Favorite Garden Tools

The Short List —  perfect garden hand tools

 Everyone has a short list of the tools they would not garden without.  However most of us have used trial and error when purchasing hand tools.  A bright, shiny rack of tools is sooo seductive.  Sales people can be incredibly persuasive.  A friend buys one and so you must have one too.

How many tools have you bought, tried and given away because they were just not right?  They didn’t quite fit the size of your hand or the balance was wrong for you or they were quickly lost in the garden once you laid them down because they were dirt colored or …. For whatever the reason we have all been through this.

So here I will stick my neck out and make recommendations from my personal shortlist of hand tools.  This is a list of 7 tools I consider essential.  You will find a new tool listed here weekly as a short series.  Check back in and I invite you to respond with your options as well.  (My email is [email protected])


#1 Tool Belt

As a relatively new gardener, I first tried hauling a canvas garden bag (complete with organizing pockets) around the garden.  It was sturdy and tough (I still have it) and very organized. But I found it was always in the wrong place when I needed it….Just out of reach containing the tool I wanted.

So I switched to a tool pocket that you thread on to our own belt.  I quickly found this was a pain to deal with when threading it on and off the belt.  And when I eventually gave up wearing belts altogether with my pants, the pocket went away.

I then bought a tool belt. Mine has its own belt of nylon webbing, a quick release snap clasp and a light weight double pocket with a nylon mesh outer layer that drains away water and dirt.  It will hold a hand trowel, a pruner, gloves and there’s loops to hang other small things from.  It is not perfect because eventually the pruner always works a hole through the mesh pocket.  But it is light weight, easy to get on and off, always within easy reach and not expensive to replace.

There are other belts out there the real trick is to find one which fits you, does not get in the way while gardening and when fully loaded, is not too heavy.

My belt is similar to this one…


#gardentoolbelts  #gardenersphonepak  #fasitegardentoolbag


#2 Pruners

Hands down my all-time favorite pruner is a Felco.  I love Felco pruners because the line is extensive (pick the ergonomic shape of your choice) and they make pruners to fit small, medium and large hands.  OMG what a novel idea? Choices!  AND you (you, not a repair shop) can replace every piece of the pruner with a new part as it ages.

I have had my #6 Felco pruners since I began to garden seriously in “1980 something”.  I’ve replaced the blades almost annually and given them a good cleaning now and then and they continue to be my “best garden buddy”.

By the way because the handle grips are red plastic you never lose them in the garden. And the plastic is Phthalate free (if you don’t know what that is…here’s a link to more information:  )

 #Felco #gardenpruners #gardentools


#3 Loppers

Felco makes loppers as well as pruners.  They are an investment and I lust for a Felco lopper.  But currently I use a Dramm lopper because it is more affordable.  This lopper is nicely balanced and can be sharpened and it is telescoping.  The handles are a bright color so they are difficult to lose in the garden.

#Felco #Dramm #gardentools #gardenloppers


#4 Hand trowel

Some folks swear by a Hori Hori for digging, planting bulbs, weeding, etc.  I have never used one but I’d welcome comments on the tool from those who are converts.

I use the humble hand trowel.  The only real specifications I have is the handle fit comfortably in my hand at a comfortable angle and the handle be a BRIGHT color so, like every other tool I have, it does not get lost in the garden (forget wooden handles they may be romantic but impractical).

#handtrowel #gardentools


#5 Spade

For years I have used a poacher’s spade in place of a shovel.  The blade is narrow and long.  The wood handle is about 38-40” long.  It is short enough to be able to get over the top of it and yet sturdy enough to be able to put your weight on it without fear of it giving way.  Most people use this spade for transplanting and planting blubs…I use it for everything.

Clarington Forge makes an excellent spade worth checking out.  (Even Dan Hinkley likes this one.)

#gardenspade  #poacher’sspade  #gardentools  #claringtonforge  #danhinkley


 #6 Hose

After using rubber and reinforced PVC hoses for a very long time, I grew weary of dragging a heavy, inflexible hose after me and finally hunted down a lightweight, collapsible hose.  The Pocket Hose has won my heart.  When empty of water it is light and even a 50’ hose collapses into a pile of fabric and fittings which pack into a small space.  No more struggling to coil a hose that is constantly fighting against you.  A caveat: when not in use do not keep the hose under pressure.  You are inviting an eventual blowout.

One lesson here:  There are now competitors to The Pocket Hose on the market so pay attention to the construction of the fabric which should be tough and yet flexible. And look for metal fittings not plastic which can crack and the threading on the connections can be stripped – even the Pocket Hose has a model which has plastic fittings…buy metal instead.

#pockethose  #gardentools  #gardenhose


#7 Nozzle

I prefer a pistol grip nozzle with settings you can click into place rather than a nozzle that you adjust the spray by twisting the end of the nozzle.  The latter nozzle simply increases or decreases the amount of water that shoots through the nozzle which goes from a jet of water to a spray pattern.

My favorite nozzle is by Dramm.  It has 9 spray patterns to choose from shower to a flat pattern to a dribble, etc. Once again I like that the nozzle comes in bright colors which are difficult to lose in the garden and the body is metal so heat and cold do not affect it.  One slight flaw is that the handle has a wire keeper which when flipped will keep the handle in the open position so you can relax your hand when watering continuously—a great idea.  But the wire keeper easily falls off and is never to be found again.  If a fix could be found for this it would be THE perfect nozzle!

#Dramm #hosenozzles #gardentools









Plan Now, Plant Later

It may seem ill-timed to think about designing a garden project this time of year but if you have a project that you want to tackle the next growing season NOW is the time to do your planning NOT in March or April when the sun comes out.

Why Fall and Winter?  The landscape trade has seasonal highs and lows – Take advantage of it!

Designers’ availability:  Fall and Winter tends to be the slow season for Designers.  They will typically have time available to work with you.  As Spring hits they get busy and may not be able to address your design needs for several months.

Get Bids when times are slow:  If you have a landscape design ready to go by January or February it is likely you will first in line to talk with Landscape Contractors.  And you will not only get bids back faster but you will you may very well get a less expensive bid in late winter or very early spring than in June when everyone in the landscape trade is swamped with work.

More Plant Material is available in the spring: Being ready with a finished design and contactor on board in the early spring means plant material will be more available and will be easier to find. This ultimately means there is less of a risk that substitutions will be necessary and you will get the design you want.

Allow Time to Design: 

Every design takes time but rarely do folks consider that in the scheme of things.  Whether you are doing the landscape planning or you hire a professional to design with you.

Expect to spend a minimum of 2 perhaps 3 months perhaps longer to produce a completed design start to finish – not including the installation.

Typical Design Steps if you are working with a professional designer:  

  • Initial meeting on site
  • Creating the Fee Proposal/ time for the client to review it and accept it.
  • Scheduling the project into the designer’s work schedule (which may vary depending upon the current client load)
  • Site Measuring, photographing the site, creating a base plan (+/- ½ a day)

ALL the steps just mentioned are BEFORE ANY DESIGN TAKES PLACE

  • It will take time for a designer to Create a Preliminary Design
  • Then you meet to discuss the Preliminary design – which would include both overall landscape layout and plant suggestions –sometimes that takes a couple of meetings
  • Then there’s Revisions to the Preliminary Design — this might take 1-2 rounds of revisions and meetings
  • Once the Prelim. Design is approved the Final Design documents are begun – depending upon the size and complexity of the project Documentation can take a 40 hrs or more of time on the designer’s end.
  • A Final meeting with the designer to deliver and explain the documents.

THEN CONTRACTORS  ARE CONTACTED AND THE BIDDING BEGINS – The bidding process can take to 2-4 weeks.  


 Show a set of completed documents:  Explain each piece.

Not all designers produce documents alike and the final product will vary in what it looks like but the information should be the same.

  • General Notes
  • Demo Plan (sometimes this not needed)
  • Hardscape Plan (if the design is simple sometimes this can be combined with the Planting Plan)
  • Plant Plan
  • Plant List
  • Lighting Plan
  • Irrigation Plan or sometimes this is handled as a description.
  • Conceptual structural Elevations of any structures (fences, gates, decks, trellises)
  • Plant images for the client

My clients get:

4 hardcopies of the drawings –1 for their records, 3 to give to bidders.

1 color copy of plant images for their records

And Electronic copy of the plant images and if they request it a pdf of the drawings too.

>>Talk about Negotiating with one contractor early in the design process rather than bidding. Explain the difference


Bidding vs. Negotiating

  • Bidding takes time —  Negotiating takes interviewing contractors for the best “fit”
  • Bidding doesn’t always mean you get the lowest price & sometimes the lowest price is not the best price — Bringing a contractor in early develops a relationship and a team so they have your best interests in mind.
  • Negotiating with a contractor means you and your designer can use their expertise during the design process (the best material for a rock wall// keeping the design in line with the budget)

If you use a landscape designer you should expect that professional to not only be available to answer questions from you and the contractor as the job is installed but ALSO be on site a minimum of once for a meeting with the contractor or project manager as the job begins.

I typically include 1-2 PERHAPS 3 site meetings during the installation in my proposals.  A meeting as the job begins// Another as the plants are installed and IF there is a lot of hardscape (patios, decks, paths) one more visit during that process too.

When you are doing your own design the process and steps are just about the same ESPECIALLY IF YOU PLANNING TO USE A LANDSCAPE CONTRACTOR. 

  • Measure the site locating existing property lines, buildings, paths and driveways, and existing plants to remain. Use this information to create a site plan drawn to scale for yourself so you have a base to sketch over.
  • Decide which functions you want in your garden.
    • A place to entertain?
    • A spot for the dog?
    • A play area for the kids?
    • A hot tub or fire pit?
    • A pea patch for veggies?
    • A place to meditate?

What is important to you?       Most urban properties are not large enough to incorporate everything we all dream of in our gardens soooo CHOOSE 3 FUNCTIONS AND PLAN FOR THOSE.

  • Create some preliminary ideas and discuss them with your family.
  • Once you have narrowed down your options and expectations, draw up a final plan and a list of the plants you want to use.
  • Include images of elements you like such as the
    • style of fencing,
    • gates and arbors,
    • lighting ideas,
    • water features etc.

To share with a contractor.


Warnings and Caveats:

If you ask contractors to bid on your project the only way to get accurate numbers from each bidder is to have drawings so nothing is forgotten and each contractor has the same information.

If you use a contractor remember BIG changes in the middle of the job will cost you money.  So take time to think through your design.

If you are doing the installation yourself design drawings will keep you on track and focused.

If you are doing the installation yourself, carefully think through what needs to be installed first, second, third etc. so you will not take 3 steps forward only to realize you have to back up a step and undo what you have already done!

DO NOT BUY PLANTS BEFORE YOUR DESIGN IS FINALIZED.  You may be limiting your ultimate design and regret it later

A good primer on garden design is Understanding Garden Design (Timber Press) by Vanessa Gardner Nagel.  She takes you through the process step by step.     QUESTIONS???



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Japanese Gardens PDX Style — Talking Notes

Intro: (First slide) Welcome!
Who am I? Many yrs. experience as a commercial interior designer, a gardener and plant nerd.
8 years ago stepped over the threshold and now designing on the other side.
I find I can apply all the design principals I used in architecture to the landscape and also use the skills I developed as a gardener. I am a Master Gardener, a prof. member of APLD (Asso. of Professional Landscape Designers) and there are a few other letters behind my name. But basically I am a plant-aholic and design is part of my DNA.

I have always admired the restraint and deliberateness of Japanese Gardens AND last summer I participated in a training that took me to another level of understanding of Japanese design.
(1 slide)
The Waza to Kokoro (Hands and Heart) experience —
Put on by the Portland Japanese Garden
12 days total, 6 lecture days, 5 days hands on work and a tea ceremony nearly every morning.
Participants were from all trades and all over the US. Landscape contractors, designers, curators of other Japanese gardens and even a college student.
We came from Illinois, N. Carolina, Washington state, California, Oregon
Teachers were staff from the Japanese Garden, 3 Professional gardeners came from Japan with their translators and others were scholars in the community.
The training contributed volumes to my basic knowledge of designing through the lens of Asian influence.
This is an annual program. There are still spaces available for this year’s training sessions at both the Beginner and the Intermediate levels. Contact the Portland Japanese Garden to find out more.

Before I start — if you are interested my talking notes they will be posted on my website about a week from now. Beware they are somewhat abbreviated. Look for them under the NEWS tab.

Let’s begin….When we think of Japanese landscapes we often use words like:
(1 slide)
 Minimal, rectilinear, clean, deliberate, calm & contemplative, green, retreat. Etc.

There are 9 recognized design principals in Japanese Gardens but for the sake of time we will talk about 4 of the major design principals here today:
Enclosure & Entry, The Path, using Void as an accent and Balance.

If you have been to our Japanese Garden in since June, you know there is a new entrance – a meandering path that takes you up the hill to the garden itself.
This is premeditated.
It is a devise to help the visitor transition from daily life and the rush of the city to the tranquility of the garden. It takes time and effort to climb the path and as you rise you metaphorically leave the busy world behind. In Japan gardens are designed to do the same.

1. Enclosure & Entry – In Japan the urban environment is very densely populated therefore gardens are framed for privacy and to control the view and treated as a work of art.
(2 slides – traditional and contemporary)

Garden Gates are significant because each gate represents a transition point where increasingly you leave more of the everyday world behind…. Distancing yourself from the noise and stress of the city and preparing yourself psychologically to experience garden. Usually there are 3 gates – an outer gate, a middle gate and an inner gate.

Gates are also used to control views and movement. The outer gate is typically the most imposing and densely built, often roofed.
The middle gate is lighter, lower and made of bamboo. The inner gate is the lightest and most welcoming and sometimes is just a suggestion of a gate – in some cases it is a gate which you could walk around rather than through. But of course no one would do that!
(4 slides – traditional and contemporary)

2. The Path – paths are not just for wayfinding and traffic control in a garden. They also control the cadence of motion and views of vignettes and specific garden elements.
Traditionally there are two types of paths.
Stepping stone paths which are informal are made with irregular stones and meander.
And more formal, rectangular, wider, elongated paths called Nobedans.

Small stepping stone paths force the visitor to look down, pay attention to where you place your feet and slow the rate of travel. When a large stepping stone is placed in the middle of a path of smaller stones it offers a spot to pause and view a plant or object. OR a large stepping stone placed strategically at the intersection of 2-3 stone paths will cause the visitor to look up, pause and decide which direction to take.
(3 slides – traditional and contemporary)

Nobedan paths often look like a tatami mat. The stone used in Nobedan is cut and fit and sometimes mortared together. They are straight and level which lets the walker forget about foot placement and look at the surroundings and walk more quickly.
(2 slides – traditional and contemporary)

And when a path is closed to visitors a Barrier Stone = sekimori-ishi is placed in the middle of the path. A very civilized way to signal “no entry” …
(1slide – traditional and contemporary)

3. Void As Accent – Japanese use the term “ma” to describe a defined open space or void. It is used as punctuation, as in a pause in a dance movement or moments of silence in music or the space in a painting intentionally left empty.
It is a place for the eye to rest in a garden in the midst of a jumble of plants, textures and color. That is “ma”.

Traditional gardens use dry gardens to create void– Raked sand or gravel gardens …these are open landscapes perhaps punctuated with boulders or dense plants. Or pools of water create “ma” Or “ma” can be created with a carpet of moss
In a contemporary garden this could be a stone patio with plantings at the edge OR a large pond OR the ubiquitous lawn.
(2 slides – traditional and contemporary)

4. Balance – Balance in combination with “ma” are the two most important design principals which give a garden Japanese character.
In Japanese gardens Balance is asymmetrical – no matching columns placed on either side of a gate. Garden elements are weighted differently — a tall narrow plant might be balanced by a low dense boulder nearby.
Straight paths are used sparingly and paths tend to wander.
Groups of elements are used in uneven numbers – 3 boulders, 5 pines.
(2 slides – traditional and contemporary)

So to review 4 important design principals are
1. Enclosure and Entry
2. The Path
3. The use of Void or “ma”
4. Asymmetrical Balance
Thoughtfully incorporating these 4 principals and a few other minor principals will help your Portland gardens to be truer to the Japanese style rather than “Japaneseque”.
It is more than images of a laughing Buddha and stone lanterns….

2 books which I find very valuable ….both by the same writer, Marc Peter Keane
Japanese Garden Design goes into detail about design and how it originated culturally, historically and politically. And more about design principals, techniques and design elements
Japanese Garden Notes is a more visual display of Japanese garden design – being a very visual person this book is my first “go to” as a reference.
Order them on Amazon for best pricing.