting the novice is the plethora of allegedly necessary tools. True we all need a spade, hoe, trowel and secateurs as a minimum, a rake and a fork are also always useful. But what else do you NEED. Now unless you have an enormous garden most power tools will be used infrequently and then not for long. It really makes sense to hire such as hedge trimmers, brush cutters, rotary cultivators and so on rather than having them tying up your capital sitting around rusting and inviting theft. And as to gadgets and gimmicky tools.....most of them are best left in the shops and catalogues; if you really want one wait till you see it appearing second hand in the small ads and save a fortune.
However there are a few less usual tools that I really wouldn't be without. One of the most helpful is a daisy or thistle grubber-this is a long handled device with a wee fork at one end near to a pivot; it is plunged into the ground next to a thistle, plantain or dock and levered back over the pivot which causes the wee fork to lift the roots clean out of the ground, quickly and effectively. Funnily enough these are hard to find new or second-hand, unlike dibbers -I cannot believe anyone would buy a specially manufactured dibber when every redundant spade or fork handle makes a better one.
Likewise for garden lines; I can't believe anyone would buy a made up one! Two sticks and a bit of string do as well! And as to special gardening knives, especially stainless steel ones... With no shadow of doubt the best knife is an old fashioned kitchen knife with the sort of blade that rusts. One of these will be far easier and more effective than some expensively packaged boy scout effort. I have several old knives secreted about my vegetable bed where they are always to hand. In a similar way I have several discarded chip frying wire baskets which are used to gather and then wash the root vegetables. This saves taking the soil indoors and blocking the drains.
A post hole borer is definitely not a necessity but is awfully handy for making deep but relatively narrow holes. Apart from setting posts it is also useful for making multiple holes of a uniform size and depth for planting out pot grown crops or putting in potato sets etc. This is not a needful tool for the smaller garden but very useful in the larger one and indeed I rather wish I had two or three in different sizes and some with reversed 'threads' -after digging a few dozen holes all clockwise I'd love to unwind by doing some the opposite way!
A good trowel is almost essential for all hand planting and unfortunately almost all trowels sold nowadays are either made of too thick and soft a metal for the blade or are downright flimsy. Old trowels bought second-hand are of far better build and materials even if they need a new handle. Likewise for garden stepladders. Old heavy wooden ones can be more stable than modern alloy ones if more substantial to move around. Many accidents involve steps and if you have an unsafe set better get rid of them before they do the same to you!
I guess few people use a flame gun (see also Kit.Gdn March 2002, which article led to several querists as to where to buy a flame gun; see small ads at the back of this magazine for catalogues). For sterilising gravelled areas, seedbed treatments and especially for pre-emergent weed control these are superb. Some are gas powered and instantly usable but I have an old fashioned paraffin powered one which needs careful attention to get it up to full heat by pre-warming the nozzle over a firelighter. Once it is roaring with a fierce blue flame it cooks weeds in a thrice and can be passed over the weeds at a walking pace. They scald and wither away usually taking the root systems with them if they are small, tougher weeds recover and need another treatment or two a week or so after. I find the flame gun the most efficient way of knocking down those flushes of weeds that green over the beds in spring. In particular I use a heat treatment before sowing and then again just before the new crop emerges - for example if the crop will germinate in ten days at the quickest then it is perfectly safe to burn the weeds on the eighth or ninth day after sowing. The weeds are all removed and a day or two later the crop emerges into a competition free zone.
A flame gun treatment is also especially useful where large numbers of weed seeds have managed to get spread on the soil surface. This often happens after peas as a weed may conceal itself within the dense growth of the pea haulm and when this is cleared the seeds are strewn about. An immediate burn will cook all these seeds before they have had a chance to get buried saving many flushes of weeding later. On a smaller scale a hobby blowtorch is handy for dealing with the odd weed. And in the interests of safety I have experimented and can vouch that hot air paint strippers, steam wall paper strippers, pressure steam cleaners and even a steam iron and kettles full of boiling water are all equally good ways of killing weeds without recourse to chemicals or harder work.
But my oddest tool has to be my pooter. Used by entomologists to capture small bugs I find this human powered mini-vacuum cleaner just the job for catching ladybirds and spiders to transport to my polytunnel. Two plastic tubes are set into a tin or jar, one for the collecting tube and the other for sucking. The latter has a wee filter over the inside end so one doe not suck up the insect or dirt into ones mouth though one does breathe in the panic stricken air. I have no allergies but it could be risky for some. In the collection tin is some leaves and grass to cushion their arrival. In just a few minutes I can snatch up a whole load of little friends uninjured to move them indoors to help me without handling them and risking breaking their tiny limbs.
Indeed to be dragged back to the original question; the best tool for a gardener. An old boy I knew reckoned it was a bit of pencil and paper for making notes, but you know for the real gardener I guess the best tool has to be a bit of ingenuity.