Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
New England
February, 2007
Regional Report

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Choose the tool that best fits the task, and you.

Tools Worth Treasuring

My favorite shovel is one passed down from a grandfather, complete with his initials burned into the handle. It's strong but not too heavy, with a blade big enough to scoop a load but not so big I can't heft it easily. But after many years of hard use, the tip of the blade became so worn that it bent and then split. In my haste to finish a task, I rushed to a nearby garden center and bought a cheap replacement. It lasted two weeks before the handle snapped off when I was trying to dig up a shrub. I learned my lesson. If you expect a lot of work from your tools, it pays to invest in good workmanship.

Well-made tools aren't cheap, but then again, cheap tools may not be any bargain either because they can't keep up with a busy gardener. Tools tend to fail when the manufacturer cuts corners in the materials used or the way in which the materials were put together. Sometimes the features that add strength and durability to a tool also add weight, but weight alone not a foolproof guide to evaluating a potential purchase. Especially if you're small in stature and would tire more easily using a heavy tool. (I do have another shovel in the shed but I never use it because it's just too heavy.) So what features should we consider when scouting for a new digging tool?

Blades and Heads
Forged steel makes a very strong tool head, as does stainless steel, which has the added advantage of never rusting. Tool heads that are stamped from a sheet of metal are not as strong, so save these for shoveling lighter-weight materials.

The size of the blade, of course, affects the weight of the tool, and therefore the comfort, so choose the right shovel for the task. Large, square-point shovels are best for shoveling material, and a narrower, round-point blade is best for digging.

Spades have a square point and a narrower blade than a shovel, and their handles often end in a D grip. Because they are smaller and lighter, they cause less fatigue. It's also worth trying a floral or border spade, which has an even narrower blade and is perfect for digging up perennials in cramped spaces. Why use a big shovel when a smaller spade will do the job!

In evaluating the durability of a tool, inspect the point at which the metal head or blade meets the handle. This is the fulcrum of the tool -- the spot where the tool is under the most pressure and is most likely to break. Solid-shank tools have both blade and socket (the portion that attaches the blade to the handle) forged from a single bar of metal. These are the strongest, but also the heaviest. Hollow-back shovels are usually stamped from a metal sheet that's rolled over to create a depression called a frog. Some shovels have a plate welded over the frog to increase strength and keep the wooden handle drier and less prone to decay.

If you're working with very heavy soil or prying lots of roots and stones, solid shank is the way to go. Hollow-back construction, however, would be perfectly adequate if your tasks are less strenuous -- digging in garden beds, for example. These tools are lighter and less expensive.

Be wary of tools that attach with a tang and ferrule. The tang is a shank that extends from the blade and is inserted into the handle. A ring (ferrule) holds the tang in place and prevents splitting. While this set-up may work fine for lightweight jobs, it lacks strength under pressure.

Wooden handles aren't as strong as steel or fiberglass, but they absorb impact so much better. Straight-grain ash and hickory make the strongest wooden handles. If the handle ends in a grip, such as a T or D grip, check the attachment. Look for grips that extend toward the handle from all sides, rather than a tang and ferrule attachment with a shank on two sides of the handle.

While rakes don't have to withstand the force that shovels do, there are some features that will make them handier to use and last longer. A garden rake with a head that's attached to the handle by a bow that runs from either end of the head will be stronger than one whose handle is attached at the center of the head. Look for heavy iron teeth, which won't bend easily.

For raking leaves and other debris, consider spending a little more to get a rake with an adjustable head -- from wide to narrow. The narrow head makes it easier to reach under spreading shrubs, and it can also be adjusted to thin vegetable seedlings in the garden.

Whatever tool you buy, treat it well by trying to ward off rust by wiping the blade clean after each use, and wiping wooden handles with linseed oil at the end of the season.

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