Manual-gardening Tools

2013-05-11 Updated
2010-06-04 Initial Post

Here’s a list of the main tools that I use for gardening (besides the typical shovels and rakes). I don’t use any machines primarily because I need the exercise—I have an office job where I sit most of the day, so I welcome any chance to perform some manual labor. Also, it makes one feel closer to the earth and the plants.

Before I begin, I'd like to offer one bit of advice: Don't ever leave your tools outside--the sun and rain will wear them down quicker, especially the wooden handles. Treat your tools with respect by cleaning them periodically and storing them indoors or in a well ventilated, covered area.

* Half-moon edger This is one of the most versatile garden tools that I have. As its name implies, you can use it for edging. This is better than using a square-shaped edger because you can rock back and forth on this edger as you move it along the edge line. That makes it a lot easier to keep the line straight. I also use this tool for four other major purposes. One is to break up large clumps of soil. The second is to score the turf for digging (see example here). The third is to remove English ivy (see my post about ivy removal here). And the fourth is to remove overgrown grass such as when the lawn hasn't been edged for a long time and the grass starts growing over the sidewalk. In that case you would position the edger horizontally and slam it into the overgrowth to loosen it. Then score the overgrowth on the edge and them remove it.

I don’t recall where I got my edger, but it’s very old, so I know I got it used. I checked out some of the newer models at Home Depot and Lowe’s and they just don’t make them like they used to. The steel on the newer models looks very cheap, and they painted them black—probably to protect the cheap steel from corroding quickly. When using the edger to slam down on something, utilize your entire body to do so, legs included—don’t just slam down with your arms.

* Post hole digger I really wish I had bought one of these before I decided to plant 9 plants (and digging all 9 holes with a hand trowel!). After that experience, I searched and searched for the tools that experienced gardeners used to dig holes for planting. All I found were comments such as “dig a hole this size or that size” but no one ever mentioned in detail which tool to use. I guess it was implied that one should use a shovel, but which particular type? Yeah, you could use a pointed-head shovel for bigger holes 2 ft or wider. But for smaller holes, the only small “shovel” I could find was a hand trowel. If you have to dig several small holes, you do not want to use a hand trowel—it makes the job extremely laborious and you’ll put a lot of stress on your hands and wrist.

Most container plants require a hole at least twice as wide and a little deeper than the container. So if you have a 6” container, that means a 12” wide hole. A 12” wide hole is too small to effectively use a standard pointed-head shovel to dig. Enter the post hole digger.  With it you can easily dig a 12” wide hole. You can even dig something as small as a 5” wide. And with this tool, your depth can vary from a few inches to several feet. This is an extremely useful tool for digging holes for planting, and I wish that it would be mentioned more often alongside instructions for planting. I bought the mid-gradge Ames 1701400 from Home Depot. Here’s a good video on how to use a post hole digger. Like using the edger, when you slam down the post hole digger, utilize your entire body to do so, legs included—don’t just slam down with your arms.

* Post hole digging tamper bar After getting nowhere trying to remove a tough root with a shovel, half-moon edger, and ax, I had to get out the heavy artillery and bought one of these. It took me just a few minutes to chop up the root and pry it out. This can also be used to break up thick pieces of ice in the winter, and for misc tasks that require breaking up or prying something.

* Tiller This is another tool that I wish I had bought earlier on. It’s used to break up the first several inches of soil. I considered purchasing the Fiskars brand, but they didn’t sell it at my local Home Depot, so I purchased the Hound Dog HDP12 instead. Fiskars likes to promote how ergonomically well-designed their products are, but their tiller doesn’t offer any major advantages that I can see. Yeah, it has a thing to put your foot in so you can put your weight down to drive the tiller into the ground, but after using the Hound Dog, I feel that the foot step is unnecessary. It doesn’t take much force to drive the tiller into the ground, so if you have difficulty doing that, then your soil is too hard and you’re also going to have a difficult time turning the tiller to break up the soil.

Anyway, the Hound Dog or any tiller that looks similar is fine—this is a very basic tool that doesn’t need any fancy design updates. I did notice that the Fiskars seems to have a thicker handle, which could be more comfortable if you have larger hands.

* Cultivator I ended up getting the Hound Dog brand of this again. I also considered the Fiskars brand, but it wasn’t available at my local Home Depot. The Hound Dog HDP15 is actually more versatile because you can take it apart to use as a shorter cultivator. Also, the tines are detachable, which makes cleaning them out a lot easier (I didn’t see this in the specs for the Fiskars). If you’re cultivating an area that has a lot of weeds or grass, you’ll definitely need to remove the tines periodically to clean out the grass/weeds and clumped up soil.

Update: The base of one tine on the Hound Dog completely broke off so I returned it to Home Depot with no issues. It's obviously not designed for long-term use. My soil isn't that hard, and I only used this tool on four weekends before it broke.

I ended up getting the Fiskars 9866 Telescoping Rotary Cultivator from Lowe's. The tines and tine locks are much better designed than the Hound Dog's. Also the tines are a bit larger, so they can go deeper. And the tines are removable for cleaning. One very annoying thing is the adjustable handle--it comes loose during use and collapses. I have to watch how I hold it to minimize the occurrence of this. I don't see a need to use it in a position other than fully extended, so I'll drill a hole and put a screw in it to lock it in one position. This was very poor product design and testing on Fiskars part. Anyone who uses this for a few minutes with any effort would have seen that it collapses easily.

One other thing I'd like to see improved is a curved handle at the end, like the Hound Dog's. It would make it more comfortable to use.

* Gloves I don’t know why no one has come up with a very good gardening glove design. I’ve looked at all the gloves at my local Home Depot and Lowe’s, and they’re all inadequate. I also looked at several online and wasn't impressed with any of them. I understand that there’s a balance with gardening gloves because you need them to have the dexterity to be able to work the soil and pick up small objects, but then you’d also need to have thick padding on the palm and fingers to prevent blisters. Another thing is that you need good water resistance because the further down you dig, the more moist the soil is.

I ended up getting the Bionic Elite Gardening Gloves. They have been pretty good so far, which I expected since they weren’t cheap. I’ve worn these gloves while using various garden tools and have really gotten my hands deep into the soil with them. One major improvement I’d like to see is more water resistance around the entire finger area and more padding around the area of the thumb towards the index finger.

My hands are on the small end of large, according to Bionic’s measurement directions, so I opted to get the medium size since I’d rather be able to stretch out the glove rather than have it always be too loose.

Update: I've used these gloves for over 40 hours total, digging, cultivating, pulling out roots, and moving dirt with my hands. I've also washed them 3 times (once by hand only and twice by hand first and then washing machine). The lack of extra padding in some key areas did result in sore spots on the palm of my hands on days when I worked a lot. But overall, the gloves held up and at this point, I would say that I got my money's worth.

I tried using the gloves to work on my retaining wall and they quickly started wearing out, which can be expected since the concrete blocks are as abrasive as sandpaper. Thick leather gloves are the only type that can hold up to concrete blocks.

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