Garden Tool Basics

An informative guide to your basic gardening tools.

Caring for your garden requires special tools, but it’s easy to become bewildered by the bevy available at nurseries and hardware stores. That’s why it’s important to take a few minutes to understand what task each garden tool is designed for before pulling out your wallet.

Regardless of your experience or your garden’s size, purchase quality tools. They’ll be in regular use for many years, and while it may be tempting to buy cheap, you and your garden will soon realize the difference.

Pruners that cut poorly, for example, damage plant tissue and are hard on your wrist. And cheap garden forks that bend upon contact with compact soil are an unnecessary source of frustration. But even the best quality tool can be used incorrectly—damaging the tool or its user.

With these points in mind, here’s a list of essentials, what to consider before purchasing them and how to use each correctly.

Hoes

Used for weeding around plants and for cultivating topsoil, vegetable gardeners find hoes particularly useful because their reach allows gardeners to work amid plants without disturbing them.

There are many specialized kinds, such as onion- and triangular-shaped hoes, on the market, but these are unnecessary for the average gardener. A simple hoe is fine for general tasks.

Spades, Shovels and Forks

Although there are various sizes of spades and forks, don’t be misled into thinking you need one of each to suit each task. A single round-point shovel for digging, a flat-edged spade for edging and double digging (a technique of turning soil for a new garden bed) and a simple garden fork for cultivating soil is all you really need.

These tools are in constant use, so make sure they’re comfortable to handle. Lightness and strength are key, as you’ll use them for lifting and leverage.

Look for shovels and forks with long, wooden shafts, as they’re strong and relatively inexpensive. A D-shaped handle provides the best grip. Stainless steel is the best material for the head because it won’t rust (although it can be expensive). Coated-steel blades are more affordable and age well if kept clean.

Weight is another factor—if you’re slight, a heavy spade or shovel may be difficult to use. You could strain your back, especially if you’re lifting heavy earth. Lift and test a variety of tools to find the one that feels right for you.

Leaf Rake

Leaf rake heads are fan-shaped and often made of plastic, metal or bamboo.

A leaf rake is one of the more useful tools, good for leaf removal, spring cleanup of lawns and all the other important general clean-up duties. Because you’ll use it a lot, buy one with a comfort grip along the shaft.

Leaf rakes are ill suited to the heavier tasks that are given to the garden rake, and can be damaged in the process if not used the proper way.

Edgers

Edgers are often overlooked, but they are really versatile tools. Their principal task is to tidy lawn and garden edges to create a finished look. But they’re also almost mandatory for cutting and laying sod, and can be used for dividing plants, cultivating and even light digging in a pinch.

When selecting an edger, look for the same qualities as you would with a spade.

Garden Rakes

The garden rake is different from a leaf rake and intended for a different function.

A general-purpose cultivation tool, the garden rake (as opposed to the soft-tined leaf rake) can be used to break up the surface of the soil and collect stones, leaves and other debris. Inverted, it’s used to level the ground.

Choose a rake with a head of suitable width for the scale of the raking job you most commonly undertake. Also, as with shovels and spades, consider the shaft length carefully. To avoid back sprain, you should be able to rake without bending.

The rake’s handle should come to about the bridge of your nose. So, while a standard 5-foot shaft suits most people, taller or shorter gardeners may want to consider something different.

The strongest rake heads are made of a single piece, unlike the cheaper, riveted heads, with their individual nail-like prongs, which may break or bend.

Hand Forks and Trowels

The two “hand tools” most commonly used in the yard and garden are forks and trowels. These are required for weeding and cultivating in small areas, as well as dividing plants. As with pruners, they should fit comfortably in your hand.

Hand forks have two basic types: those with wide and flat prongs, and those with round and narrow prongs. The former is more suited to weeding, since weeds are more easily trapped and held between the wider prongs. The latter, on the other hand, is better suited for cultivating.

Pruners

Pruners are essential for light cutting in the garden. That includes everything from cutting back shrubs and pruning roses to gathering cut flowers. A good bypass pruner cuts cleanly and easily through woody stems up to at least 1/2 inch in diameter (for larger cuts, shears, loppers or pruning saws are required).

Get a good-quality blade, because a poor blade results in uneven cuts that might promote disease. Take the time to select tools that fit your hands comfortably; a tool fitted to your hand’s size and shape requires less effort to cut and therefore places less stress on your joints and muscles. This is an especially important consideration for the elderly or those suffering from arthritis or tendinitis.

But even good-quality pruners can cause problems in the yard if used incorrectly. The No. 1 error? Lack of sanitation. Sterilize your pruners after pruning each plant, or you’ll risk spreading disease from one plant to another.

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