Tools for Working the Soil

Because of the wide variety of mechanized and hand tools on the market for tilling and cultivating the soil, gardeners will want to take time to study and test them. If possible, it’s a good idea to try out tools in a garden situation. The size and needs of the projects plus time and budget constraints dictate gardeners’ choices. Experienced gardeners know that it pays to buy the best quality tools available. These sturdier (and probably more expensive) tools will last much longer than less expensive models, will do a better job, and are a pleasure to work with.

Keep your garden tools clean, sharp, and in good repair. A thin coat of lightweight oil or kerosene keeps blades from rusting. If you often forget to bring tools inside, add a touch of bright paint to their handles so that they can be spotted quickly. Power equipment should also be well maintained. For fast service of power tools, take them into the repair shop in the off-season.

Hand tools for tilling include shovels, spades, forks, and trowels.


This handy tool comes in many styles. Spades have almost flat, rectangular blades, usually a D-grip handle, and often a shorter handle than shovels. They are handy for digging, turning, cutting, and lifting soil. The rectangular blade also makes them useful for edging beds and deep cultivating. Spades are cutting tools, and are kept sharpened.


One of the gardener’s most useful tools, shovels come in a great variety of styles and shapes. They have curved blades that may be blunt, pointed, or rounded, and handles with plain or D-grips. Because of the concave blade, shovels are the tools of choice when moving soils and other loose materials from one place to another. They are also handy for digging beds, planting, and working with compost. Square-nose shovels are made for moving loose material, not digging in the earth.

Spading fork

Garden, or spading, forks usually have D-grip handles and four strong tines in a wide head. They’re particularly helpful when turning over garden soil, breaking up heavy soil, and digging out plants with roots intact.


These small, short-handled garden tools with metal scoops at the working end look like miniature shovels. Trowels are ideal for tilling and cultivating small areas, container gardens, and raised beds. Once the soil has been prepared, a gardener may need no more than a trowel to plant seeds and seedlings and to add and work fertilizers into the soil.

Hand Cultivators

These tools, used primarily during the growing season for cultivating, include hoes, pronged cultivators, long-handled cultivators, push-pull weeder-cultivators, and wheeled cultivators.

Power Cultivators

Essentially small rotary tillers, power cultivaators are made for light cultivating or preparing a seedbed in cultivated soil. They do a quick, effortless job of loosening the soil surface and controlling weeds.

Rotary Tillers

These gas-engine machines are available for sale or for rent. It’s wise to try them out before buying, since these tillers represent a far greater investment than do hand tools.

If garden beds are large and time is a factor, investing in power tools for other types of garden cultivation might make sense. Anyone considering such a purchase should check various consumer publications and visit major garden centers to see what’s available.

Which Tool to Use

In general, a garden fork does the best job of breaking up clods, giving a smooth texture with less effort than with a shovel or spade. Forks work much better in rocky soil than tools with solid blades.

Spades have longer blades, so they dig deeper if you want to put the effort into it. A spade will dig a spit (a trench) 8 or even 10 inches deep. Spades are the tool of choice for heavy soils. They slice through clay easily.

Shovels are general-purpose tools, good for scooping, digging, and tilling. They do a good job of tilling, but you need to hold the handle far forward to line the blade up for a near-vertical cut.