Proper tools can make the difference between a fruitful experience in the garden and a hot, difficult time that makes you scale back your ambitions. That's not to say you should buy a host of tools at great expense. There are, however, certain basic tools that most gardeners should own. Later, as experience and need dictate, a gardener can add to her collection. It's like stocking a kitchen, where basic tools like knives and bowls are a must before you buy something like a candy thermometer.
Shovel and Spade
You'll want a shovel and spade. The difference between them is that a shovel is best used to pick up and move loose material while a spade is meant to dig into and break up soil. Thus, when thinking spade, think blade, and, therefore, metal. Larger spades have space for your foot to bear down. A general purpose shovel choice is either a round point shovel or garden shovel, which is lighter.
A trowel is a handled scoop for small jobs like transplanting, digging holes, mixing soils, planting and weeding. Look for a trowel that is one continuous piece or that, at least, has a well-fitted handle. Since you'll use a trowel often, find one that feels natural in your hand.
With its strong, piercing tines, a garden fork or spading fork can sometimes get into soil more easily than a spade. This tool can also aerate soil, help transplant and, depending on size and type, weed in narrow places. A garden fork is not a pitchfork, which is more suitable for lifting material.
Mattocks are handy tools that can break up difficult soil, including clay. A hand tool that is something like a pick ax, a mattock has a double-sided head that can take the place of pick and hoe. Mattocks can also work around roots.
A hoe can create furrows for sowing seeds and dispatch weeds, among other things. There are many types of hoes; you'll probably collect several kinds of different sizes. In general, you'll use a hoe for cultivating and weeding in the context of your particular garden---keep that in mind to avoid becoming confused by the many choices. Later, when a certain problem repeatedly arises, consider if a different hoe is the solution.
Garden Shears and Pruners
If you are a flower gardener or have shrubs, shears and/or pruners will be a must. Shears and pruners can be taken apart for maintenance and sharpening. When choosing, think about ease of use, strength and the size of the plants you'll be cutting.
A rake can level ground, move gravel or sand and gather up materials. Rakes come in different materials with tines that may be pliable (lawn rake) or solid. The level head rake moves heavy materials and the back can be used for leveling.
Cart or Wheelbarrow
You'll have to transport materials in your garden. Your choice of cart or barrow will depend on what it will transport and the space in your garden. Wheelbarrows are more maneuverable and easier to dump than carts, but carts are more stable.
Clean soil from tools before putting them away. Hosing them off is fine, but don't put tools away wet. Rub wooden handles with linseed oil to preserve them. Wipe shears and pruners with oil after each use. If you don't have the know-how, have tools sharpened professionally.