I don’t know if you know this about me, but I love garden tools and gadgets. I’ve always been on the hunt for the best garden gear, which means I’ve wasted my fair share of money on some not-so-great options. For the past several years, I’ve even shared my top picks in my joe gardener Best of the Must-Haves guide, so you could avoid some of the buying mistakes I’d made.
This week, I’m talking with Monica Hemingway. Monica has been gardening since she was 10 years old. She’s a licensed arborist, and for several years, she worked as a professional landscaper and garden coach. These days, she tests and reviews garden products for a living. She and her nation-wide team of testers (including husband, Jack) put tools and gear through some grueling paces, and the results are published on the Gardening Products Review website.
A Narrow Escape – and a New Career
Monica’s journey into product review began five years ago when she was trying to dig up a Joe Pye Weed. The shovel broke, and she nearly impaled herself. The wound healed, but the incident got Monica thinking.
She had lots of tools in her garden shed but realized that many of them were, essentially, junk. With a new-found appreciation for the safety that accompanies quality, she made up her mind to replace the sub-par gear, but she had a difficult time finding reliable resources to identify which tools were the best and would stand the test of time.
Like me, she was tired of wasting money on things that just didn’t work or which could even cause harm. At the time, Monica was publishing a garden blog, and as someone who has always been fascinated by how things work, she decided to test the products she already owned and share results on her blog site.
As readership of her review articles quickly outpaced Monica’s other garden articles, she realized she had struck a chord. She made up her mind to pursue tool testing full time and create an online resource which could be considered the Consumer Reports of garden tools.
Monica reached out to distributors, inviting them to send her tools for review. Companies weren’t very receptive in the beginning, but these days, Monica and her team receive more product than they can handle.
Keeping an Eye on the Big Picture
The Gardening Products Review team has published over 380 reviews to date, with 80 reviews just this year. Since they receive more testing requests than they can accommodate, Monica and Jack weed some out immediately.
They typically avoid reviewing any product which isn’t yet commercially available to homeowners. Their goal is to be a resource for consumers, so why review it when it’s not available for sale?
Some gear is clearly poor or defective quality from the start. In those instances, Monica provides feedback to manufacturers of new products to identify any obvious improvements to quality or performance. Oftentimes, this advice spurs companies to go back to the drawing board or make modifications to the product.
That said, Monica and Jack are always actively looking for the latest and greatest stuff coming on to the market. Their reputation has earned them judging roles at the annual National Hardware Show – an enormous event which can take a few days to navigate and includes a large area devoted to the lawn & garden category. Monica and Jack examine the garden tools at the show and award the standouts.
This event offers them the opportunity to identify consumer trends and work with some brands to see what’s on the horizon in the garden world.
The Testing Process
When the Gardening Products team reviews an item, they mean business and follow specific benchmarks in order to separate the good from the bad. They focus on tools that a typical homeowner would use in the garden and rarely review anything which only landscape professionals would use.
Each member of the review team follows the same six-page set of testing criteria. These are designed to cover any question that a homeowner might want answered – such as how heavy is it, how easy is it to handle, how durable is it, etc.
Testing follows three main categories with a maximum rating of 5 stars:
- Performance – Does the item do what it is marketed and designed to do?
- Quality – Does the item stand up to real-world use?
- Ease-of-Use – Does the item need to be assembled, and if so, is it easy to put together? How comfortable is it to use? How strong must the gardener be to use it effectively? Etc.
If they discover a significant issue with a product during testing, Gardening Products will reach out to the maker’s customer service department – just as any savvy homeowner would do. Recognizing that some manufacturers can experience entire batches made with an unusual defect, the Gardening Products team explains the problem to Customer Service and requests a replacement. If a replacement is sent (usually the case), it is put through the rigors of testing.
If a replacement item is still found lacking, Monica or Jack reach out to the company to explain their findings and provide the organization a chance to respond. Although it’s not always the case, most companies are very receptive to this feedback and use the information to try to design a better, longer-lasting product.
Testers take multiple photographs throughout the process, and these are shared – along with the final review – on the website.
If a product just isn’t up to snuff, well – those reviews are published too. Monica and her team are keen that consumers really know the score, so if there is a better product model out there, they want the homeowner to be aware.
Reviews include star ratings based on the garden product’s performance throughout testing, and since one of the goals is that consumers not waste hard-earned money on sub-quality gear, there is always an eye on product price too.
The Business Behind the Testing Business
All of this testing and writing and photographing – it sounds like a lot of work, right? It is, but Monica and her team do it for the love of the process and a commitment to providing valuable information to homeowners. Good thing, because theirs is not a lucrative business model.
Gardening Products Review doesn’t take compensation from companies to test their products. Accepting payment to test could compromise the integrity of their results. Monica and Jack want to be certain that their reviews are objective.
Their only financial reward comes through some of the purchases made directly from links on the website. Product reviews include direct links, so the homeowner can browse easily to the option to purchase the item. Some of these are Amazon links, and from those, Monica and Jack receive a small, affiliate commission. That said, they do price comparison research and always strive to link the cheapest resource for the item to make sure readers receive the most cost-effective deal possible. So for all those items not linked for sale through Amazon, there is no compensation to Gardening Products Review.
There is one thing that Monica and Jack do charge for – the Gardening Products Review Seal of Approval. A product must receive 5 stars on all three categories (quality, performance and ease-of-use) before it is eligible for the GPR Seal of Approval. The distributor of that product can purchase the rights to use the Seal of Approval for about $100 – quite a deal when you consider that the mark has become the gold standard for a top-notch garden product.
If you see the GPR Seal of Approval on garden gear or tools, you can feel very good about that purchase. Monica and Jack are very particular about which items can carry this vote of confidence. Those that do have really been put through the paces and come out on top.
Ok – you might be wondering: What are the top picks of the garden guru who has built a reputation for knowing the best from the rest? I sure was, and Monica didn’t disappoint. Here are a few of her favorites:
Monica’s top glove pick is from Digz. They are touchscreen compatible, comfortable and – at around $10 per pair – very affordable. She cautions that they won’t last forever, but at that price, they are easy to replace when necessary.
Another longer-lasting option is from Bionic. They are all leather and fully-articulated for ease of hand movement, so they are a good option for homeowners with limited hand strength.
For heavier-duty work, Monica loves Bear Wallow Rose Gauntlet gloves. These gloves will set your wallet back a little more but provide better protection for real garden challenges. They are breathable but, at the same time, practically impermeable. Monica lives in Tuscon, Arizona and can use these gloves to lift and carry cactus which would pierce her hands through most other varieties.
Many gardeners are familiar with the hori hori knife. Monica prefers the Lesche Digging Tool and says it’s like a hori hori on steroids. She uses hers for just about everything – digging, weeding, prying up pavers, cutting through roots, etc. This was one of the first tools Monica ever reviewed, and it’s been her go-to choice for nearly a decade. Unlike the hori hori, the blade of this tool is offset, so it’s more comfortable to use and provides more leverage for the task at hand.
Who doesn’t need a great shovel? Not all shovels are created equal, and there are many new designs out there lately. Which model will work best for you depends, a bit, on your individual circumstances. If you garden in hard or rocky soil, Monica recommends the Earth Talon model. It’s unique blade cuts more easily through tough soil.
If your soil is easier to manage, and you prefer something more lightweight, the Green Heron HERShovel is a good option. With ergonomic design, it’s also a good choice for anyone with arthritis or back problems.
With decades of gardening under my belt, I’m pretty particular about which garden hose I use. I love my Water Right Inc, food-grade-safe polyurethane hoses. They’re a bit more expensive than the typical garden hose, but they’ve stood the test for me. So, I’ll admit that I’m not keen to go looking for other options.
Monica’s favorite is the Dramm ColorStorm™ Premium Hose. She’s left hers sitting outside in the relentless Tuscon sun and heat for five years, and they have shown no sign of degrading anytime soon. In fact, she’s pretty sure these hoses will last just about forever. It doesn’t hurt that they come in six color options either.
She frequently is asked about expandable hose. Most of these products are definitely not worth the money and are known for rupturing and plenty of other quality issues. That said, the Aeroflex™ is one of a few newer versions which are built using a slightly different design and tend to last much longer than other expandable hoses. These lightweight hoses can be really useful if you garden in limited space or need something collapsible to water your balcony containers.
There are so many great cordless tool products on the market now that Monica feels most homeowners can forego even considering gas-powered models. She recommends purchasing within the same brand, so all your cordless tools can use the same battery systems and chargers interchangeably.
Monica’s choice for the king of performance is the Redback brand. Although these tools are typically only available online, their consistent quality and performance make them worth a little extra effort. The top mowers, blowers and string trimmers as reviewed by the Gardening Products team are all from Redback.
If you are looking for something a little heavier duty, Yard Force is a good brand. Their tools offer a little more power, but be prepared to wield more weight than the lightweight Redback models.
Monica also recommends the Worx GT Revolution string trimmer for anyone who is looking for something that is lightweight and easy to store. This tool is a multi-tasking powerhouse. It performs as an edger, string trimmer and mower. It won’t offer pro-grade power, but it will get the basics done and collapses to a compact size.
Living in Tuscon means that Monica has to take extra care with her container plants. She’s tried many of the self-watering container models and wasn’t impressed until she tested the Trudrop from Crescent Gardens. It’s double-walled to hold water around the entire perimeter of the container. It’s not the prettiest model on the block, but Monica can fill it and trust that her plants will receive the moisture they need for up to three weeks – even under the searing 115 degree temperatures of the Arizona sun. Pretty impressive.
If you are looking for a vertical container, Monica recommends the GreenStalk Stackable planter. It’s available with three or five vertical rows and can hold up to six plants in each row. Unlike many vertical planters which don’t distribute water evenly from top to bottom, the Green Stalk model provides consistent moisture throughout. The wheels at the bottom make this 2’x2’ unit easy to move too, so you won’t need to break your back to chase the sun – and you’ll be able to steer it indoors quickly if an unexpected storm hits.
Be a Savvy Shopper
If you’ve long relied on consumer reviews available on commerce sites, such as Amazon – absorb that information with a grain of salt. Many consumers mistreat the products they’ve purchased and, oftentimes, you’ll read evidence of this in the review they submit. Take the time to actually read those consumer reviews thoroughly and use your common sense. Even the best products can fail when they aren’t properly cared for.
Monica also recommends that you take a step back before you actually make a purchase. Take time to realistically consider whether or not a products looks like it will do what you need it do. Does it provide some function that your current tools don’t offer? Although we might all be tempted by the latest gadget (including yours truly), it’s best to stick with the basics – gloves, digging and weeding tools, pruners, something to deliver water, a mower and trimmer, and a favorite garden cart or hauling device – everything else is just extra.
It’s also important to do the research to determine whether or not the tool will work for you in spite of any limitations you might have. If you struggle with back issues, arthritis, or even storage space – the gear you buy should work for you.
If in doubt, check out the Gardening Products Review website. Odds are pretty good that they’ve probably reviewed the product you’re considering. They’ve also put together a Top 25 Gifts list for the holidays. You may want to share that with anyone who will be shopping for you this year.
Maybe you think you have the chops to become a product reviewer? Monica and Jack may be looking for new testers now and in the future. They particularly welcome any gardeners who live in areas where winter is mild, so testing can continue through those winter months. If you are interested, you can fill out their application form – but a word of warning: Monica and Jack have developed a rigorous application process to ensure that the tools and gear on the market continue to be tested fully and that the resulting review is well-written and photographed.
Are you hoping Santa will bring you any new tools this year? Share your holiday wishes in the Comments section below. I don’t have any influence with St. Nick, but you just might spark ideas for other readers. I must admit, I’m kicking around the idea of finding a good leaf shredder. I love shredded leaves as mulch and have collected a record number of bagged leaves this year from friends and neighbors throughout my community. It’s not a tool essential, but it sure would help me with the mounds of leaves I’ve gathered.
You can listen in to my conversation with Monica by scrolling to the top of the page and clicking the Play icon in the green bar under the page title. Monica shares a few more tool stories and is a wealth of information on the world of garden gear. I hope you enjoy!