OE wyrtig, adj: Garden-like, full of plants;
On anum wyrtige hamme, Homl. Skt. ii. 30:312



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Tool basics

Much of the pleasure of gardening depends on having the right tool for the job, and some tools, like some plants, become valued friends. A garden tool is typically made  up of a handle and a business end. Knowing a little about those two components can make selecting and using tools easier.


A long handle provides greater leverage, which makes digging easier. The strongest, most shock-resistant wooden handles are made of ash; next best, of hickory. Wood has an inherent flexibility, which isn't true of metal or rigid plastic.

Handle materials

The grain of the wood in a tool handle should run lengthwise in the handle, not across it, or it will break.

Wet wood rots. With tools like shovels and hoes, rotting is most likely to occur where the wooden handle and the business end, such as a metal blade, are attached. It is at this juncture that tools are most likely to break.

Unvarnished or worn wooden handles should be rubbed down with linseed or canola oil when you get them out in the spring, and again when you put them away in the fall, to keep them from becoming rough. If you are gardening organically and plan to use linseed oil, read the label, as some linseed oil is treated with a fungicide.

Handle color is important. Dark-colored handles make smaller tools easy to loose. On long-handled tools, like shovels and rakes, dark handles are hard to see, creating trip hazards. A bit of bright paint on any handle is a good thing.

Soft handle materials, for example those on some ergonomic hand tools, wear out more quickly.


The original

Handle shapes

Try on a tool before you buy it to be sure the diameter of the handle is comfortable in your hand.

Older hand tools were sometimes made with straight handles because this was easy to do, but straight handled tools like trowels put a strain on joints in the wrist and fingers. Goose-necked tools are easier to use because they provide greater leverage. The goose neck is part of the metal blade of the tool.

Shovel blade

Blades, tines, tangs, and sockets

The working end of a tool (blade, tines, etc.) is usually made of metal. Some hand tools are made entirely of a single piece of metal. The best metal for tools is polished stainless steel, which is very hard and resists rust. Cast aluminum-magnesium alloy tools are more durable than straight cast aluminum. Some metal tools are painted or given an epoxy powder coating; both wear off with use.

Avoid metal hand tools with that attach to their handles with hollow, U-shaped metal handles or tangs, as these bend and break more easily.  

Metal blades may be attached to handles in several ways; the most common are:

  • Tangs - A tang is a metal prong or tail that is pushed into the end of the wooden  Tool with tanghandle. A metal collar or ferrule is then fitted around the wood outside the tang to keep the wood from splitting.

  • Tool with socketSockets - A socket is a metal cone that extends from the business end of a tool. The wooden handle of the tool fits tightly into this cone, and is held in place by a rivet or screw. A socket may be formed with the working end of the tool from a single piece of metal, which gives the strongest tool; or it may be welded to the metal.

Whether a tang or a socket is used, the place where the working end of a tool is joined to its handle is the weakest point on a tool, and the area most likely to break.

Maintenance and storage

Sharp tools – not just pruners and loppers, but also shovels, hoes, and trowels -- are much more efficient to use. A sharp hoe will cut weeds cleanly at the surface of the ground, disturbing less soil and bringing fewer weed seeds to the surface to sprout, so that you need to weed less often. A sharp shovel or trowel will also lighten the stress on your body because it does its job more quickly and with less effort.

Sharp cutting tools like pruners and loppers will do less damage to plants because they cut cleanly, and -- again -- are easier on your body.

Cleaning and oiling
Don’t put metal tools away dirty; dirt is hygroscopic (it absorbs and holds moisture), and that spells rust.

To prevent rust, oil the metal parts of your tools on a regular basis. An easy way to do this is to fill a clean, five-gallon pail with clean sand, then pour in a quart of oil (used motor oil works well for this) and stir it around.

After you’ve cleaned all loose dirt off a metal tool blade, push the blade into the oily sand and run it up and down a few times. Then use a rag to wipe off any excess oil, and hang up the tool to store it.

Storing tools
Hanging tools up is a good idea because:

  • It gets them off the floor and out of the way

  • It prevents rust by keeping the metal parts of tools away from dirt or concrete floors, which tend to be damp

  • It makes it easy to see the working end of the tool each time you put it away, so you can be sure each tool is clean and well maintained

Buying tools

Lumberyards, farm stores, hardware stores, gardening stores, online –- all are good tool sources. But most of my tools have come from yard sales, farm auctions, and second-hand stores. Of course, you can buy tools new, but when you can get an oak-handled shovel in mint condition for $2, shelling out ten times that for a new tool seems… extravagant.

That said, no tool is a bargain if it doesn’t work well for you and your body, so the “try before you buy” mantra holds true even at a farm auction or a yard sale. Heft it, hold it, move it through the motions of what you want it to do.

Essential tools

Over the years I've tried a good many tools, from gas-powered mega rototillers to hand trowels. In general, small really is beautiful; sustainable gardening means less digging and more composting; and my essential arsenal of garden tools has become quite modest. Below is one person's list of garden tool essentials.

Gardening basketGardening basket

I use a basket to carry the tools I use every day in my garden, and I try to remember to always take it with me, even when I'm just going to grab a handful of chives. Otherwise, I set out to do one thing and end up needing the tools to do three others; having my basket at hand saves me endless trips back to the house. This basket holds:

  • Notebook and pencils

  • Bandana (headband to keep sweat out of my  eyes on hot days)

  • Seeds in spring; containers to hold gathered seed in fall

  • Garden stakes

  • Mosquito repellent

  • Reading glasses (old pair, JIC I've left mine in the house)

Ball of cotton yarnCotton yarn - I use this to tie up plants, lay out furrows, etc. Cotton yarn is more flexible than string, and less likely to hurt plant stems. Cotton breaks down in the garden, and can go into the compost heap; synthetic yarns seem to last forever, and may pose a threat to birds and other wildlife. I buy my heavy cotton yarn at Goodwill or other second-hand stores, where partial skeins are a bargain. I look for heavy stuff -- packing string tends to disintegrate too quickly, breaking easily after just a few weeks outside.

Gardening glovesGloves - Buy garden gloves at the end of the season, when they are on sale, and get several pairs. Try them on for size, snug but not tight, or they will let dirt in, and also give you blisters. They should be flexible but not waterproof (those get too hot and damp). I like brightly colored gloves (harder to lose) with stretchy, knit backs and rubberized fingertips and palms for a good grip. Not too thick, so that you have a good sense of feel in your fingertips. With heavy gloves, I tend to take them off "just for a minute," and never put them back on again.

Scissors - I keep an old pair of scissors in the basket to use for cutting string, pruning soft growth from plants, etc. Large, open handles make them easier to use when I'm wearing gardening gloves. Short blades are better for tight spaces.

garden trowelTrowels - Traditional planting trowels usually have a short handle, slight gooseneck, and a wide, cupped blade. They are easiest to use if their edges are fairly sharp. Ash or hickory handles last the longest.

To find the best trowel for your hand and wrist, you’ll need to try them out.

Recently a range of ergonomically designed garden trowels have come onto the market, among them the Radius (with a semi-circular, cushioned handle) and the Fist Grip (with a handle perpendicular to the blade). I haven't tried either of these, but would like to.

transplant trowelTransplanting trowel - Narrow bladed transplanting trowels often have a measurement scale on the blade to help set plants and bulbs, etc., at the right depth. Stainless steel is the best material for blades; aluminum-magnesium alloys are also durable. Avoid trowels with u-shaped metal for the tang or handle, as these bend too easily.

Pruning shearsPruning shears  - Pruning shears come in two basic designs:

  1. Bypass pruners work like scissors, with two sharpened blades that move past one another when they cut.

  2. Anvil pruners bring a sharp blade down against a flat surface, cutting like a knife and a cutting board.

I prefer a bypass pruner, because if kept properly sharpened, it doesn’t smash the stem or branch as it cuts, leaving a cleaner wound that will heal more quickly.

Pruners come in different sizes and with various kinds of handles. Look for:

  • A grip that fits your hand well  

  • Blades that can be sharpened

  • A pruner that is assembled with nut and bolts, so that you can buy replacement parts when it stops working, rather than having to replace the entire pruner

  • A locking device that keeps the pruner closed when not in use, so that you don't cut yourself on it when it’s in your basket

  • Capacity to cut branches/stems of up to half an inch in diameter

  • A ratchet pruner, which makes pruning much easier on your hands

  • A right- or left-handed pruner, depending on which you need

Wash and oil pruning shears after each session in the garden, and between plants if you are pruning diseased growth. Antibacterial wipes make it easy to clean pruners between plants if you are concerned about disease.

Dandelion diggerDandelion digger - This little hand weeder is wonderful for digging out plants with deep taproots. It is also useful for relocating tiny volunteer plants, like aquilegia, in early spring.

Larger tools
long-handled garden shovelShort-handled garden shovelShovels and spades - The terms shovel and spade are often used interchangeably, but shovels typically have broader blades and are used to move material around, while spades have narrower blades, and are used for excavating in certain ways.

Garden spades have a D-shaped tip whose edge cuts more easily into the soil. Both spades and shovels have flattened shoulders at the top of their blades. When you dig, your foot rests on this shoulder, so that you can use your leg to push the blade with more pressure.

Square-bladedSand shovels have flat tips, which work better for moving heavier loads, such  as sand. Shorter shovels and spades often have a grip at the end of the handle. It may be semi-circular, D-shaped, or T-shaped.


Edging spade  An edging spade has a half-moon blade that is used to create a neat edge along a walk or bed. It slices soil or turf away to leave a clean, straight line.


A transplanting spade, also known as a tile spade or a drain spade,  
 has a long, narrow blade. This works well for removing larger plants from crowded beds, and also for digging narrow trenches.

Garden hoeHoes

The traditional, long-handled garden hoe allows you to stand upright as you work, which is easier on your back. Keep the blade of the hoe sharp, so that you can slice off weeds at soil level.

Don't use a hoe to dig or chop; it isn't designed to do either, and using it this way will wear it, and you, out.

Warren hoeThe Warren or delta-blade hoe has a small, triangular blade with a sharp sides and tip, and works really well for hoeing between crowded plants and between stepping stones.

Hand hoeA hand hoe is a small tool, about 18" long, that is used when you are working at ground level, whether you are making a few furrows, or weeding between plants.

garden rakeRakes

The garden rake is a sturdy rake with heavy tines in a rigid, straight row. It is used to level garden soil or to rake heavy debris. The width of the head is important; too wide and it is awkward (and exhausting) to use; too narrow and the job takes longer.

Leaf rakeThe fan-shaped leaf rake is a more delicate tool, with flexible tines arranged in a fan shape. Metal, spring-loaded heads tend to last longer, and are better for wet leaves. A head that is too wide gathers too much at a stroke, and is tiring to use.

Pitch forkForks

Pitch forks are handy for moving loose hay or mulch, for picking up piles of weeds, and for turning compost.

Diging forkShorter, studier digging forks can be used much like a spade, for turning compost, loosening soil in a garden bed, or scooping up weed piles.

Watering cans

I love old-fashioned, galvanized tin watering cans. It’s nice to have various sizes, from a one gallon to three gallons; write their capacity unobtrusively on their tops. It’s also nice to have some with “roses,” the pierced caps through which the water flows, and some without, so that you can control the velocity and amount of water you will provide.

It is important that when the can is sitting level, the opening of the spout is a couple of inches higher than the level of water in the can, so that you can carry a full can of water without having it run out the spout (and down your leg) as you walk.

When you're looking at second-hand watering cans, it’s important to check for splits in the side and bottom seams, as these are hard to fix.


Wheelbarrows are essential for hauling plants, weeds, soil, flower pots, the occasional youngster, etc. etc.

It’s important to find the right size wheelbarrow for your space and your strength. Often smaller is better.

Most wheelbarrows have one wheel in the front and two tines or braces at the back. Some have two wheels at the front, which gives more stability but makes them less maneuverable.

Wheelbarrow with two front wheelsIf you garden on a slope, having a wheelbarrow with two front wheels for stability, so that it won’t tip easily ,is a good thing.

Wheelbarrow with single front wheelIf you need to turn on a dime, having a single wheel in front is a good thing.


Check to be sure the bed of the wheelbarrow is designed to concentrate most of the load above the front wheel(s), rather than near the handles. That way, the barrow shoulders the load, rather than you.


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Botanists are among those who know that, in spite of the rude shocks of life,
it is well to have lived, and to have seen the everlasting beauty of the world.
F.D. Drewitt


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