Low Maintenance Garden Part 1: Tools

Carolyn’s Shade Gardens is a retail nursery located in Bryn Mawr, PA, specializing in showy, colorful, and unusual plants for shade.  The only plants that we ship are snowdrops and miniature hostas.  For catalogues and announcements of events, please send your full name, location, and phone number (for back up use only) to carolyn@carolynsshadegardens.com.  Click here to get to the home page of our website for catalogues and information about our nursery and to subscribe to our blog.

Note Card Images note card images

Before I get to the post, I want to let all my readers know that I have set up a shop on Etsy, a website featuring vintage and handmade goods, called CarolynsShadeGardens so you can use your credit card to purchase my photo note cards.  Click here to visit the shop and see the note cards available.   You can also click on the permanent link I have placed on the right sidebar of this website.

The cards come individually or in sets and are perfect for birthday greetings, expressions of sympathy, thank you notes, and for communicating with friends the old-fashioned way. The card sets make great gifts for the holidays especially useful for hostess presents, last minute gifts, and for the friend who has everything.


DSCN2937Michael demonstrates edging using an edger with a long handle.

Nursery customers always comment on the amount of work it must take to maintain our display gardens and marvel at how Michael and I do it with no additional help.  At this point in our lives, we are wondering that ourselves, but that’s another story.  However, part of the answer is that over our 30 years of gardening here we have developed many techniques to keep maintenance to a minimum while using sustainable, organic methods. 

In spring 2012, we developed a series of seminars to teach these techniques to our customers.  For readers who can’t attend, I thought I would show you what goes on during Michael’s Low Maintenance Garden Seminars.


DSCN2929Michael shows off his all round favorite tool, a digging tool from Gempler’s discussed below.

Each seminar begins with a review of essential tools and their maintenance.  When Michael visits customers’ gardens in his capacity as garden coach, he often finds that they are making do with inadequate garden tools.  Having the right tool allows gardeners to perform maintenance jobs easily and efficiently.  Michael and I both have our favorites, and he demonstrates them during his seminar and tells attendees where to purchase them.


DSCN3405Michael’s favorite tool, a Gempler’s Professional 12″ Digging Tool.  It is similar to a Japanese farmer’s knife, but it has a hand guard for protection, which is essential for the safe use of this type of tool.  He uses it for weeding, planting, cutting, and many other jobs.  I prefer a skinny-headed trowel for weeding and a rabbiting spade for planting.


Originally, I was going to cover everything in one post, but as I started to write I found a lot to say about tools.  I was inspired to take individual photos of some of the important tools because Michael and I feel so strongly that they are the best.  The actual garden maintenance part of the seminars will be covered in Part 2.


DSCN3402Michael and I both would not be without Felco No. 2 Pruners.  My father bought me this pair over 30 years ago when he found me using some Kmart knock offs.  With infrequent sharpenings, they work as well as they did when I got them.


DSCN2922Michael demonstrates the use of our Dramm watering wand.  We have one of these wands on the end of each hose on our property and find it indispensable for all watering tasks.  I met the Dramm representative at a conference recently and told her that we promoted the wands at our seminars.  She nicely sent six wands to raffle off at our fall seminars this year, and six happy attendees went home with a new tool.  We hope to continue this with Dramm and other manufacturers at future seminars.  The hose to which the wand is attached is made by Flexogen and is the only kind we use—heavy duty and kink resistant.


DSCN3400For branches too thick for pruners, we use this folding hand saw also made by Felco.  It fits in your back pocket but handles very large branches while being easy to maneuver in tight spaces.


DSCN2931Tool maintenance, especially keeping tools clean and sharp, is very important.  Here Michael cleans and sharpens the pointed blade of our long-handled shovel, which is the shovel we both use for digging and shoveling.  The long handle is essential for the leverage you need to get the job done easily no matter what size you are and without bending over.


DSCN3401   These Corona ComfortGel Floral Snips are the tool I always have with me in the garden.  They are small enough to cut herbaceous leaves but rugged enough to handle woody stalks and small branches.  The gel handles are comfortable, and the blades spring open and closed smoothly.


DSCN3403Michael and I both think it is very important to protect your knees when you are kneeling down weeding or planting.  We both wear strap on kneepads.  I prefer the soft kind made by Kneelons pictured above while Michael likes the hard shell type sold for doing tile work.


Other tools we recommend: I dig all the perennials I grow and sell with a rabbiting spade, which is just the right size to slip easily between other plants that I do not want to disturb.  Long-handled loppers are useful for leverage when pruning bigger branches.  We also consider a heavy duty, very sharp, folding serrated knife essential for dividing plants.  I never head out into the garden to weed without my large or small Bosmere weeding bag (they call it a tip bag).  These bags are very light but durable and their sides don’t sag.

We could recommend many other tools—this won’t surprise you if you have been here and seen our garage—but these are the most important tools that help make our garden low maintenance.



Carolyn’s Shade Gardens is a local retail nursery in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, U.S., zone 6b. The only plants that we mail order are snowdrops and miniature hostas and only within the US.

If you are within visiting distance and would like to receive catalogues and information about customer events, please send your full name and phone number to carolynsshadegardens@verizon.net. Subscribing to my blog does not sign you up to receive this information.

Nursery Happenings: Carolyn’s Shade Gardens is closed for the winter.  Please visit my Etsy Shop to purchase photo note cards suitable for all occasions by clicking here.  Look for the 2014 Snowdrop Catalogue in early January.

Facebook: Carolyn’s Shade Gardens has a Facebook Page where I post single photos, garden tips, and other information that doesn’t fit into a blog post. You can look at my Facebook page here or click the Like button on my right sidebar here.

Notes: Every word that appears in orange on my blog is a link that you can click for more information. If you want to return to my blog’s homepage to access the sidebar information (catalogues, previous articles, etc.) or to subscribe to my blog, just click here.

43 Responses to “Low Maintenance Garden Part 1: Tools”

  1. Hello Carolyn,
    A great topic for a post, so thank you for sharing your advice with us. I really like the look of the Digging knife tool – will have to see if its available over here, and also didn’t realise that Felco did a folding pruning saw. Both look like they’d be pretty helpful for use as our garden matures,
    Best wishes

    • Julian, I only use hand tools so the Felco folding saw is used to cut some pretty heavy duty branches. I have another bigger hand saw that gets used before I call in Michael with the chainsaw. I hope you can find the digging tool with the hand guard. Michael feels strongly that if the tool has a cutting blade it should have a guard. Carolyn

  2. […] Low Maintenance Garden Part 1: Tools (carolynsshadegardens.com) […]

  3. Cheryl Mandler Says:

    I loved this blog, Carolyn. My 25 year old #2 Fedco pruning shears went missing at a church cleanup party recently. I had to immediately go out and replace it for $85 but I wouldn’t be without it. You’ve inspired me to look for soft knee pads. I just can’t get used to the hard shell ones that we have. Happy Thanksgiving.

    • Cheryl, Nice to hear from you. #2 Felcos have a very dedicated following. $85 is a little steep, the Felco Store offers them for $54 and Gempler’s lists them for $50. You will love the kneepads, and I highly recommend Kneelons. Mine disappeared this spring and a quick replacement with another brand was a mistake. Happy Thanksgiving, Carolyn

  4. Beth DelConte Says:

    Thanks Carolyn for a great post. Will the man who sharpened tools at a open house previously be returning in 2014?

  5. I’m a big fan of Felco tools too, I have the same folding saw and pruners

  6. I have the same Felco hand saw and flower snips for my home garden, but the landscapers/nursery workers I work with use different/additional tools. Most are larger to the hand and heavier than is comfortable for a woman to use. They also recommend sharpening which they do after a hard day’s job. The main difference is working with perennials to trees and shrubs. Digging and pruning vastly differs on tool use between the smaller to larger plants. The guys do still use their larger (than mine) pruners on perennials. They tell me mine (Felco are F8 – redesign of the F2) are too small to get a job done quickly. When I was making Christmas wreaths for the farm, I always took a ribbing about using my smaller pruners.

    • Donna, I think it’s just a guy thing. I am very fast with my pruners, but as you say it is mostly perennials. As you can tell from the post, Michael likes different tools for the same jobs and he likes power tools like chainsaws and a drill auger for planting perennials. Carolyn

  7. Thank You for this information Carolyn. Using the right tools makes every task more enjoyable. My problem is that I often lose my tools. They disappear beneath the lowgrowing evergreens or end u in the compost heap. Do you use a toolbelt?

  8. Mary Douglas Says:

    Thank you for this informative post! I suffer from using poor tools and will invest in some new ones, esp the hoses.

  9. A rabbit spade sounds perfect. These are all great tools. I’d so love to go to one of your seminars because you two seem pretty amazing in the garden. I heard a local speaker talk last night at PPSMT and boy did she ever love Longwood and Chanticleer. Thought of you! Happy Holidays to you!

  10. Thanks for a great post Carolyn, having the right tools for the job is so important. I must admit I have never been able to afford a good, expensive pair of secateurs so I keep buying the cheap ones which are gone in a year or so. But I have other tools I am very happy with and have had for years – my big, strong loppers are invaluable and I also have one of those foldable pruning saws like yours. And I love my digging spade from Spear & Jackson, just the right length and weight for me.

    • Helene, The pruners/secateurs would make a great holiday gift to your self and would save you money in the long run as mine have lasted over 30 years—just using them for the final clean up today. I get very attached to my tool and frantic if they go missing! Carolyn

  11. Enjoyed reading your tool recommendations. I passed along a couple of ideas to Santa!

  12. You can find Dramm products online at amazon.com! Thanks!

  13. An important posting, Carolyn. Winter is a good time to assess my own supply and determine where I need to add and make changes. I am heading out to the potting shed right now …
    P. x

  14. My favourite tools are narrow trowels and my pruners. I can’t imagine gardening without them.

  15. Great post! The Japanese farmer’s knife (or hori-hori) is highly recommended by the native plant gardeners at the local UW-Madison Arboretum. I have a spade that works in a similar way, but I’m planning to get a hori-hori soon. I have and appreciate most of the other tools you mention. Oh, but I do need to get the attachable knee pads. Usually, I just kneel wherever without a pad because they seem to get in the way. The attachable ones make sense! Great to see the demonstrations, too. Thanks.

    • Beth, I have been wearing the kneepads for years. They do require manual adjustments, mostly pulling them up, when you have been crawling around on the ground, but they protect my knees and that’s important. I tried the slip on kind without straps and they were terrible. You can’t go wrong with Kneelons. Carolyn

  16. Congratulations on your commercial venture on Etsy. I look forward to see samples of your work on that site.

  17. I have a pair of long handled edging shears which I brought with me from England. I use them to trim the lawn edges. Michaels look really tall but maybe they are a different design. Mine allow me to stand normally and have them at just the right height without bending. Then I use my hoe to scoop the trimmings into piles and only have to bend a few times to pick those up.

  18. Hi Carolyn,

    That was both interesting and educative. The tool recommendations are great but I wonder whether this could be a function of which part of the world and environment one lives in. What would you say?


  19. Bosmere weeding bag? As soon as I saw your suggestion, I looked it up. I am immediately ordering one as a present for my next door neighbor. And another one for us!

    • Deb, I am so glad you found a new tool. I have been using the weeding bag for 20 years and love it. It is so light you can actually take it into a bed and perch it on top of plants and it won’t crush them. It has a black plastic rim around the top to keep it open. You just have to be careful not to overload the bag because if it gets to heavy the rim can twist and break. Carolyn

  20. Great choices Carolyn. I do have many but not all so there are a few ideas for gifts 🙂

  21. So timely to have these tool suggestions as the holiday gift-giving season rolls around. Thanks for the tips!

  22. Phillip Wilkinson Says:

    I had never heard of a rabbiting spade. I have and use what is called a trencher. It’s a narrow bladed shovel and I love it dividing and moving plants.

    • Philip, The rabbiting spade is also called a poacher’s spade, both terms seem to be used mainly in England. If you put them in to Goggle you will get images. Mine is short with a T handle and a small slightly curved blade. I tried to get a photo of a trencher but couldn’t. Carolyn

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