All digging and raking tools are designed to achieve a specific function and it’s useful to have several different implements for different tasks around the garden. If you’re new to gardening, you may find that you can get by with perhaps 2 or 3 different digging or raking tools but as you become more proficient, you’ll soon learn to recognise how different variations can be more efficient.
Digging is usually the gardener’s first port of call and a digging tool should really be your first buy. There are 3 main choices – a shovel, a spade and a garden fork. It’s OK to start with just one but you’ll soon find that you’ll want one of each. Each of these 3 implements is made with either a long or short handle. Long handles give you more leverage but they can break more easily when you’re putting a lot of force into what you’re digging. A shorter handled version tends to be a bit stronger and easier to control but the size of the handle may be determined by your height. If you opt for a short handle, make sure that the top of the handle comes up to your waist when the blade is sunk into the ground. If it’s any lower, you’ll end up getting filthy and it could also create back problems.
Whether it’s a fork, spade or shovel you choose, it should have a flat lip (or tread) on the top of the blade to protect your feet and the head should be made from tempered high-carbon steel not stainless steel. The blade should also be attached to the handle with a solid socket or solid-strap connection. A hardwood handle is adequate and you shouldn’t be persuaded into buying tools such as those with more expensive blades made of fibreglass or solid steel unless you’re going to be digging all day.
When describing shovels here, it doesn’t mean the type you associate with coal and the fireplace. A shovel, in gardening terms, looks very similar to a spade but has a slightly concave blade with a rounded bottom edge. You often see these used when road workers are digging up roads to lay tarmac. They’re ideal as a multi-purpose tool and can be used for scooping, turning, digging and moving soil, gravel, sand, compost and other materials without destroying your back.
The garden spade is the quintessential British digging tool. It has an almost flat, rectangular blade and is ideal for digging, removing clinging sods between paving flags, cutting through roots, edging your borders and trenching. It’s not as good as a shovel, however, for turning soil or for scooping things up.
A garden fork is a much larger version of an eating fork to look at. It is, in effect, a spade with tines rather than a blade and is used for tilling the soil, aerating it and for digging perennials and root crops but is useless for digging holes. To keep your soil turned and in good condition however, a fork is vital.
A garden rake is the perfect tool for breaking up small clumps of mud and earth and for smoothing, drawing up and mounding soil. It’s used to level out flower beds and for pulling out stones. There are a few varieties of rake but the second most common is the fan shaped thatching or lawn rake whose tines aren’t quite as supple as the garden rake nor should they be as it is only used on the lawn itself to gather up dead leaves during the autumn months. Because its tines are more flexible than a garden rake’s, it enables you to pull it along the lawn without ragging and tearing the turf and, fairly recently, they have started to be manufactured using wicker to make them even more gentle on the lawn.
There are also a vast range of hoes and the one you choose will depend on the job you have in mind – you might want to plant vegetables in wide, straight rows, or your garden might contain a tight, narrow planted perennial bed. Also, the way you like to use a hoe might determine your choice, i.e. do you want to push it away from you or draw it towards you?
There are oscillating hoes, tined hoes and many other varieties but the one you’ll most recognise is the common or garden hoe which has a short, flat head or blade which is much narrower than a spade or shovel. If you are cultivating vegetables, especially, you’ll not be able to live without your hoe and many keen gardeners have more than one type.
A garden trowel is a much shorter tool, very similar in its design to a spade but it can be used with just one hand and is useful for potting plants and tending to smaller plants contained in a confined space. In fact, there are mini variations of just about every larger digging and raking tool for more intricate gardening tasks or for those who don’t have a garden but keep hanging baskets and pots of plants and flowers on window sills or indoors.
Most keen gardeners will tell you that they got into gardening as a result of ‘cutting their teeth’ by using one of the above tools and, in spite of how high-tech gardening has become these days, they are still the basic first tools of choice when starting from scratch. Just remember to wear steel toe-capped boots when using them in the garden.