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Tracey’s Top 8 – Our Editor’s Must-Have Gardening Essentials

Posts like this make me uncomfortable. After all, I’m just an ordinary gardener like all of you. Who am I to suggest you should buy one hand tool over another or choose to use one brand of fertilizer rather than that one.

But over the years, I’ve received quite a few emails from readers asking what tool I’m using in a certain photo or what my recommendations are for grow lights. So, maybe it’s not such a far-fetched notion to share a few of the gardening essentials that I rely on season after season.

Without further ado – my favorites.

1. Black Iron Hori Hori Knife

Hori hori knife stuck in the ground
Despite a few scratches here and there, it’s held up really well.

My hori hori knife has replaced every garden hand tool I own. It’s the only thing I use from the time I transplant seedlings in the spring to my final harvest in the fall. I remember thinking for years that these were all hype.

Then, I bought one after reading Lindsay’s article.

Time and again, I found myself reaching for it rather than my trowel, the weeder or even my little garden fork. Eventually, all the other tools were left hanging in the garage. When the handle of my cheapy hori hori snapped, I upgraded to this Black Iron hori hori knife and haven’t looked back. It digs, it cuts, it cultivates, it scoops; ah if only it did the dishes.

It’s sharp, has a full tang (meaning the blade and handle are all one piece of metal) and comes with a decent leather sheaf. I’m a firm believer in tools you only have to buy once, and this Black Iron Hori Hori fits that bill.

2. Urban Worm Soil Thermometer

Hand putting a soil thermometer in the ground
Do you know, I just now noticed the little triangle is made up of three worms.

Longtime Rural Sprout readers will recognize this little guy from quite a few articles. My Urban Worm soil thermometer is one of the handiest little garden tools I never knew I needed until I had it. I bought it on a whim one spring as I was impatiently waiting to put seedlings out way too early so a frost could kill them.

(What? You don’t let your excitement for the new garden season get the best of you from time to time?)

Having a soil thermometer takes all the guesswork out of planting in the spring. It clues me in during a heatwave to expect plants to slow production. I can even monitor how my compost heap is doing.

3. Rainbird On-Surface Dripline

Length of Rain Bird dripline running through garden

For years, we used soaker hose. And for years, we replaced soaker hose each spring (or sometimes in the middle of the growing season) because it had rotted or become too clogged with mud and no longer worked. In frustration, the Engineer spent a winter looking for a better alternative – he came up with Rain Bird.

We installed Rain Bird dripline in our garden, and it was a game-changer. It’s sturdy, easy to use and allows us to put water right where it’s needed, which means we water much less frequently.

4. Orbit B-Hyve Smart Hose Faucet Timer

A b-hyve smart hose timer
Behold! The mighty box that allows us to go on vacation!

There is a constant tug of war between the Engineer and me over our idea of the phrase “keep it simple.”

To me, keeping it simple means skipping the gadgets, not a lot of fuss, use whatever I have lying around.

I’m old school.

To the Engineer, keeping it simple means automating everything as much as possible so you don’t have to fuss with them.

Luckily, we’re pretty good at meeting in the middle, like with this smart hose timer. I wanted to be able to water the garden as needed, so we weren’t indiscriminately wasting water. He wanted to be able to set it and forget so we could go out of town without having to fuss with watering the garden.

This smart timer allows me to water the garden from anywhere, with or without a schedule. If rain is forecast, the timer will skip or delay watering so we aren’t wasting water. It’s efficient and a good compromise in our tug-of-war.  

5. Vivosun Heating Mats and Digital Thermostat Control

Three Vivosun heat mats and digital thermostats
I can tell the Engineer put these away last year by the lovely cord management.

When it comes to starting seeds, I want to do everything I can to ensure excellent germination rates, so I don’t have to start over again. To that end, I rely on these Vivosun heat mats with the digital thermostat control. (They’re part of my seed starting kit.)

I own three of them and use them each spring to gently warm my seed-starting mix.

I can set the temps to match what I’m germinating. For instance, I place my tomatoes and peppers on one mat, as these are seeds that require much higher soil temps for good germination.

Not only have these mats improved my germination rates, but they also cut down on the time it takes seeds to germinate. They make kicking off the gardening season a real treat.

6. Barrina LED Grow Lights

A set of Barinna LED grow lights
Great bang for your buck, these.

I have bought my fair share of LED grow lights over the past decade. The first few were expensive and not great. Over the years, they have improved greatly, but there are still quite a few bad ones out there. (I’ve bought my share of those, too.)

I stumbled across these Barrina lights several years ago, and they’re top-notch. I ended up donating all my other lights to Goodwill, and these are the only ones I use anymore for both seed starting and growing indoor veggies in the cooler months.

7. Farmer’s Defense Gardening Sleeves

Woman's arm wearing a pair of gardening sleeves.
It’s hard to choose from all the great patterns.

With my pale skin, I burn easily. It’s to the point now where if I go out in the summer without sunscreen for longer than an hour, I break out in a polymorphous light eruption – or sun poisoning rash.

My intentions to wear sunscreen at all times are noble, but unfortunately, I struggle to remember these intentions. So, I asked for a pair of these wonderful sleeves for my birthday. They’re fantastic!

Not only do they protect my arms from the sun, but they also protect me from developing a rash when handling tomato plants, which I do a lot in my garden.

May I suggest you get two pairs, so you always have one on hand when the other pair is in the wash.

8. Suncast 22 Gallon Storage Seat

Outdoor storage seat in a garden.
I’ve had many a beer sitting on this thing, surveying a hard day’s work.

I have a neurological disorder that impacts my working memory. (You know when you walk into a room and forget why you went in there? That’s been my entire life.) To make life easier and lessen the impact of my disorder, I’m always on the lookout for ways to organize my physical space.

A couple of years ago, walking back to the garden after yet another trip up to the garage because I had forgotten something, I realized I had left my garden gloves in the garage. I stood there in the scorching sun, ready to scream. Without a second thought, I marched to my car, drove into town and picked up one of these storage seats.

This is hands down the single best purchase I have made for my garden. Like ever.

It sits at the entrance to the garden. My hori hori knife, gloves, gardening sleeves, my kneeling pad, fertilizers, twine, scissors, pruners etc., hang out in this box. Nothing in that box leaves the garden. Everything gets pitched in the box on my way out. No more back-and-forth to the garage.

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Tracey Besemer

Hey there, my name is Tracey. I’m the editor-in-chief here at Rural Sprout.

Many of our readers already know me from our popular Sunday newsletters. (You are signed up for our newsletters, right?) Each Sunday, I send a friendly missive from my neck of the woods in Pennsylvania. It’s a bit like sitting on the front porch with a friend, discussing our gardens over a cup of tea.

Originally from upstate NY, I’m now an honorary Pennsylvanian, having lived here for the past 18 years.

I grew up spending weekends on my dad’s off-the-grid homestead, where I spent much of my childhood roaming the woods and getting my hands dirty.

I learned how to do things most little kids haven’t done in over a century.

Whether it was pressing apples in the fall for homemade cider, trudging through the early spring snows of upstate NY to tap trees for maple syrup, or canning everything that grew in the garden in the summer - there were always new adventures with each season.

As an adult, I continue to draw on the skills I learned as a kid. I love my Wi-Fi and knowing pizza is only a phone call away. And I’m okay with never revisiting the adventure that is using an outhouse in the middle of January.

These days, I tend to be almost a homesteader.

I take an eclectic approach to homesteading, utilizing modern convenience where I want and choosing the rustic ways of my childhood as they suit me.

I’m a firm believer in self-sufficiency, no matter where you live, and the power and pride that comes from doing something for yourself.

I’ve always had a garden, even when the only space available was the roof of my apartment building. I’ve been knitting since age seven, and I spin and dye my own wool as well. If you can ferment it, it’s probably in my pantry or on my kitchen counter. And I can’t go more than a few days without a trip into the woods looking for mushrooms, edible plants, or the sound of the wind in the trees.

You can follow my personal (crazy) homesteading adventures on Almost a Homesteader and Instagram as @aahomesteader.

Peace, love, and dirt under your nails,