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Tools and Equipment
Here's what you'll need to know to get the most out of your garden tools.
By the editors of Organic Gardening Magazine
The wise gardener starts with a small collection of basic tools and builds from there. Stores and catalogs are packed with both familiar and outlandish-looking hand tools. And if that weren’t enough, there are also gas- or electric-powered versions of many tools. Deciding which tools you need takes time, and the ideal collection depends on your gardening style and scope.
Your starter collection will include a fork or spade for digging, a garden rake for smoothing the soil and preparing beds, a hoe for cultivating and weeding, and a trowel for working closely around plants. Pruning tools and a lawnmower round out a basic tool collection.
Whenever it’s practical, use hand tools rather than power tools. Power tools are expensive and contribute to air and noise pollution as well as global warming. Designing your yard to be low maintenance will reduce your tool needs and increase your enjoyment of the garden. For more details on low-care landscapes, see the Landscaping entry.
Hand Tools
Hand tools form the basis for a garden tool collection. If you keep them sharp, good-quality hand tools will make your garden work go quickly and easily.
The first rule of tool buying is to avoid cheap tools at all costs. They are poorly designed and constructed, they don’t do the job well, and they break easily. Also, don’t buy cheap tools for children; they won’t learn to love gardening if the first tools they use don’t work well. Here are some other tips to keep in mind when shopping for tools:
  • The best wood for the handle of a shovel and all long-handled garden tools is North American white ash, which is strong, light, and resilient. Hickory is stronger but heavier and is ideal for hammers and other short-handled tools.  
  • Examine the lines (rings) in a wooden handle; they should run straight down the entire length of the handle, with no knots.
  • Avoid tools with painted handles; the paint often hides cheap wood.
  • Good-quality tools with fiberglass, metal, and even high-grade plastic handles are also available. The attachment of the metal part of the tool to its handle affects durability.
  • Buy tools with solid-socket or solid-strapped construction, forged from a single bar of steel that completely envelops the handle, thus protecting it and adding strength.
  • If you have arthritis, back problems, or in general want to avoid excess strain, look for ergonomic garden tools that are designed to require less bending and “elbow grease” to get the job done. Examples are loppers with a ratchet mechanism for easier cutting, trowels and other hand tools with gel-impregnated handles for less stress while gripping, and garden forks made of polypropylene that weigh much less than a standard wood-and-metal fork.
  • If you plan on buying a rotary tiller, borrow or rent various models as a test before buying one. Wheeled tillers are always easier to operate than those without wheels, and large wheels provide more maneuverability than small ones. Look for heavy, heat-treated carbon steel blades.
Hoes: You can use hoes to lay out rows, dig furrows, cultivate around plants to loosen the soil and kill weeds, create hills and raised beds, break up clods, and prepare bare spots in lawns for reseeding.
The standard American pattern hoe is a long-handled tool that allows you to work without too much bending. It has a broad, straight blade, a little larger than 6 inches wide and 4 inches deep. However, many gardeners prefer a nursery hoe, which is lighter and has a 2- to 3-inch-deep blade.
Use an oscillating hoe to slice weeds just below the soil surface. It cuts on both the push and the pull stroke. On modern variations, often called “hula” or action hoes, the slicing blade moves back and forth to cut while being pulled or pushed.
Narrow hoe blades use your arm power more efficiently than wider blades. The hoe handle should be at least 4½ feet long so you can work without bending over and straining your lower back muscles. In general, when working with hoes, try to remain standing upright and run the hoe blade below and parallel to the soil surface. Keep your hoe sharp so it will cut through weeds rather than yank them out.
Shovels: A standard American long-handled shovel is good for mixing cement and for scooping up soil, gravel, and sand. You can also use it to pry rocks and root clumps from the soil, although a heavy-duty prybar is more effective and efficient for these tasks. You also can use a shovel to dig planting holes, but a garden fork or a spade generally works better for most digging.
The standard shovel handle is about 4 feet. The shovel handle should come to shoulder height or higher. Shovels should also have a turned edge or footrest on the top of the blade to protect your feet when you step on the tool.
Spades: Spades have a flat, rather than scooped, blade with squared edges. With a spade, you can cut easily through sod and create straight edges in soil. Use a spade for digging planting holes, prying up rocks, dividing and moving perennials, cutting unwanted tree and shrub roots, tamping sod, and digging trenches. A spade handle is generally shorter than a shovel handle, usually ranging from 28 to 32 inches. Like shovels, spades should also have a turned edge or footrest on the top of the blade.
Some gardeners would say the garden fork is their most useful toolForks: Spading forks cut into soil, usually more easily than solid-bladed tools can. A spading fork is handy for loosening and mixing materials into the soil, dividing perennials, and for harvesting potatoes, carrots, and other root crops. The tines of a standard spading fork are broad and flat; those of the English cultivating fork are thinner and square. The English version is better for cultivating and aerating soil. Use a pitchfork (3 tines) or a straw fork (5 to 6 tines) for picking up, turning, and scattering hay mulch, leaf mold, and light compost materials.
The standard handle length for a spading fork is 28 inches. Very tall gardeners may prefer a 32-inch handle. Short gardeners, including children, should use a border fork, which has shorter tines and handle.
Trowels: Use a trowel to dig planting holes for small plants and bulbs, for transplanting seedlings, or for weeding beds and borders.
Some trowels are made from forged steel and fitted with hardwood handles; good ones are also available in unbreakable one-piece cast aluminum. Trowels come with a variety of blade widths and lengths. Choose one that feels comfortable in your hand.
Rakes: Rakes generally fall into one of two categories: garden rakes and leaf rakes. Garden rakes are essential for leveling ground, creating raised beds, killing emerging weeds, gathering debris from rows, covering furrows, thinning seedlings, working materials shallowly into the soil, erasing footprints, and spreading mulch. Garden rakes come in many widths, with long or short teeth that are widely or closely spaced. The handle should be long (4½ to 5 feet) and the head should be heavy enough to bite into the soil easily. If you have rocky soil, choose a rake with widely spaced teeth.
Lawn or leaf rakes, also called fan rakes, are good for gathering up leaves, grass clippings, weeds, and other debris and for dislodging thatch from the lawn. Metal lawn rakes last longest and are the springiest, although many gardeners prefer the action and feel of bamboo tines, and some prefer plastic or rubber.
Pruning tools: There are two types of pruning shears: the anvil type, with a straight blade that closes down onto an anvil or plate, and the bypass type, which cuts like scissors. Anvil pruners are often easier to use, requiring less hand pressure to make a cut. Bypass shears make a cleaner cut, can work in tighter space, and can cut flush against a tree trunk or branch (anvil pruners leave a short stump). Most models of either type will cut hardwood branches up to ½ inch in diameter.
Lopping shears, also called loppers, are heavy-duty pruners with long handles. Both anvil and bypass loppers can cut branches up to 2 inches in diameter. Hedge shears have long blades and relatively short handles. They can cut branches up to ½ inch thick. Pruning saws cut through most branches that are too thick for shears.
Push mowers: Push mowers have several revolving blades that move against a single fixed blade, producing a neat trim. They do a fine job, cutting evenly and quietly. For those with small, level lawns, the push mower is the ideal lawn-cutting instrument. It is inexpensive, not difficult to push, nonpolluting, quiet, and produces a neat-looking lawn.
Power Tools
In some cases, you may need the extra power of engine-driven equipment. Keep in mind, though, that handwork can be part of the pleasure and relaxation of gardening. If you routinely use power tools to speed through garden chores, you’ll miss the opportunity to observe the growth of your plants and to keep an eye out for problems.
Power mowers: The best choice is a mulching mower, which blows finely cut grass pieces back into the lawn, building up soil organic matter while removing the need to rake or bag clippings. If you don’t have a large lawn, investigate a battery-powered electric mower rather than a gas mower.
Tillers: Rotary tillers are useful for breaking new ground. Some gardeners also use them for cultivating, aerating, weeding, and mixing materials into the soil, but this convenience comes with a high cost to the critical beneficial organisms that help build a healthy soil.
Chipper/shredders: This machine, powered with gasoline or electricity, reduces leaves, pruned branches, and plant debris to beautiful mulch or compost material. Shredders are better for chopping up weeds and other soft plant material; chippers can handle heavier, woody materials.
Keeping Tools in Shape
After making the considerable investment in good-quality tools, it is wise to spend some time to keep them in good shape.
Routine care: Clean, dry, and put away all hand tools after each use. Keep a large plastic kitchen spoon handy to knock dirt off metal blades. Don’t use a trowel or other metal tool, as you could damage the blades of both tools. A 5-gallon bucket of sharp builder’s sand in the tool-shed or garage is useful for cleaning tools. Dip the metal blade of each tool into the sand and plunge it up and down a few times to work off any clinging soil. Use a wire brush to remove any rust that may have formed. Keep power equipment in good repair and properly adjusted.
Handles: Regularly sand and varnish wooden handles to maintain their resilience and good looks. You can repair split handles temporarily with tape and glue, but replace broken handles as soon as possible.
Sharpening: To keep your tools working efficiently and with ease, keep blades of spades, pruners, and other tools sharp. Take the time to study the angle of the bevels on all your tools, then sharpen each, as needed, to keep the proper bevel. If you have tools that are especially difficult to sharpen, take them to a professional for sharpening.
Winter care: At the end of the season, polish all metal parts of hand tools with steel wool, oil them to prevent rust, and store them in a dry place. Lubricate all tools that have moving parts. This is also a good time to take hard-to-sharpen tools to the sharpening shop.
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