How to Choose Gardening Tools, According to Science

The garden is a never-ending source of work; a bit like the famous Severn Bridge. As soon as you’ve got to the end of the task, it’s time to start all over again. There's weeding, planting, pruning, mowing, chopping, culling, repotting, fertilizing, reseeding, picking, cutting, thinning, transferring, watering, feeding. 

And, if you’re lucky - eating and enjoying the fruits of your labor in the sunshine.

It’s a good job that gardening is fun, therapeutic, and endlessly rewarding because that's a lot of work.

Choosing the right tool for each task will reduce the effort. There's a dizzying array of variables when it comes to hoes, rakes, spades, forks, trowels, and wheelbarrows, so read on for the most comprehensive guide to selecting the right gardening tool you're likely to find on the internet.

And because the list of garden tasks is as long as The Complete Works of Shakespeare, we’re going to explore tools by gardening job. We’ll examine pruners, cutters, diggers, and tools to make weeding more manageable.

Some of the essential gardening tools you’re going to need

There are a wide array of tools that will come in handy around the garden. Many play a variety of roles, while some tools are good for specific tasks.

The essentials are

Digging Spade

Digging Fork

Wheelbarrow

Precision hand tools

Hoes and rakes

Digging Spade / Shovel

The digging spade is the most essential multi-purpose gardening tool you’ll find. Use it to dig (obviously); turn the soil over; shovel and turn-in manure into the earth; dig up large plants; and transfer earth when transplanting.

Digging is one of humankind's primeval instincts - humans have been digging the earth for thousands of years in the pursuit of agriculture and horticulture.

The earliest examples of spades were made from animal bones - the shoulder blade spade was a particular favorite. Later, materials such as wood, stone, and metal were used.

Thankfully, we have a range of spade-types today to suit various gardening jobs. The shape of the spade head determines the task suitability.

The shape of the spade-head has evolved over the years to suit different needs - from steel mills, granaries, for the construction trade and in mining. Of course, spades are commonly used in agriculture.

[1]

Frederick Winslow Taylor spent his working life studying the workplace, creating efficiency measures, which included the design of spade-heads to suit specific purposes. After observing the working practices of spade-users, he advocated differently shaped spade-heads to suit different tasks. His insights have subsequently informed the gardening tool industry. [2]

Stainless steel spades are most highly recommended because the metal surface comes into contact with a lot of moisture during use, so can be liable to rust. Stainless steel is a particularly hard-wearing material, perfect for withstanding the vigors of garden tasks.

Shovel designs

Standard digging shovel

The standard digging spade has a slightly curved scoop, upturned edges, and a flat tip (or a pointed center).

The pointed tip shovel is best for digging and planting in soft soil conditions. A flatter tipped shovel is better for densely compacted soil, demanding more force to break the surface.

A flat-edge shovel is excellent for general purpose gardening and recommended for most soil types. Other than the obvious task of shoveling, flat-edged shovels are suitable for creating a straight edge for flower beds, transplanting bushes and trees, and cutting through turf and small roots. They are the perfect tool for dividing plants that have grown too big, such as globe artichokes.

Trenching shovels

As the name suggests, a trenching shovel is used to dig and clear trenches. They have a sharp-edged, pointed tip, with squared sides that help to create clean trench walls, while reducing the impact on the surrounding soil.

In terms of gardening, trench shovels are useful if laying irrigation pipes, or laying electrical cables from the house to the end of the garden. They’re also helpful when removing deep-rooted plants.

Drain spades

Despite their name, drain spades have a more comprehensive function than digging drains. They’re very narrow and feature slightly-curved sides, with a round tip. They’re particularly useful for precision garden work, such as planting new flowers into established beds.

The narrow head allows for deep penetration into the earth, without creating too much disturbance to your surrounding plants. The drain spade is also used for clearing trenches and transplanting smaller shrubs.

Scoop shovels

The scoop shovel has a wide-spade blade, with a flat tip. They’re not a lot of help when digging, but are perfect for shoveling loose materials, such as coal, stones and pebbles, grain and snow.

The steel scoop shovel can be quite a heavy tool. Aluminum versions are lighter but are more likely to twist or warp from prolonged use.

Scrapers

The scraper is useful for clearing snow and ice from driveways. If you have weeds growing between the cracks on your pathway or slabbed patio, a scraper makes easy work of eliminating weeds. They can be used as lawn-edgers, but might not do the job as well as a specialized tool.

Edgers

Edgers aren’t really a spade, as such, as they wouldn’t be used for shoveling garden waste, for example, but they are incredibly handy garden implements, used for neatening the edges of your lawn, around your flower beds.

The head of the spade is usually a half-moon blade, which slices through the surface of your turf, like a hot knife through butter. They’re designed for shallow digging - they make a perfectly straight line between your grass and your flower bed.

A rounded edge is also possible to achieve, as long as the diameter of the curve is broad enough. Narrow curves require a smaller tool.

Edgers can be used to separate perennials, and to cut back ground-covering plants and shrubs that are taking over a garden or flower bed.

Post-Hole Diggers

A post-hole digger is, effectively, a two-shovel blade, held together by a single hinge, designed for making deep, square holes for fence posts.

The post-hole digger is an essential tool for creating the holes for patio and decking supports. This is one of the hardest digging tasks in the garden, requiring a strong back and shoulders, so the right tool for the job will make it a little less stressful on the joints!

Maintenance

It's important to keep your spade head clean. Through regular use, earth sticks to the surface of the spade blade, which, if left to dry and cake on, creates resistance when pushing the spade into the ground. Digging can be difficult enough as it is - you don’t want to make it any harder for yourself!

Keeping the spade surface clean will prolong the life of your tool, make digging easier and, more importantly, prevent cross-contamination of earth-bound disease. If the earth in one part of your garden is infected with a fungus, for example, an unclean spade will spread that infection to other parts of the garden.

A spade is designed to be held in the hands and pushed into the earth with the sole or heel of your work-boot. Particularly dry soil is difficult to dig, so you might need to water the ground thoroughly before you attempt to dig the earth. [3]

THE BOTTOM LINE - Whilst there are many different types of spade and shovel to suit different gardening jobs, you’ll find that a general purpose flat-head spade will be suitable for most general tasks.

More specialized garden jobs, such as digging holes to sink fence posts and narrow trench digging, require different types of digging utensils, such as Post-Hole Diggers and Trenching Shovels. Attempting those jobs without the correct tools is just asking for a whole world of pain!

Garden Forks

Along with the garden spade, the gardening fork is one of the primary, essential gardening tools. Like spades, there are a few different types of fork, dedicated to various gardening jobs.

In general larger forks are useful for upright work; while small ones provide more accuracy for detailed, low-ground work.

A garden fork can be used for aerating the soil, as well as for digging and tilling.

Tilling

A large garden fork is useful for tilling, which effectively just means turning over, and breaking up the soil. ’Tilling is an essential task for gardens that have been left to nature, and where the earth has become compacted.

If you want to fertilize your soil with compost, you’ll need to till the ground first.

Tilling is a tough job and is made easier with an engine-powered rotovator or tilling machine which can be hired from garden supply centers. [4]

Large Garden Fork

If you’re tilling smaller areas, the combination of large garden fork and garden shovel are a marriage made in heaven.

Digging hard soil with a spade can be really hard work, and if the soil is heavily compacted, you can quickly end up with a snapped fork handle! A garden fork makes much lighter work of compacted soils, because it helps to break up the soil. [5]

You might use a large garden fork for some heavy work, such as double digging. [6]

If you have a heavy clay soil or your lawn gets a lot of foot-fall, you should aerate your grass, by sinking a fork into the ground at regular intervals, making small holes in the surface of the soil. This is an important task for irrigation because a lawn is generally a thirsty plant and will dry out and yellow if left dry for too long. It will also help oxygen to reach the roots of the soil, which is essential for a healthy, green color.

Fork Designs

Digging fork

The digging fork is sometimes also known as the spading fork. Despite the fact that it sounds a little like something that your pets should be running away from, the spading fork is a beneficial tool to add to your garden shed.

The digging fork is used for lighter soil types and harvesting root vegetables, such as potatoes, Jerusalem artichokes, and carrots.

The digging fork most commonly has four tines.

Border fork

Sometimes you need a smaller tool for precision jobs, and the border fork is the hero of the precision task. It’s also useful if you lack physical height because the border fork has a more manageable size-to-body ratio. Perfect for smaller gardens, you’ll use a border fork for digging borders, raised beds and other smaller places that a larger fork would fail to fit.

Pitchfork

The pitchfork has sharp tines and is used for moving hay, straw, compost, and manure. The pitchfork is perfect for the garden with a chicken coop because you’ll use it to get your straw into the chicken house.

Pitchforks come in a variety of sizes and shapes, with either 2, 3, 4, or more tines. The tines are usually curved upwards, which offer a more favorable scooping action.

The most commonly used pitchforks in domestic gardens are the compost fork, which cuts into the compost, and the potato fork, which makes lifting potatoes safer for the tubers.

Potato fork

The potato fork has blunt tines to prevent damaging the tubers during the harvest and is suitable for use with a wide variety of root vegetables, including Jerusalem artichokes, swedes, turnips, onions, and rhizomes such as ginger root. [7]

General maintenance tips

Fork tines can quite easily bend, so care is required when using this tool in the garden. Selecting a well-made fork with a strong handle is important - if you can afford it, go for a forged tool, rather than one made from multiple pieces.

Going for the cheapest garden tool isn’t recommended - it ends up being a false economy. Tools that break need to be regularly replaced, so investing in a more expensive, quality tool right from the start will save you money in the long run.

THE BOTTOM LINE - A garden fork will help to break up compacted soil and is better for the task of excavating heavy clay soil than a spade.

There are several different types of garden fork, including the universal large garden fork, the pitchfork, and the border fork. For digging up root vegetables, you should consider investing in a potato fork.

Wheelbarrows

A wheelbarrow is a small cart with wheels at the front and supporting legs at the back. It is controlled by two handles at the back of the barrow. It’s used for carrying loads in building and gardening work. [8]

The wheelbarrow is an essential tool for any keen gardener. Useful for transporting large quantities of materials, choosing the right style of wheelbarrow for you is the difference between back-breaking work and the quick composting / fertilizing of your land.

Wheelbarrows typically have one wheel at the front of the cart. The wheel's tire can be made from a variety of materials.

One wheel

The one wheel wheelbarrow is the most commonly recognized gardening cart. The single wheel makes the cart incredibly maneuverable, and easy to empty into low spaces, such as the earth. While the one-wheel wheelbarrow is easier to direct on unlevel and winding paths, they require a good deal of upper body strength to successfully maneuver.

Two wheel

The two wheel wheelbarrow offers a much greater stability in use that a single wheel cart. If you’re transporting heavy or unbalanced loads, a two-wheel barrow will reduce the potential for toppling, but the two-wheel construction is less immediately maneuverable. While a single-wheel barrow has superior pivoting action, the double-wheeled wheelbarrow requires more level ground when rotating the cart.

Two-wheeled carts, while providing excellent stability on the flat, are more challenging to control laterally on an inclined surface.

Material build

Steel

Steel wheelbarrows are great for heavy tasks and generally last for decades. Steel won’t crack when exposed to the cold, and won’t easily warp in hot temperatures.

Steel can rust (unless it’s stainless steel) so it’s a good idea to store your wheelbarrow in a shed or keep it from being permanently exposed to the elements.

If the surface becomes tarnished with rust, it can be painted with an anti-rust paint. A rusty wheelbarrow will still function, as long as the wheel bearings are regularly lubricated.

Steel wheelbarrows can be a little heavy, but they are stronger than plastic wheelbarrows.

Plastic

Plastic wheelbarrows are perfect for light gardening work. They’re lighter in weight, so are recommended for those who lack upper body strength. However, plastic is not as durable as steel, so your plastic wheelbarrow will probably require more frequent replacing than a steel barrow.

You may be able to pick up a plastic wheelbarrow more cheaply than a steel barrow, but it may be a false economy if you’re carrying out heavy tasks.

If you’re likely to be using your wheelbarrow for infrequent, light jobs and have less upper body strength, then a plastic wheelbarrow will be fine.

Motorized

Motorized wheelbarrows are very expensive, but allow you to transport heavy loads with relative ease. If you have a small- to medium-sized garden, a motorized wheelbarrow is more status-symbol than useful tool. If a part breaks, it’s an expensive tool to fix. However, if you find it particularly challenging to push heavy loads, then you could consider the motorized option.

Wheelbarrow Tire Types

The tire type should be considered when choosing the perfect wheelbarrow -

Pneumatic Tires

The pneumatic tire has an internal, air-filled tube and a rubber outer, similar to a bicycle tire. The air acts as a shock absorber, offering a smoother wheeling experience. Pneumatic tires are suitable for use on steps and over rocks.

However, you’re likely to be using your wheelbarrow on uneven surfaces, with the potential for sharp ground surfaces. Pneumatic tires require maintenance - they can go flat quite quickly, rendering your wheelbarrow useless until the tire can be pumped.

The tire can be changed on a wheelbarrow, but bear in mind that your barrow is likely to be stored in the open air and can be liable to rusting around the nuts that hold the tire in place, making removal particularly challenging.

Semi-pneumatic

Semi-pneumatic wheels have built-in air pockets, providing some of the shock absorbability of the fully pneumatic tire, without the maintenance of pumping air into them.

Non-Pneumatic Tires

If you want to negate the ongoing maintenance of the pneumatic tire permanently, you could choose a solid rubber tire. Non-pneumatic tires are not filled with air so, resultantly, cannot go flat. They’re recommended for rough terrains that could pop an air-filled tire, or when working in regions with extreme temperatures, or in areas that have naturally growing cactuses.

Replacing the tire

It’s possible to purchase replacement tires for your wheelbarrow. If you find that you’re experiencing frequent flat tires, the non-pneumatic tire is a good option, and good for all terrains [9]

THE BOTTOM LINE - Most wheelbarrows have a single wheel which makes for versatile maneuverability. Double-wheeled barrows offer greater stability for the user but are more difficult to rotate, and less useful on unlevel surfaces.

Wheelbarrows are generally made of steel or plastic. Steel barrows are more durable and should last for many years, while a plastic barrow is lighter in weight and recommended for light, infrequent use, and for those who lack upper body strength.

Tires can be replaced and come in pneumatic, semi-pneumatic, and non-pneumatic varieties.

Precision tools

Gardening can require precision tools for smaller jobs. The most commonly used are hand tools, such as the secateurs, pruners, trowels, weeding forks, dibbers, seed-dispersers, rakes, and hoes.

Pruning tools

Secateurs

Secateurs are a little like super-heavy-duty hand-scissors. Sometimes, secateurs are referred to as pruning shears.

Secateur blades are distinctive in design - with a large, sharp, rounded edge at the top, and a thinner, often blunt blade (or cutting board) on the bottom.

You should always use secateurs with the rounded blade cutting down towards the thinner blade.

There are two main types of gardening secateur - the bypass and the anvil.

Anvil

An anvil secateur has a strong, sharp blade and a flat cutting plate - the anvil. To cut, the blade is forced through plant matter, creating pressure between the blade and the anvil. The upper blade cuts through the stem which is held in place by the anvil.

Bypass

Bypass secateurs work in a similar way to a standard pair of scissors - there are two blades, which pass by each other to slice through the stem of your plant.

Although both anvil and bypass cutters produce the same desired effect (cutting), they should be used for different applications.

The anvil secateur crushes the stem of whatever it’s cutting, while the bypass blade will not damage the plant. Anvil cutters are better at cutting dead wood, so pruning the dead branches of a tree at the end of the growing season calls for anvil cutters, which will slice through the tough wood much more efficiently.

If you’re using anvil cutters for everyday cutting tasks, you could be damaging your plant!

How to prune

The general rule is to cut a branch back as far as the fresh bud (or node).

If you use an anvil pruner, you’re likely to crush the new bud, so it’s generally suggested that bypass cutters are used for all pruning tasks.

Cut the branch close to the node, but at a slight angle that doesn’t drop below the level of the bud. [10]

When to prune

You should only prune a plant when it is dormant - usually during late winter to early spring. Dormancy is where the plant is no longer actively growing and happens in perennial plants [12]

THE BOTTOM LINE - Choose the right secateur for the right job. Anvil secateurs are designed to cut through stubborn, dead material, such as dead wood. Bypass secateurs should be used for most general pruning jobs.

Hand Digging tools

Some jobs, such as repotting, require a little precision. A garden spade is excellent for transferring soil and compost from one area to another, but you’ll kill delicate seedlings by dumping too much fertilizer on top of it.

Often, if you’re filling a small pot, there’s no better tool than your hands - there’s nothing like getting your hands dirty in the garden to make you feel like you’re really gardening!

But for some tasks, a trowel is the perfect companion for repotting, transplanting and other general jobs around the garden or allotment.

Trowel blade types

As with most other tools, there are subcategories for different jobs. There are several types of trowel, defined by the shape of the blade.

Traditional garden trowel

The traditional garden trowel is a multi-purpose tool. It has a broad blade, with rounded sides and is used to dig small holes, break up hard soil, and for transplanting flowers and veg.

Transplanter blade

The transplanter trowel has a long, thin blade, ending in a reasonably sharp, pointed tip. The narrower edge is helpful when digging small holes in the earth, preventing damage to surrounding plant roots, and perfect for transplanting seedlings, bulbs, and fledgling plants from its seedbed to its permanent home.

Dixter

The dixter trowel has a long, narrow blade, with a rounded tip - it’s similar in shape to a ruler. The narrow blade is useful for transplanting plants to small spaces, such as a rockery, where a general-purpose trowel blade is too wide. The dixter blade is also helpful when digging up the long roots of weeds and sowing seeds.

Ladle blade

The ladle blade has a long tang, and a small, rounded blade, recognizable by its curved edges. It’s most common use is for digging circular holes, and scooping them out cleanly - a job often required when planting annuals and bulbs.

Potting blade

The potting blade has a wide surface area, with higher, curved sides designed to hold large quantities of compost, and used for potting plants (as the name suggests). The curved edges of the blade are designed to match the curve of circular pots, making it easier to get the blade into the pot.

Tulip blade

The tulip blade is used for digging in heavy clay soils. The blade resembles an upturned tulip - a deep-dished blade, with three sharpened tips. The sharpened tips help to cut through compacted earth, which is difficult to do with a general purpose trowel.

Weeding blade

Resembling the Dixter blade, the weeding trowel has a long, pronounced blade, with a sharp, forked end. The fork-shaped end facilitates a digging action, allowing you to reach to the roots of the weed so that you can remove it from its roots. The weeding blade additionally helps to clear grass that grows between the cracks on stone tiles.

Tissot blade

The Tissot trowel has a broad, flat blade, with a “V” section indented into the end, allowing you to divide plants, such as globe artichokes. Some plants fail to prosper when they become too large, so dividing them at the root effectively splits them into two plants, which can be transplanted separately.  The Tissot blade is also effective for digging holes in hard soils. [13]

THE BOTTOM LINE - Trowels come with blades in all shapes and sizes, and have various applications, such as digging, moving soil, and cutting. Trowels designed for digging, such as the tulip trowel, the weeding trowel, and the Tissot trowel, have a sharp, shaped edge designed to improve digging in hard clay or compacted soils. General purpose trowels are useful for potting, transplanting and general small garden tasks.

Hoes and rakes

A hoe is a useful, long-handled garden tool used for preparing large areas of soil for planting.

They help to break up the hard surface soil, discourage the setting in of weeds and are useful for “earthing up” around root vegetable plants such as potatoes and Jerusalem artichokes.

Weeds aren’t just unsightly, but they’re a constant threat to the health of your plants because they creep in between your carefully selected bed cultivars and steal their nutrients, while drinking up the valuable moisture in the soil.

Hoes are usually relatively light to hold and have long handles which take a lot of the back-breaking work out of gardening. [14]

The traditional hoe has a flat, bladed end, set to a right angle from the long handle. Blades come in a variety of widths and shapes, designed to make specific gardening jobs easier.

Rakes, like most gardening equipment, comes in a variety of shapes and sizes. Rakes are suitable for preparing a level surface of prepared earth, ready for planting. Other rakes are designed for clearing leaves and cut grass from the lawn. [15]

Hoes

The Dutch Hoe

The Dutch hoe is the most commonly used style of hoe. It has a slightly angled blade, with a sharp edge at the tip of the blade which makes light work of cutting. This hoe is useful for weeding between established plants and shrubs.

The Draw Hoe

This hoe has a broad blade, attached at a right angle to the handle. The Draw hoe is excellent for earthing up the soil around onions and leeks, to prevent them from becoming green. It also provides an effective chopping action which is excellent for breaking up hard soil.

The Paxton Hoe

The Paxton hoe has a narrow, angled blade, designed for a push/pull action. This hoe is fantastic for breaking up hard clumps of soil quickly, and for digging up weeds.

The Warren Hoe

This hoe has a “V” shaped head, with the apex of the V attached to the handle. The broad end of the hoe blade doesn’t have a cutting edge. The Warren hoe is recommended for creating seed drills and furrows, and for backfilling soil into holes.

The Clarice Flower hoe

This hoe has a small head which makes it perfect for precision hoeing work around existing plants and flowers. If your flower bed has become congested, the blade can be turned sideways to break up the earth between narrow gaps. [16]

Rakes

Leaf Rake

The classic leaf rake (sometimes also known as a lawn rake) collects debris such as leaves and cut grass from the surface of your lawn without damaging the grass. They’re available in various widths (up to 30”) which fan outwards in a triangular shape.

The tines are generally plastic, metals or bamboo. Plastic tines are often better for clearing leaves when they’re wet. Bamboo tines are better for using around fragile plants but are less robust than plastic or metal tines.

Many leaf rakes are retractable, closing the fan shape, for more accessible storage.

Shrub Rake

A shrub rake is similar in design to a leaf rake, but with a narrower spread of tines, providing better access to shrubbery and tight spaces in your garden.

Bow Rake

The bow rake has a long, flat head and metal teeth. Sometimes they’re referred to as a “level head” or a  “garden” rake. This rake is excellent for leveling the soil or leveling gravel or sand. The metal tines are thicker and shorter than the tines of a leaf- or shrub rake and are more widely spread. The bow rake is classically used for moving more substantial material than leaves and will churn up your grass if you try to use it for this task.

Hand Rake

The hand rake is designed for smaller jobs, and is a hand-held version of the shrub or bow rake. The tool is closer to the size of a trowel than a traditional rake but gives you excellent control for breaking up the topsoil in small areas or for raised beds.

Thatch Rake

A thatch rake is quite a dramatic-looking piece of kit - it looks like something from a horror film, but it has a much less sinister use in the garden.

"Thatch” is the layer of organic matter often found between blades of grass and the soil surface, and this tool is used for removing it. Thatch can be a proliferation of moss or weed which, if left, will eventually suffocate your lawn of oxygen.

The thatch rake has a two-sided head - one side breaks up the thatch, and the other side removes it.

THE BOTTOM LINE - Hard top soil is a real problem in the garden. It resists water absorption, and the soil is starved of oxygen, meaning that the roots of your plants will lack that all-important life-giving gas.

Weeds in the garden steal the nutrients and water from your flower- and veg beds.

Hoes and rakes are essential tools for the gardener because they help to break up the soil; clear stones and large clumps of earth; and prepare the ground for planting. Hoes are also excellent for clearing weeds.

Fallen leaves will choke a lawn, so it’s important to remove them as soon as they land. Fallen leaves make great mulch for your flower beds. Rake, your dead leaves into the flower bed, and they’ll keep the beds warmer during the Winter and will break down into a top layer of nutritious compost by the Spring.

Our ultimate guide

So, there you have it. Our ultimate guide to choosing the right tools for the task. Getting the choices correct for your specific garden can avoid a lot of the back-breaking agony. Gardening should be fun; not a chore.

Finding the right tools for the task will ensure that you can enjoy your gardening hobby; and when you’ve finished, you can sit in the sun, surrounded by a haven of your own making.

Happy gardening.

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