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Heirloom Gardening Tools

Gently worn tools are the hallmark of the true gardener. There’s a patina on the garden tool handles laid in by firm hands over years of digging, turning, cultivating and filling in. Your investment now in good quality gardening tools will last for generations.

A gardener’s tools should match the gardener’s strength and style of gardening. Knowing this, those who sow and reap with the seasons become reliant on these tools of the trade.

Back to Basics

It’s impossible to garden without a basic set of tools. Whether you’re setting up your new garden or upgrading what you already own, spend as much as you can afford on these tools, knowing that they’ll be at your side for years.

Basic quality tools like shovels and forks have heads constructed of high-carbon steel with terms such as “heat treated” or “forged” on the label. The shaft of long handled tools should be a light wood, such as ash, and should be unpainted and free of knots. The weakest part of a tool is where the handle meets the head. Settle for nothing less than a solid metal socket or strapped head with two or three rivets.

Dig It

Call a spade a spade, but never a shovel. A shovel has a rounded point to open the soil and a formed depression to carry materials. A spade has a flat end and sides to form straight-sided holes. For average height and strength, choose the standard 8″ wide and 12″ deep blade. Make sure that the tread, the rolled edge on the top of the blade, is rolled forward and dull enough that it won’t split the sole of your shoe.

Throwing in the Trowel

The short handled form of a shovel is the trowel. Designed to open and move prepared soil, it serves double duty as a transplanting tool and weeder. If you start with just one, choose a broad blade with a comfortable handle that fits your hands. The narrow-bladed version is a specialized form designed to rapidly set in small transplants.


Garden rakes grab, push, level and mold. Whether you’re raking leaves, grass or lumps of soil, the space between the tines determines how much is gathered with each swipe. The long-handled, all-purpose bowhead rake is the most versatile, providing a springy, light tool to level the soil and clean up and around plants. The better quality rakes are constructed of high-carbon steel with 14- to 16-inch heads.

The short handled version of the fork is perfect for fine work in tight spaces. It opens the top surface of the soil, clears or skims the topsoil, dislodging sprouted weeds. A number of hand tool sets come with a hand rake with a wide space between the tines. You’d be better off choosing a hand rake with tines of tighter spacing.

Sharp and to the Point

Many a new neighbor has been met negotiating the loan of hand pruners, which could very well be the most borrowed gardening tool. But borrowing pruners may be asking a lot of a serious gardener. Veterans take their pruners personally. They are such an eternal gardening companion that they often come with a holster.

You’ll need short handled pruners to cut off spent flower blooms, trim vines that have grown into walkways and shape shrubs. Long-handled pruners come later, after the trees have grown taller and the bush branches have thickened.

Splurge on a solid set of secateurs, the fancy name for hand pruners. They cut materials up to 3/4-inch thick. Storing them under lock and key is not considered obsessive-compulsive behavior to the enthusiast. Professional horticulturists accept no substitute for fine-quality hand pruners. Neither should the novice. A good set makes gardening easier by decreasing hand strain. It also protects plant material from the mangling that opens it to disease.

The scissors of the gardening world are bypass pruners, whose thick blades curve to hold the material so they slice without damaging. The cutting edges are engineered to “pass by” each other to complete the cut, hence the name. Seek a comfortable grip and get the extras: ergonomic design, levers and advanced spring design. You’ll be glad you did.

While you’re at it, buy a sharpener when you get the pruners and learn how to use it. In fact, do the same with all fine-quality garden tools. Wipe them down and store them dry, clean and sharpened.

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