Mastery of the Garden: A Guide to Buying Garden Tools

Choosing the right tool makes gardening easier, safer, and results in better results. When purchasing gardening tools, there are some factors to consider, such as fit, materials, features, and uses.

For all tools, feel is important to ensure comfort and reduce the risk of injury. As it says in the fairy tale “Goldilocks and the Three Bears”, it must be “perfect”.

The weight, length and width of the handles vary. Tools that are too big or too small can cause hand or back strain. Long-handled tools, such as shovels and rakes, that are too short cause the user to bend. Bending over 30 percent from vertical can contribute to back fatigue and muscle spasms.

Materials for garden tools differ and are a determining factor in price and quality. The metal of garden tools is either forged or stamped steel. Forged steel is heated and shaped for strength. These tools are the most durable and the most expensive. Forged steel tools will be labeled “hardened”, “heat treated” or “forged”.

Stamped steel is cut by high impact pressing and is weaker than forged.

The handles are made of wood or fiberglass. Both are strong and, if properly maintained, can last a lifetime. Fiberglass handles are lighter and will not rot, but are more difficult to replace if broken. Wooden handles should have a grain lengthwise of the handle, but can crack or break if not maintained.

Pruning shears handles are usually made of metal, but plastic is used for cheaper models. Proper padding on the handles of the pruning shears increases comfort, and some of the ergonomic models have rotating handles or D-handles, which reduce hand fatigue.

The tools are designed for specific gardening tasks. Select tools that help you with the tasks you perform most often. A few to consider:

These tools are used to remove plant material.

Pruning shears are used to cut plant material. Shown (from left) bypass, anvil and ratchet pruning shears.

(Jodi Bay)

  • Pruning shears are hand cutting tools that come in three versions. Bypass pruners are intended for pruning live plants, while anvil pruners are intended for cutting dried material. Ratchet pruners cut into small bites and are useful for those with sore or weak hands. Pruning shears cut materials up to three-quarters of an inch thick.
  • Pruners are the long-handled version of pruners and can cut branches up to 1 ½ inch thick.
  • Pruning saws cut branches larger than 1 ½ inches. Consider pruning shears or a saw when cutting branches above shoulder height.

These tools move dirt or other material.

The three types of shovel are (from the left) rounded (spade), hollow and square point.

The three types of shovel are (from the left) rounded (spade), hollow and square point.

(Jodi Bay)

  • Shovels are available in three types: spade (rounded), square point and sliced. Spades are best for digging holes. Square point shovels help move sand, gravel or mulch. They can also be used to cut grass. Trench shovels, with their narrow blade, are used for digging irrigation trenches or other narrow trenches.
  • Use a garden fork to loosen the soil and add compost.
  • A fork is useful for moving mulch, straw or other loose material.
  • Trowels are the hand sized version of a shovel and are used for digging small holes.
  • Planters facilitate the planting of seeds and bulbs. The best have a ruler engraved on it to help with proper planting depth.
  • Scythes come in a variety of sizes and are used to remove weeds, cut weeds, and harvest grain.
  • Standing weeders help the gardener to remove weeds while standing, thus avoiding bending at the knees or back. The claw stabilizes the weed and the arm grips it to remove it.
  • Manual weeders are simple forked tools in which the fork is inserted under the weed and lifts it up.
  • Cultivators are three-pronged tools for breaking up and leveling the soil, as well as for weeding.


Hoes are a versatile and broad category of gardening tools that are primarily used for weeding and digging.

A collection of six styles of garden hoes used for weeding and digging.

Hoes are used for weeding and digging. Hoes with an opening are classified as brawl hoes; those who are strong are hoes to pull.

(DeLayne Harmon)

  • Brawl hoes remove weeds and are open in the center. They disturb the soil up to 1 inch deep, removing weeds and roots.
  • Trailed hoes have a strong blade and are used for digging.


A multitasking trowel / weeder in action.

A multitasking trowel / weeder in action.

(Jodi Bay)

These tools help with more than one task. Some examples are the hoe / cultivator, the Hori Hori knife and the weeder / trowel. They are a good solution of simplification and value.

These tools are designed to allow a gardener with pain or mobility issues to continue gardening.

  • Ratchet secateurs cut each time the handle is closed.
  • Swivel and D-loop handles relieve pressure on your hands.
  • Ergonomic hand tools have a curved handle or angled blade that engages the large muscles of the arms to do the job.
  • Tools with telescoping handles help extend reach.
  • A portable stool lets you garden without bending over.

A hat, gloves, sunscreen, and closed-toe shoes are all needed. If you are working with chemicals, eye protection is a must and, for hot days, a refillable water bottle.

In most cases, better quality tools are more expensive. Pick one that fits your budget, suits the individual, and gets the job done.

Frequency of use is also an important decision factor. It is worth investing in a tool that will be used often. A good tool will be a good friend for many years to come.

For more information on gardening tools, visit the UC Master Gardener of San Diego County website, with a page on tool maintenance:

Get free gardening advice on the Master Gardeners Hotline, (858) 822-6910, or by email at [email protected].

Jodi Bay has been a master gardener since 2012. She is chair of the Tool Maintenance Committee, whose mission is to educate the gardening public on the types, uses and maintenance of garden tools. In addition, she is an instructor of initiation workshops to the vegetable garden. ??

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