University of Vermont Extension 
Department of Plant and Soil Science

Winter News Article

Garden Tools of the Trade

By Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
University of Vermont

How are you set for tools for the coming gardening season? Smart gardeners inventory their tools well in advance of the growing season, rather than wait until it's time to plant to make sure they have all the tools they need. Smart gardeners also use the right tool for the task, a tool designed to make the job easier.

To start, you will need something to dig with, such as a shovel or a spade. Do you know the difference? I find many gardeners don't.

A shovel is built like a small scoop. It's designed to move material from one place to another. Most shovels are not built for digging. Spades are for digging. The blade is set at a straighter angle than a shovel. You push a spade into the soil with your foot, pull back on the handle like a lever, and turn over the soil. You can use a spade like a shovel, but it's not very efficient.  A useful variation might be the perennial spade, with a slighter longer blade to dig deeper, and slightly curved to help remove soil.

Another variation in tools for digging is the spading fork. It has flat or square tines and is especially good for heavy clay soil. Don't confuse it with a pitchfork, which has round, slender tines and is used to move straw or compost.  Again there is a slightly smaller perennial fork.  So much force is exerted on spades, shovels, and forks that they need to be very strong. Buy the best you can afford.

The same applies to rakes. Look for extra reinforcement at the socket and for straight-grained, dense wooden handles. Cheap rakes have flimsy handles that will pull out of the sockets under heavy use. I like a collapsible rake, which can be adjusted to various widths.  This is useful between plants in beds.

Iron rakes come in different widths and may be straight or curved with long or short teeth. The teeth can be widely or closely spaced. Rakes can weigh as little as three pounds or as much as five pounds. The major use for iron rakes in home gardens is for pulverizing and leveling soil.

If you have a big garden, buy a wide, heavy rake you can turn to push or pull the soil. Or use it "teeth down" for pulverizing the top layer.  If you have a small garden, buy a rake with sharp teeth. For heavy or rocky soil, select a rake with wide spaces between the teeth to simplify cleaning out clods and rocks.

Let's take an inventory of the tools you may need for your garden this year. In addition to those just mentioned, you may want to purchase the following:

* Hoe--for weeding and cultivating; there are many types for light to heavy work and weeds

* Leaf rake--for raking not only leaves but weeds and other debris; check out the new ergonometric ones

* Pitch fork--for moving mulch, debris, or compost; closer spaced tines help with finer materials such as compost or bark

* Hand trowel--for planting and digging on a small scale; also check out hand weeding tools

* Hand pruners--for pruning dead and winter-injured branches, shaping; check out both scissor and anvil types

* Hose with nozzle or water breaker on the end (to provide a less forceful stream of water)

There are many other tools besides those I listed that you may find useful in the garden, such as special gadgets for weeding. Check with your local garden supply store, online and mail order suppliers, and your gardening friends, for ideas. 

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