Essential Tools for Gardening

1 / 8
2 / 8
3 / 8
4 / 8
5 / 8
6 / 8
7 / 8
Sometimes the simplicity of fewer tools is more convenient than a large collection of gardening gadgets. Know your needs and preferences and use that as a guide along with some advice from seasoned gardeners.
8 / 8
“Gardening in the Humid South” by Edmund N. O’Rourke Jr. and Leon C. Standifer covers everything from the weeds to the blooms of gardening, and does so with plenty of humor along the way.

Every visit to the garden center takes you past a wide array of new tools and gadgets that seem to be just what you need to make gardening easier. By now you should realize that we are old-fashioned; we think you need only a few tools to have a good garden. The first part of this chapter is a summary of our thoughts and those of our gardening friends as to what you really need. In compiling this we discovered that there is no real uniformity about what the various tools should be called. It seems likely that the tool manufacturers have their own set of terms. Well, they did not write this chapter, and we use terms that local gardeners know.

Beginning with Basics

The first laboratory session of a general horticulture course includes a lecture on caring for tools. It is usually a simple demonstration on using the right tool for the job, washing it when you finish, oiling it, and sharpening dull edges. We discuss more than that here because these are your tools and they should have been expensive. “Should have been expensive” is a good place to start. Always buy the best quality, and buy only tools that you really need. That is sound advice that we all tend to forget. “That’s an interesting tool and it’s on sale.” You take it home and discover why it was on sale; it breaks easily, does not do the job, or you do not really need it. With expensive equipment, such as a power tiller, consider how often you will use it and the storage space it will occupy. You will probably decide to rent rather than buy. An even better idea is to borrow one from your neighbor.

With basic tools such as shovels, hoes, and rakes, you should look for quality. Soft metal will need frequent sharpening, and spot-welded tools often break. Before making a shopping trip decide what you really need, then look at several stores, comparing quality and price. “But a shovel is a shovel, why pay more?” There are many kinds of shovels, and some of the better ones may be too heavy or inconvenient for your use. Often the best advice is that if it feels right for you, buy it; but look for quality. We will give some other suggestions when discussing specific tools.

First, some thoughts on maintenance. Develop the habit of cleaning the tool before putting it away. You may be tired, running late, and have a hoe that is caked with mud. Take the time to clean it off, partly for appearance but largely because mud will rust the sharp edge and make hoeing more difficult the next time. Many good gardeners dry the tool after washing and wipe it with an oily rag. Some have a bucket of oily sand to dip it in a few times, which is a messy procedure but it protects the metal. At the very least, you should wash your tools before putting them away.

Keep all tools sharp, because a dull tool makes the work twice as hard. Each of your tools — hoe, shovel, or lawn mower blade — has a cutting edge bevel. The angle of this bevel differs with the tool, and when sharpening you should usually keep that original bevel. Making the angle smaller will result in a sharper tool but the edge is more likely to be nicked. A shovel will come with a wider angle than that of pruning shears, but the shears are for cutting wood and are not likely to be nicked on a stone or bit of metal.

For sharpening you can use an electric bench grinder, which sharpens tools rapidly but not very accurately and may heat the metal edge enough to reduce the temper. Usually a good file and a little patience is best for home tools. It is convenient but not critical to hold the tool in a vise while sharpening. There are many kinds of files; you will probably want a simple eight-inch, flat, single-cut file. The double-cut files tend to take too much metal off. Then there are four grades of coarseness: coarse, bastard (sorry folks, that is the standard term), second, and smooth. Generally, the grade called second is best for garden tools; the smooth file is too slow. The bastard grade is good for sharpening really dull tools. It is a good idea to have a wire brush for cleaning metal particles from the file and to keep the file lightly oiled; everything rusts down here.

Some gardening books have a short section on repairing tools. Our advice is not to break them. Use each tool properly, and if it breaks, buy a new one. Cracked handles on a spade or hoe mean that you were prying too hard and probably should have been using a heavier tool. But when you do break a handle the question is whether to repair or replace. Compare the price of a new handle with that of a new shovel; you will probably decide to replace the shovel. Unless you are very good at woodworking, the new handle will not fit quite as well as the original.

We consider that the bare essentials for gardening are shovel, hoe, rake, trowel, one or more hand pruners, and loppers. Unless your yard is very small you will need a power mower.

Shovels and Spades

As nearly as we can tell, the difference between a shovel and a spade is that shovels have a cant and spades do not. If you put a shovel blade on the ground and the handle sticks up at an angle, it is a shovel; if the handle lies on the ground that shovel is a spade. Well, so what? For most gardeners, the terms are interchangeable, but gardening shovels are usually the pointed general purpose shovel (see figure 1). There are round-nose shovels and a square-nose scoop shovel. The latter is useful for scooping up loose material such as compost, but a general purpose shovel will do pretty well. Spades are essentially heavy-duty tools for use in heavy, compacted soil. You can do the same thing with a standard shovel if you just take smaller bites from the soil.

Figure 1: Shovel.


There are several types of hoes but you will probably need only one, two at the most. The hoe has three main purposes, which conflict slightly. After digging a bed you may want to break large clods before raking it off smoothly. If the soil has poor structure, you will want a rather heavy hoe for this. Breaking the soil crust after a hard rain can be done with a heavy hoe, but a lighter one makes the work easier. Weeding should require only a light hoe if you are consistent enough to have only small seedlings.

For all of these purposes you need what is called a general garden hoe. It has a slightly angled blade to make weeding easier. With the better hoes this blade is part of a solid, forged socket into which the handle fits. Most hoes are made with the tang and ferrule method. The tang is the goosenecked rod that is welded to the blade and sticks into the metal ferrule where it fits onto the handle (see figure 2). The tang is held in place with a rivet through the ferrule and handle. This is a satisfactory hoe if it is given reasonable care. With abuse, the tang can become loose due to a broken rivet or a cracked handle. In cheaper hoes the blade is riveted or spot-welded onto the tang; these are satisfactory for very light use, but that junction will break easily.

Both the heavier and lighter types are known as general garden hoes. They differ in the kind of metal, thickness of the blade, and size of the blade. Thicker blades made of carbon manganese steel will remain sharp longer, but you may not want to swing that much weight. All hoes seem to have the same angle, but the diameter and length of the handle vary. Try them for comfort at the store. There is a triangular hoe, which is not quite a triangle but has a tapered end that is useful for tillage in hard soil. The Warren hoe really is triangular and useful for opening furrows, but the corner of an ordinary hoe does about as well. So, take your choice but do not buy more hoes than you will use.

Figure 2. Types of hoes: (a) general garden hoe; (b) triangular hoe; (c) eye hoe (changol).

The Pick Mattock, the Eye Hoe, and the Pick

Sometimes the soil is so compacted that even a strong shovel (or spade, if you like that word) will hardly dent it. Frequently, the soil is so wet that a shovel will only pull up a batch of mud. You will not use a pick mattock often, but when you need it this is a great tool. Manufacturers do not seem to like the name pick mattock; that is a gardener’s term. A pick mattock is a double- ended tool with a heavy-duty hoe on one side of the business end and some sort of pick or axe on the other. These are opposite ends of the tool, not of the handle (see figure 3). The pick can be used to start digging in hard soil, then you can turn it over and use the mattock end to continue digging.

Leon also wants to make a pitch for what seems to be called an eye hoe, also known as a Scovil hoe. During his hitch in Malaysia he learned to love that tool. It was called a changol (pronounced “chunkle”), which does not sound like a Malay or Chinese word. The Malaysians think it was introduced from Europe. In the old painting of Man with a Hoe a peasant is leaning on a changol. This tool is called an eye hoe because the metal part has an eye, a hole, at the top. This hole slips over the narrow end of a tapered handle and slips down until it is tightly fixed (see figure 3c). It is the very best implement for digging a wide ditch in wet soil, which means it can be useful down South. The eye hoe is what a pick mattock would be if it had no pick at the other end. (Leon feels a lot safer when swinging a heavy tool that does not have a sharp end pointed at his backside.) The eye hoe can dig into hard or very wet soil, it can pry up stones, and, if you keep it sharp, can cut through roots. It is better than a heavy hoe for breaking up heavy clods and it is adequate for light weeding, but is so heavy that you get tired quickly. The eye hoe is not a common item in hardware stores, but if you find one, consider trying it.

Now for the pick. It is best for breaking up really hard soil and is good for prying stones or cutting roots. After using a pick, you can shift to a shovel and finally to a hoe for breaking the clods. A pick is useless in wet soil.

Figure 3. Picks and mattocks.


There are several kinds of garden rakes. The most common and versatile is called a bowhead rake, attached to the handle by tangs coming from each end of the rake head. It is strong enough for breaking soft clods, leveling the seedbed, or light tillage. The flathead rake is attached like a hoe, with a single tang going to a ferrule on the handle. It is not as strong as the bowhead but is often lighter and easier to use. There is a heavier rake called a cultivator or potato fork; this may be more nearly a hoe than a rake. It has four or five long tines and is useful for breaking large clods (see figure 4).

You should not try to use a garden rake for leaves on the lawn. It is hard work because the tines fill up with punctured leaves. The simple approach is to run over your lawn with a power mower, collecting the broken-up leaves in the grass catcher. But if you really want to rake leaves, both the steel-tine and polypropylene lawn rakes are very good. We lament the passing of bamboo yard brooms. Back in the days beyond recall proper southern homes were surrounded with large trees that kept the house cool and prevented grass from growing. Once a week you swept the twigs, leaves, and debris with a yard broom.

Now that we are into the discussion we remember that only affluent people had bamboo yard brooms; the common folk made their own from brush. The hard packed soil hardly ever got muddy but probably slowed tree growth substantially. It also made a wonderful place for little-boy games: pitching washers at holes in the ground, cutting small roads and building miniature towns for the toy cars, playing marbles, and let’s not forget the old favorite: mumble-peg, or maybe it was called mumbly-peg.

Figure 4. Bowhead rake and cultivator.


We have not seen a good trowel in years. Apparently, manufacturers follow a planned obsolescence program for trowels. The cheap ones last two weeks and the expensive ones last two months. Seriously, our poll of gardeners brought in very few suggestions on how to select a good trowel. They all seem to bend at the tang or the folded metal that substitutes for it. This may mean that, in our wet compacted soils, we expect more of trowels than other gardeners do, but it does seem that trowels used to be stronger. Leon has a World War II entrenching tool that fits into the transition between trowel work and shovel work. The date 1943 is stamped into the metal. He has replaced the handle twice, but only because stores do not sell good entrenching tools.

As you wander through a hardware store you will see many other useful hand implements, but we must stop somewhere. Now for the expensive tools.

Power Equipment

Lawn Mowers

Regardless of what we might prefer, every home has a lawn and the grass must be mowed. The simplest, most inexpensive mower of them all is the old push-type reel mower. It is excellent exercise for upper arms, general muscular strength, and endurance. It is pretty good for the cardiovascular system but, as heart exercise, it does not compare well with a brisk walk. This type of mower has five to eight spiral blades attached to reels at each end. These blades push the grass against a fixed blade called the bedknife. A rear-mounted roller adjusts the cutting height. This scissor-like system makes a fine smooth cut on each grass blade, and the cutting height can be precisely adjusted. Golf green mowers are reel type, which is why the greens look so good: each grass blade is cut smoothly and lacks the brown edge caused by the slash of a rotary mower blade. The disadvantages, whether with the push type or power version, are that the lawn must be very level and that it is important to mow regularly. Cutting tall grass with a reel mower is not impossible but it is difficult. Another problem with the reel mower is that of frequent adjustment. The bed knife must contact all parts of the spiral blades as they rotate. Adjustment is not difficult but is time-consuming.

Ed used a power-driven reel mower for fifteen years and switched to the rotary because his reel mower was so old that he had to make replacement parts for it. Leon has not used a reel mower since high school days: the push type. Power reel mowers are good but expensive and heavy.

The most common inexpensive power mower is the rotary type. It is the kind you already know about; a motor on top drives a rapidly spinning blade that shears the tall grass and throws it out a discharge chute. The better versions have a belt drive that decreases vibrations somewhat. The greatest disadvantage with a rotary mower is that it will pick up rocks or bits of metal and sling them away like bullets. At best, the rotary mower is dangerous; but do not operate it without a mulcher attachment or grass bag over the discharge chute. Otherwise, that chute is like the barrel of a rifle.

The blades of a rotary mower should be sharpened periodically, but even sharp blades will not make as clean a cut across the grass as a reel mower. To sharpen a blade, remove it from the mower and file the cutting side of each end to a sharp bevel. Then put a large nail through the bolt hole and suspend the blade to check the balance. An out-of-balance blade can shake the entire mower. If the blade is reasonably well balanced, it will remain horizontal when suspended by the nail; if one end dips downward you should file more metal from it.

Leon notes that sharpening of a mower blade has gone out of style in this throw-away society. A sharp new blade is pretty cheap. Check the price and decide what you want to do. You should either sharpen or replace the blade two or three times each mowing season. This is the advice of our turfgrass friends, who say that a dull blade is the most common cause of grass problems.

Riding Mowers

Unless you have a very large lawn, you probably cannot justify the investment in a riding mower. But we do not pretend that gardening is a commercial enterprise. If you want a riding mower, get one. There is an adage that the primary difference between adults and children is the price of their toys. A good riding mower will cut a wide swath, has adjustments to increase the speed of the blades while slowing the forward motion (a great help when you have postponed mowing for too long), and has room for a large grass or leaf catcher. If your lawn has many trees or small shrubs, check the mower for a sharp turning radius. Riding mowers come with either rotary or reel-type blades, but the rotary ones are more popular and much less expensive.

Trimmers and Edgers for the Lawn

You probably do not need any of these, but they are inexpensive labor-savers. The old-fashioned hand trimmers looked like sheep shears and were used to trim the grass growing out of the sidewalk or driveway, but they were so slow and tiring that people usually resorted to hoes. There are better scissor-type trimmers now, but they also are too slow unless you have a small lawn. The garden center will probably have a turf edger, which looks like a cut-off shovel. It does a good job, but cuts a little soil each time you use it. There is also a push-type rotary edger that will do a nice job of trimming along the walkway, but modern gardeners usually buy an electric or gasoline-powered type. Leon has an electric one and often wonders why he ever deserted the hoe. All models seem to be similar and equally dangerous; always wear safety goggles when using them. The nylon grass trimmer is pretty good for edging along the walkway and very useful along walls or the edges of flower beds. The greatest hazard is that you will decide to use it in weeding around small trees. This damages the cambium layer (growing cells just below the bark); with consistent damage the tree will certainly die.

Pruners and Loppers

If you have any shrubs or trees you will want one or two hand pruners and a lopper to cut larger branches. The best type of hand pruner is called a bypass type; these are much like scissors except that one blade is narrow and curved (see figure 5). The largest of these can cut three-quarter inch or larger branches. We should note that the most common damage to these pruners is having the blades sprung out of alignment by someone trying to cut a branch that is too large. Look at several sizes and styles before deciding what fits your needs and price range. The blades can and should be sharpened with a whetstone.

Anvil-type pruners consist of a single cutting blade that pushes down against a soft metal anvil. These are good for many purposes and are often cheaper than bypass pruners. The problem is that they tend to crush the branch on one side rather than producing a smooth cut. Also, the anvil makes it impossible to cut a twig off very close to the parent branch.

Loppers also come as bypass or anvil types. They will easily cut branches up to two inches in diameter and much larger if the lopper has a rachet for extra power.

Figure 5. Pruners: (a) bypass-type pruner; (b) anvil-type pruner.


It is a good idea to have a pruning saw or two in your arsenal. These saws are specially made to cut green wood with a minimum of binding. The two we suggest are a crescent-shaped saw with a wooden handle and a bow saw with replaceable blades for larger cuts. The crescent saw cuts on the pull stroke (this is important because it is the opposite of a carpenter’s saw, which cuts on the push stroke) and can handle quite sizable limbs (up to five or six inches in diameter). Bow saws come in different sizes; one with about an eighteen-inch blade should handle most needs. In cases of storm damage or other circumstances requiring larger cuts, you should probably call for outside help, but those of us who are determined (stubborn) gardeners may want to rent or borrow a chain saw. These can be quite dangerous and are recommended only with strong reservations and emphasis on safety precautions. The small chain saws seem to be even more dangerous than larger ones, or perhaps the operators are more careless.

Reprinted with permission from Gardening in the Humid South by Edmund N. O’Rourke Jr. and Leon C. Standifer and published by Louisiana State University Press, 2002.