A gardener needs two rakes: a steel garden rake and a lawn rake. A steel garden rake has many uses, but raking a lawn isn’t one of them. The stiff tines dig into the grass instead of just sliding over it, and they quickly get clogged with leaves.
The garden rake comes in flathead or bowhead styles. Gardeners commonly use it to break up clods of dirt when preparing a seedbed for planting. Once the soil is pulverized, the rake can be turned over to level and smooth the soil. Some gardeners also use this rake for thinning vegetables (e.g., radishes). A garden rake’s quality is determined largely by the quality of steel in the rake head.
Good rakes are made with high-carbon steel; the cheapest varieties may be of cast iron. A few high-quality rakes have a forged socket that connects the handle to the rake head. In some of these, the teeth are individually inserted through the head for greater strength. But for the most part, steel garden rakes are made with tang-and-ferrule construction. When you choose a garden rake, make sure the head is firmly attached to the handle. Don’t buy a garden rake with a head that wiggles—the head is bound to fall out when you use it.
Flathead (or Level head) Steel Rake
All flathead steel garden rakes have similar designs. The head is about 15 inches wide. The 12 to 15 teeth are straight, or nearly so, and about 2 1/2 inches long. The handles are 54 to 60 inches long.
The flathead is good for doing fine cultivating or for finishing a seedbed. You can use it to work the surface soil to a very smooth, fine texture. Then, by simply turning it over, you can do additional smoothing with the flat side.
Bowhead Steel Rake
The bowhead steel garden rake is named after the two tangs, which resemble a drawn bow, that hold the head away from the handle end. When in use, therefore, this rake has a little more spring action than the flathead rake. Some gardeners feel that this action reduces the strain that comes with extensive use.
The bowhead is stronger and sometimes heavier than the flathead rake, and its longer handle and wider head tend to make it larger. Use it for leveling soil, raking heavy material, or spacing seeds in a prepared seedbed. To accomplish the last task, place the rake handle on the surface of the bed with the tines facing upward. Press the handle lightly into the soil. Then, using the head of the rake, press the tines lightly into this line. The small impressions (holes) from the tines are usually spaced about 1 inch apart. Place the seeds in these holes.
Although the long-handled cultivator is not really a rake, it is used for much the same purpose as the garden rake. It breaks up clods of soil and stirs the ground more deeply than a rake can. The lightweight cultivators are very good for raking leaves in flower beds when you have to work in close around plants.
Hand cultivators have three tines (see Hand Cultivators and Weeders), but this cultivator has four or five. Its tines also are up to 5 inches or longer, and they curve sharply for deeper cultivating.
A potato fork, which is used for harvesting potatoes, resembles a large, heavy-duty cultivator. Landscapers sometimes buy these forks and saw the tines off to about 4 inches. This makes a very coarse rake that does a quick (though not very thorough) job of cleaning. It’s handy for cleaning very large areas, leveling a lot of soil quickly, or unloading coarse material from a truck or trailer.
The leveling rake is much like the antique hay rake. Usually made of aluminum to keep this large rake from being too heavy, it isn’t strong enough for cultivating. Its head is broad (25 to 30 inches) and flat, with about 25 teeth. These teeth, each nearly 4 inches long, will readily break up large, soft clumps of dirt in a freshly spaded garden. The rake can then be turned over to smooth and level the planting site. Rental shops carry this rake. It is most commonly used for putting in a new lawn or leveling a tilled landscape for planting.
Leaf rakes have steel wire tines. Do not use these rakes on your lawn; the wire tines will tear the grass. However, you can use it anywhere else. Use a sweeping motion, as with lawn rakes.
Lawn rakes have fanlike, dull, springy teeth. These rakes are designed to glide over the grass so that they can remove clippings or leaves without catching in the sod. Lawn rakes commonly are made of steel, bamboo, or polypropylene (the last two don’t rust). Lawn rakes work most efficiently when handled like a broom—use a sweeping motion rather than a raking action.
Bamboo Rakes are made of cheap materials, so they are relatively inexpensive. When one finally does wear out or break, you can replace it without making a big dent in your budget. To keep the tines flexible (particularly if your climate is arid), every two or three months soak the rake head overnight in a tray of soapy water. Be sure to soak it before using it in the summer.
Polypropylene Rakes used to be made quite poorly, but their improved construction out of stronger, new materials has caused their popularity to grow. They don’t rust like metal rakes, and they don’t become brittle and frayed like bamboo rakes. Look for good reinforcement across the tines and around the area where the head attaches to the handle. The heavy-duty models are most durable and are worth buying even if your lawn is small.
The thatching rake is a specialty tool for clearing lawns of thatch, the mass of dead stems that accumulate between the soil and the live grass. The 15-inch-wide head has 20 or more curved cutting edges that pull and slide through the matted grass. Some models have heads that adjust to different angles, according to your height. Another model has teeth that move back and forth: When you pull, the teeth lock in place and bite into the thatch; when you push, the teeth roll up under the head to clear themselves.
It’s easy to maintain rakes: Keep them clean, dry, and stored indoors. Clean your metal rakes as you would a hoe (see Hoes), being careful to remove dirt from the area around tang-and-ferrule fittings. On lawn rakes, straighten bent steel tines with pliers. Never sharpen the tines on either garden or lawn rakes. If you put a rake on the ground after using it, get in the habit of pointing the tines downward so you won’t step on them. As with all your tools, remember to put your rakes away when you finish with them.