Trowels tend to be very attractive, and it’s hard to know which one is best until you have tried several. Trowel blades differ in width, length, and amount of cup in the blade. Narrow, sharp blades are good for digging out stubborn weeds in the lawn; broader, flatter blades are good for general garden work, as they move more soil and make larger holes.
The most common problem, especially on cheap models, is that the tine may bend. (On a trowel, the tine connects the blade to the handle.) The best solution is to buy a high-quality trowel made from a single piece of metal. Aluminum alloy or plated steel are among the strongest, and they resist rusting.
Handles can be made of wood, metal, or plastic. Try several to find one that feels right to you. A larger handle tends to be more comfortable—you don’t have to close your hand as tightly to grip it. A bright-colored handle is easier to spot when mislaid in the garden. If you buy an expensive trowel, get one with a colorful handle so it’s easy to find. Some gardeners have given up keeping track of trowels and have opted to buy several cheaper ones instead.
Using a Trowel
Like some other garden tools, trowels have a million uses. Perhaps their most common use is to dig holes for planting. When planting a flat of ground cover or annuals, hold the trowel in a butcher’s stabbing grip. Stab at the ground and pull the trowel toward you to make a hole. Set the plant in place and use the trowel to pull soil around it.
Small bulbs can be planted with a sharply-curved bulb trowel. Push the trowel into wet soil and rotate it to remove a core of soil. Drop in the bulb and replace the plug of soil.
Types of Trowels
One-piece aluminum-alloy trowels are an excellent choice for general gardening work. The handle is slightly curved to fit your palm comfortably. With some, the handle is encased in bright-colored plastic, making it highly visible. These trowels come in a variety of blade shapes and sizes. You might want a narrow, sharp type as well as the broader type.
Standard garden trowels have a metal blade that fits into a wooden handle via the tang-and-ferrule system. Ask the salesperson to help you select the best quality; this style tends to bend and work loose from the handle. Select one with good steel that is chrome plated to resist rusting. Eventually the chrome plating will wear off, so it’s especially important to store it clean and oiled to prevent rust.
One-piece heavy-gauge steel trowels are the strongest models on the market. The 3-inch-wide blade is V-shaped rather than cupped, which makes it almost impossible to bend. It can be used for digging out rocks or furrowing. To quickly transplant seedlings, hold the trowel with the blade pointed straight down, jam it into the earth, and wiggle it back and forth a few times. Remove it, set the seedling in the hole, and pack the dirt around it.
The dibble, sometimes called a dibber, is a pointed tool that’s used to make holes in the ground for transplanting seedlings, flowers, or bulbs. The 4- to 5-inch-long, round, tapered blade is about 2 inches in diameter at the top and pointed on the end. You can easily make your own dibble by sharpening a short length of branch or scrap 2 by 2 or by buying a hardwood tent peg in a sporting goods shop.
Stainless-steel, all-plastic, and aluminum-alloy trowels are virtually indestructible and need almost no maintenance. However, a standard garden trowel with tang-and-ferrule construction should be cleaned carefully.