Garden Tools 101: What to look for when choosing tools, and how to maintain them

Are bargain, low-cost tools a good value in the long run? Is the saying you get what you pay for applicable in the world of garden tools? Here at Garden Review we want to help gardeners find the best tools for their needs. Maybe you need an indestructible trowel because the person you share gardening chores with insists on using it to mix up concrete, or maybe you should spring for the beautiful, ergonomically designed trowel and just hide it away! Let’s separate the wheat from the chaff, as they say, and find out what tools are worth spending our seed and plant money on – and what aren’t.

How do you choose and care for a tool?

Some basic criteria for choosing a tool are listed in the categories below. Keep in mind that tools should fit your size, strength, and job at hand. It makes no sense to buy a heavy contractor’s shovel when you have carpal-tunnel syndrome and live in a townhome. A gardener’s spade would be a more appropriate choice. Try out each tool if you can, or if ordering through the mail go first to your local store and lift, move and inspect the tools so you get a feel for what is most comfortable for you. It is important for long-handled tools to fit your body size to prevent fatigue and injury.

Shovels should be sturdy but not so heavy as to wear you out. There are several choices for blade material, with carbon steel and stainless steel the most popular. Carbon steel is strong and holds a sharpened edge well but will rust if not kept clean and well oiled. Stainless steel is lightweight, requires minimal maintenance and is more expensive. Check the length of the handle to see if it is easy for you to work with, and choose a handle style that you find most comfortable. Keep your shovel free of debris at the end of each workday. Rinse the head of all soil, then dry, and occasionally oil with lightweight motor oil. At the very least the metal should be coated with oil when putting the shovel away for the winter, or you will be greeted with a rusty mess when you begin your spring chores. Do not ignore your wooden handles. They should be oiled as well; this keeps them smooth and protected. It is also important to keep the edge of your shovels sharpened. This makes digging an easier, faster job. To sharpen the edge of a steel shovel blade take a metal file and stroke it from the center of the blade out. Just the bottom edge of the blade is beveled so it shouldn’t take too many strokes to get the result you need. Stainless steel shovels won’t need as much attention to keep their blade well-honed.

Spades are smaller than shovels, with narrower, rectangular heads and shorter handles. They are not for heavy-duty jobs, such as double-digging a new vegetable bed, but are excellent for moving plants or digging in established, crowded beds. With their narrower blade they do not disturb the plants as much and are easier to maneuver in tight places. They should be cared for just like a shovel, with attention to prevention rust and keeping a sharp edge.

scufflehoe Garden Tools 101: What to look for when choosing tools, and how to maintain themScuffle hoes are long-handled tools with an open-rectangle for a head. You use it by pushing forward and pulling back. It slices just under the surface of the soil, slicing weed roots as it goes. If you have a large, relatively open space this tool makes quick work of weeding.

Garden forks are used to break up the soil, lift and divide plants, and turn your compost pile. (If you have a rather large compost pile a manure or hay fork would work better.) The tines and neck should be made from a single piece of metal and riveted to prevent the fork from losing its head. Here again, make sure to check for the proper fit.

Rakes Metal, flat-backed rakes are essential to smooth out seed beds, clear small stones, and work out lumps in the soil. Look for rakes with long, strong necks to lesson the chance they won’t come off their handles. Grass or leaf rakes come in bamboo and plastic and are useful for light jobs.
Hand Tools the essential hand tools are a trowel, a transplanter, and a hand fork. The requirements for all three are the same. Each tool should feel comfortable and be easy to hold in your hand. Pay attention to the grip, will it be fatiguing to handle the tool for hours?
Pruning and Cutting Tools Pruners or secateurs should fit comfortably in your hand. This may sound repetitive, but it is essential your tools fit you or the time spent gardening will be less enjoyable. Pruners are used to cut back perennials, dead-head annuals, and shape small bushes. It is important to keep them sharp, well-oiled, and stored in a dry place to prevent rust. Pruners should cut, not smash the plant material. High-quality pruners have parts that can be replaced.
Loppers are pruners with long handles that give extra leverage to cut thick stems and branches that can not be managed by hand pruners.
Shears have scissor-like blades used to trim and shape bushes. There are many types of specialty shears used to snip herbs, flowers and grass.

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