Another list in this series describes tools for a flower garden. To me, the purpose of a flower garden is to putter, to do things with your hands, to take your time and relax. In other words, to enjoy the "Zen" of gardening. It's a hobby and a process.
A vegetable garden, on the other hand, can be all that as well, but there is usually another goal in mind, an end result that is more tangible - edible, in fact. With that in mind, I've picked tools that are more about efficiency and productivity than those you would choose for a flower garden. I've still applied the "bang for the buck" principle.
There are pitchforks and there are garden forks. Then there's a potato fork. What's the difference? A pitchfork is used to pitch hay and straw, which are very light materials. A pitchfork has long, thin tines that are spread very far apart, because this works best for straw and hay. A garden fork has tines that are shorter, heavier and closer together than those of a pitchfork. A garden fork can be used to aerate soil, to dig root veggies, to pitch weeds, and to turn compost - as long as your soil, weeds or compost aren't too heavy and hard. A potato fork, on the other (third?) hand, has tines that are very short and thick. They can stand up to a lot more abuse than the other forks can, including breaking up hard, packed soil and digging huge mounds of potatoes. A potato fork can also toss and turn lighter material. Its versatility and strength makes it an obvious first choice.
Even if you buy all the right tools and you get very efficient with them, gardening can take some time. Unless you like mud, you'll probably be doing most of your gardening in the sun. You need to cover up. Wear sunblock and SPF clothes. Wear a hat. Don't forget to protect your eyes with UVA and UVB filtering sunglasses. Don't forget extra protection on your nose and lips. Even if your garden is producing lots of fresh, organic veggies packed with cancer-fighting antioxidants, why risk it?
OK, I'm being a little optimistic here. I hope you need a wheelbarrow to cart home the abundance your garden produces. But even if your bounty would fit in a handbasket (or your pocket), there are plenty of other uses for a wheelbarrow. You're going to need to move around mulch, compost and weeds. You can carry all the tools you need back and forth in only one trip. Most importantly, having a dirty wheelbarrow stood on end in your yard makes you look like a "pro".
Let's face it, mother nature doesn't care how hard you worked, how much you planted, how much time and money you spent. If she doesn't feel like raining, you aren't going to get any rain on your garden. Ever try to grow a garden without rain? Every try to carry bucket after bucket of water and dip it carefully, ladle after ladle, over each tender new seedling? Get a hose and a few different attachments, including a sprinkler. Mother nature also won't care if you cheat a little.
Aside from sunlight, water and good soil, mulch is a gardener's best friend. The easiest weed to deal with is the one that never sprouts at all, and mulch is the easiest and surest way to block weeds. Even better, certainly safer, and probably less expensive than chemicals. I like to use lots of old newspaper and straw, because they can both just be turned under at the end of the growing season to compost over the winter. You can also use landscaping fabric, but you have to remove it every year. Because it's so expensive, you have to roll it up and store it over the winter. I like to put mulch down in the walking rows I leave between planting rows. Then I only have to weed between the seedlings and sprouts until they get big enough that they block the weeds themselves.