1. Short-handled flat shovel, well-sharpened: The key to this tool is sharpening. By spending the extra 15 minutes to truly sharpen the blade, you'll save yourself hours of strenuous labor later. A short shovel is incredibly versatile, and can be used for anything from digging up plants or sod, to digging holes, cutting out roots, or even shoveling snow. The high-quality one I just bought was only $25.
While it's also handy to have a pick, you don't necessarily need one. If it's hard to dig, fill the area with water and wait for it to drain into the soil. Dig out the loosened soil, and repeat as necessary.
2. Tarp: A tarp is a workhorse in the yard. The best use is that you can pile it high with trimmings, plants, leaves, or whatever, and simply drag the items to another location. When you're petite like me, this is key! We also found it useful for keeping dirt out of our grassy areas, and for collecting up spilled mulch when shoveling it out of the truck. Speaking of mulch, by using a tarp for cover, you can even use a nice vehicle for transporting messy items. These are also quite affordable around $10, and even a small size will do wonders!
3. 10" limb saw: This compact saw will allow you to cut through branches up to 5" in diameter. Unless you're toppling mature trees, this should get you through most projects. With a $16 price tag, they put up some serious competition to an expensive chainsaw that requires frequent oiling and maintenance.
4. Large bucket, preferably the flexible kind: Like tarps, buckets are multi-functional. We use ours for collecting weeds, hauling branches, watering plants, and more! In many cities, this allows you to skip the lawn and leaf bags when you can just leave a pile of trimmings on the curb. My bucket also gets used for mopping and for picking up bulk flowers for my floral arrangements.
One great tip I got from my parents is to mix your fertilizer into a large batch in a bucket, then use a cup (we use our leftover Big Gulp cups!) to transfer the perfect amount directly onto the roots of your plants. This reduces the amount of fertilizer you need, prevents fertilizer runoff/pollution, and puts the nutrients precisely where they're needed.
Fancy buckets may run as much as $20, but you can get a five-gallon paint bucket brand new for $3 or maybe even free from a painter.
5. Pruning shears: These handheld snippers work great for small-scale pruning. They allow a precision that's simply not possible with larger shears. They can cut limbs up to 3/4" diameter. For larger limbs, you can use your limb saw I mentioned above. Pruning shears run about $11.
Bonus - Gloves and goggles: It's expensive to get hurt! Save your precious fingers and eyeballs and invest in the proper safety equipment. Grippy gloves give you a better hold on items, protect you from scratches and splinters, and also keep you cleaner. You can get decent protective gear for about $15 total.
So there you go! For around $60 you can completely outfit yourself do be able to tackle most any landscaping project.
Protect your investment by cleaning your tools at the end of each project (and every day during a project). Simply rinse off dirt and grime with fresh water and allow to dry. These tools could last decades with proper care. My Dad told me he still uses the axe he bought at 16! He's replaced the handle a few times, but the head is as good as ever.
If you find the need for additional implements, don't be scared to buy used. Some of our favorite tools are over 50 years old! Save money and gain quality by buying tools at yard sales, thrift stores, pawn shops, or off Craigslist.