Most Valuable Tools

After 10 years working as a professional gardener, I have strong opinions about which gardening tools I used for each specific gardening task.

Professional gardening is a mobile endeavor, in which you often travel from job site to job site carrying all your supplies and tools. It’s far too easy to forget to bring one of every tool you might need for the job, and nothing makes a tool feel more important than driving 30 miles back to retrieve it once you’ve realized you left it behind.

Although I’ve mostly learned to make do with whatever tools I have on hand, I’d rather use tools that make doing each job as efficient and comfortable as possible. Here are six that I consider “Most Valuable Tools,” and how I like to use them.

Square-Headed Spade
Over time, I’ve come to prefer a square-headed spade (shovel) to the classic pointed one. Whether it has a long or a short handle, the square-headed spade is perfect for cutting clean, straight, new edges along garden beds and chopping stray roots that get in the way while I’m digging planting holes. I use this tool to scrape and sculpt the soil when I’m grading a new garden bed or attempting to level something. It can also work well for removing small amounts of sod.

Steel-Handled Shovel
If you’re not planning to dig in rocky, root-laden soil; remove minor tree stumps; or relocate small landscape boulders, you probably won’t need a steel-handled shovel. But for gardeners who dabble in hardscaping or who have difficult soil conditions, this tool can be a lifesaver. Because this shovel’s handle and blade are all one piece, it’s much easier to increase your leverage when trying to pry or move a heavy object—and you won’t snap it in half accidentally, which can easily happen with a wood or fiberglass shovel handle.

Scoop Shovel
For big garden projects, I prefer buying landscape materials in bulk. When it’s time to start moving a mulch or compost pile from the middle of my driveway to my garden beds, I use my short-handled scoop shovel. Similar to a snow shovel, this tool is perfect for loading your wheelbarrow or lifting mulch straight into the landscape. The wide shovel head can conveniently serve as a dustpan for your push broom, too. Note: for heavy materials like sand, soil or gravel, use the longer-handled, smaller-headed transfer shovel so you don’t hurt yourself trying to lift too much weight.

Digging Fork
My digging fork (also known as a “potato” or “garden” fork) has become one of my most valuable gardening tools. This short-handled, four-pronged fork is my secret weapon when excavating pesky creeping bellflower tubers, digging up dahlias to save at the end of the season and, of course, harvesting potatoes. It works best when you’re trying to remove weeds that have elaborate and/or brittle root systems—bellflower, quack grass or Canada thistle—because you can pry up the surrounding soil without chopping the roots into even tinier pieces that will just cause said weed to spread.

Garden Rake
Also known as a “hard” or “bow” rake, this rake is made from inflexible metal. Its oblong head has many short tines along one side. The garden rake is great for grading uneven terrain and for spreading mulch, compost or topsoil. Using this rake upside down (tines facing up) can make it easier to move large piles of soil before flipping it back over to complete any detailed grading work.

Leaf Rake
This is the quintessential rake: it has a wide, flat, fan-shaped head made from many long metal or plastic tines. As its name suggests, the leaf rake is intended for raking fallen leaves from the yard and garden in the fall. I also like to use it for fine-detail cleanup after I’ve completed any messy garden task. I’ll rake the edges of my lawn after applying mulch or use this tool to collect stray debris and spread loose dirt after renovating perennials.

Illustration of a shovel digging into the soil


Horticulturist Laura Schwarz writes and gardens in Minneapolis.

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