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Garden Mastery: A Guide to Shopping for Garden Tools | Leaf Probably

Choosing the right tool makes gardening easier, safer and delivers better results. When shopping for gardening tools, there are a few factors to consider such as fit, materials, features, and intended use.

With all tools, how it feels is important to ensure comfort and reduce the risk of injury. As it says in the fairy tale “Goldilocks and the Three Bears”, it has to be “exactly right”.

Weight, handle lengths and widths vary. Tools that are too big or too small can cause hand or back fatigue. Long-handled tools like shovels and rakes that are too short will cause the user to bend. Flexing more than 30 percent from vertical can contribute to back fatigue and muscle cramps.

Materials for garden tools are different and determine price and quality. The metal in garden tools is either forged or stamped steel. Forged steel is heated and formed for strength. These tools are the most durable and more expensive. Forged steel tools are marked “hardened”, “heat treated” or “forged”.

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

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The handles are either made of wood or fiberglass. Both are strong and with good care can last a lifetime. Fiberglass handles are lighter and won’t rot, but are harder to replace if broken. Wooden handles should have a grain running down the length of the handle, but can crack or break if not cared for.

Secateurs handles are generally made of metal, but plastic is used on less expensive models. Adequate padding on the pruner handles increases comfort, and some of the ergonomic models have rotating handles or D-handles that reduce hand fatigue.

Tools are designed for specific gardening tasks. Choose tools that help with the tasks you perform most often. A few to note:

These tools are used to remove plant matter.

Secateurs are used to cut plant matter. Shown are (from left) bypass, anvil and ratchet shears.

(Jodi Bay)

  • Secateurs are hand-held cutting tools that come in three versions. Bypass pruners are designed for pruning live plants, while anvil pruners are designed for cutting dried material. Ratchet secateurs cut small bites and are helpful for those with sore or weak hands. Secateurs cut material up to three quarters of an inch thick.
  • Loppers are the long-handled version of secateurs and can cut branches up to 1½ inches thick.
  • Pruning saws cut branches larger than 1½ inches. Consider a pole pruner or saw when cutting branches above shoulder height.

These tools move earth or other material.

The three blade types are (from left) rounded (spade), trench, and square-tipped.

(Jodi Bay)

  • shovels There are three types: spade (rounded), square point, and trencher. Spades are best for digging holes. Square shovels help move sand, gravel or mulch. They can also be used to cut sod. Ditch shovels, with their narrow blade, are used for digging irrigation or other narrow ditches.
  • Use a spade fork to loosen soil and add compost.
  • A pitchfork 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.
  • dibbler facilitate the planting of seeds and bulbs. The best have a ruler etched onto them to help with proper planting depth.
  • Scythes come in a variety of sizes and are used to remove weeds, cut grass, and harvest grain.
  • Standing weeders help the gardener remove weeds while standing, avoiding bending the knees or back. The claw stabilizes the weeds and the arm grabs them for removal.
  • Hand pullers are simple, fork-shaped tools where the fork is inserted under the weed and lifts it out.
  • Cultivators are three-pronged tools used to break up, level and weed soil.


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

Hoes are used for weeding and digging. Hoes with an opening are categorized as rough heels; the ones that are solid are tow hooks.

(DeLayne Harmon)

  • Rough hoes remove weeds and are open in the middle. They break up the soil up to 1 inch deep, removing the weeds and root.
  • Draft picks have a solid blade and are used for digging.


A trowel/curry comb multitasker in action.

(Jodi Bay)

These tools help with more than one task. Some examples are hoe/cultivator, hori hori knife and weeder/trowel. They are a good solution for simplicity and value.

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

  • Ratchet secateurs cut every time the handle is closed.
  • Twist and D-loop handles reduce pressure on hands.
  • Ergonomic hand tools have a curved handle or angled blade that engages the large arm muscles to get the job done.
  • Tools with telescopic handles help extend the reach.
  • A portable stool allows gardening without bending down.

A hat, gloves, sunscreen, and closed-toe shoes are all necessary items. Eye protection is a must when working with chemicals and a refillable water bottle for hot days.

In most cases, the better quality tools are more expensive. Choose one that is within budget, fits the person, and gets the job done.

The frequency of use is also an important decision-making factor. It pays to invest in a tool that will be used frequently. A good tool will be a good friend for many years.

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

Get free gardening advice by calling the Gärtnermeister hotline at (858) 822-6910 or by email at

Jodi Bay has been a master gardener since 2012. She chairs the Tool Care Committee, whose mission is to educate the gardening public about the types, uses, and maintenance of gardening tools. She is also a trainer in vegetable growing workshops.

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