Let’s see a show of hand tools

By Lynette L. Walther | Jun 28, 2019
Photo by: Lynette L. Walther If only they could tell their tales. My old and new hand tools from left: claw, hori hori knife, clippers, snake head, clipper/multi-tool, hand trowels, grass shears and folding pruning saw.

Call it carbon-neutral, low-tech or even old school — hand tools may be yesterday’s technology, but they are certainly today’s choice for most gardeners. They don’t need fuel to be operated. They are practically silent in use. Using them can give us the added value of exercise. And when it comes to what we reach for first — it is usually one of our hand tools. Be it a trowel, pruning shears or a pitchfork or whatever — hand tools rule.

Everyone has their favorites, and the reasons why are varied. For instance, one of my oft-used garden tools isn’t actually a garden tool at all. Instead it is a mini-pocket knife that sports a powerful little pair of scissors. It is with me wherever I go, always handy in my pocket to snip off a faded bloom or nip back an errant stem. Within its bright red metal jacket (all the better to spot it should it be dropped or set down somewhere), there are two screwdrivers, a small blade I try to remember to sharpen, a nail file with a hook-like end to scrape the dirt from under my fingernails, a tiny awl, the scissors and a little pair of tweezers that has removed a multitude of thorns and splinters over the years. It’s called a “Squirt,” and I don’t leave the house without it.

A special few of my hand tools that I acquired from yard sales and thrift stores are actually quite old. Anytime I use one of these venerable tools, I think of the generations of gardeners before me who relied on the very same utensils to help them tend their crops. One is a claw tool with workmanship that is endearing, yet at the same time is nothing less than businesslike and formidable. Subtle touches of artistry belie its ferocious strength, with a graceful turned-hardwood handle that has mellowed with age and hand-wrought steel tines so delicate, yet so deadly to those weeds it roots out with ease.

A small hand shovel or trowel is essential. Look for a sturdy one. A flimsy trowel will bend and fail you just when you least expect it. Every bit as useful, possibly even more so, is a traditional Japanese hori hori knife. These hefty knives can dig, poke holes for planting, slice through fleshy roots, tease rocks out of the soil and more.

Two items to spend money on: The first is a good pair of pruning shears sized for your hands, with blades that can be sharpened. I recommend the bypass variety rather than anvil. A good-quality pruning shear will make any job easier, cleaner and neater.

A second item worth splurging on is the best, the sturdiest digging fork you can find. This is the digging tool you begin breaking ground with. You’ll need one that can stand up to rocky, compacted soils. Don’t waste your money on some flimsy, stamped-out version of a digging fork. Look for forged steel teeth, because that’s what you are going to need to get the job done.

Add a couple of shovels to the list, one with a long handle and smallish blade, another with a short, stocky handle and larger blade, and if you like, one with a squared-off blade. I won’t say how many shovels I’ve broken — both the blades and the handles, though not usually both at once — but be prepared to replace shovels, because they just don’t seem to last if you do any serious gardening.

A hoe will chop up clods of dirt or smooth out surfaces, or chop weeds out along rows of vegetables or in ornamental beds. The scuffle hoe is for weeding, with a stirrup-like blade that is used to shuffle along just below the surface, slicing off weeds. In this category I’d place an edging blade, useful to maintain edged areas. It consists of a long handle with a semicircular blade at its base. The circular cutting area is forced into the ground by stepping on the top of the blade to slice turf. However, a small hand shovel can also serve this purpose for short edges.

A dirt rake will work large areas of soil to refine and smooth out the surface and tease out weeds. But a good hoe can be just as useful if you are dealing with smaller areas. A pitchfork is necessary to maintain a compost pile (and you really should), to turn the contents regularly. These usually lightweight tools are also useful in cleaning up large piles of fall leaves and for spreading hay mulches.

Grass shears, loping shears for cutting small-diameter limbs and cutting back shrubs, and hedge shears for keeping shrubs in shape are also good to have on hand if you have shrubs or small trees. When it comes to anything used to cut, good quality tools lighten the load, lessen the task and are generally easier to use.

And that brings us to another important issue, protection for your muscles and back. I wouldn’t think of doing any digging or heavy lifting without my back brace. You know them, those ugly black contraptions that fasten with Velcro and have backstay-like bones reminiscent of the whalebone corsets women used to wear. For years I pooh-poohed the idea of using one, but with age comes not only wisdom but an aching back as well. Now my back brace is handy by the rack of shovels in the barn. And not far away is a basket of gloves for an assortment of tasks, from leather-palmed ones for stacking wood or working with rocks to rubber-coated ones when the task is messy or wet, and so on — all to protect my hands, which are yet another one of my important gardening “tools.”

The only power needed to operate any of these tools is your own muscle power. Maintenance is fairly simple. Wash off dirt before storing, never leave them outdoors in the rain to protect wood handles and prevent rust. Clippers and hoes may need occasional sharpening. Take your time acquiring your cast of garden tools, and buy the best you can. They will repay you over the years and make any gardening job easier.

Long tools include: short perennial divide shovel, two shovels, digging fork, stirrup hoe, pruning lopers, pitchfork, shears, edger, hoe, shovel and Weed Hound. (Photo by: Lynette L. Walther)
A digging fork is useful to carefully lift garlic bulbs when it is time to harvest. (Photo by: Lynette L. Walther)
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