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While I was considering the topic for this months garden, it occurred to me that some of you may be first time gardeners and I probably should include some basics in this column. This month we are going to take a look at basic garden tools and their uses.             



Gardening Tools

The dirty dozen: A guide to 12 must-have gardening gadgets



Genny Gibbs just bought an angle weeder. She hasn't used it yet, but she thinks it's about to become her new favorite garden tool.

"It's three weeders in one," she says, "a wicked looking thing, you should be wearing a black hooded robe when you use it."

Gibbs exaggerates. The thing isn't that scary looking. But it is versatile, as far as weeders go. She says she can pry weeds out of the ground with it, use it as a dandelion digger and dig weeds from between stones and bricks.

At heart, gardeners are tool-using creatures. They dig, they hoe, they weed, they rake. They stalk catalogs and garden centers like the green-thumbed shopaholics they are. One should never ask them to list one dozen essential gardening tools.

"A dozen limits me terribly," says Gibbs, of Illinois Central College's agriculture and horticulture staff. Her favorite tool before the angle weeder was a potato fork. "You can double dig your beds with it, shovel compost, mulch or dig potatoes."

Press her, however, and she can force herself to come up with a dozen basic gardening tools everyone needs.

The basic dirty dozen is a combination of Gibbs' favorites, supplemented by Karen Davis Cutler, author of "Burpee: The Complete Vegetable and Herb Gardener."

The three most basic? Shovel, rake and hoe.


"It's the tool you use most," Gibbs says, "the one you use first, middle and last of the season." They're good for scooping and moving soil, compost and other materials, according to Cutler. Shovels, not to be confused with spades, are slightly concave with rounded edges. Spades are nearly flat and have straight edges.


"A common garden rake is useful for breaking clods, removing stones and debris, grading and smoothing soil, spreading compost, covering seeds and other tasks," Cutler writes in Organic Gardening.

Look for models that have between 14 and 18 slightly curved teeth and a one-piece, forged-steel bowed head for strength.

Rakes are one of the three basics, Gibbs says, but they're also one of the most breakable.

"People usually hold them wrong." Place one hand on the end of the handle, the other near the middle, then let your knees do the real work, Gibbs advises. And, switch off positions so your hands, wrists and back don't get tired.

Draw hoe or common garden hoe

"Most gardeners spend more time with a hoe than any other tool," Cutler writes. "It's the traditional American implement for weeding, chopping, digging, covering, cultivating and making rows.

"Standard models typically have a 4- to 6-inch-wide head attached to the handle by a neck curved at a 70-degree angle.


For small digging jobs, such as planting and weed removal or working in containers. Strength is less crucial with hand tools. Choose a wide-bladed model unless you're container gardening only. For that, use a narrow-bladed model.


Also useful for digging, and excellent for opening new ground, turning cultivated soil, and digging up plants, bulbs and root crops. Pick a flat-tined model with a 6- to 8-inch forged steel head.

Oscillating and tined hoes

Cutler's second choice for a hoe, the oscillating variety looks like a hinged stirrup. It's sharpened on both sides of its bottom edge so it can be pushed and pulled along the surface to slice off weeds without stirring up the soil.

Gibbs has never used an oscillating hoe. "Sounds neat though. Maybe I should get one."


"Hand pruners are perfect for severing tough squash stems, cutting back asters and other trimming jobs," Cutler writes. "Look for bypass pruners, which have curved blades that cut cleanly. Choose a model you can take apart to sharpen."


A must for larger gardens. Gibbs' student worker, Isaac Raabe, says it's the easiest garden tool to use. "You're not using any muscle," he says. "It's more like you're using it as opposed to it using you."

Choose between a rubber or reinforced hose. The major difference is the rubber is heavier to lug. Either type should have brass couplings, at least 5/8 inch diameter and a psi rating of 500.

Watering can

"They should be fun as well as functional," says Gibbs, holding up a red plastic frog-shape can.

They work for small touch-up watering jobs, window boxes or a patio filled with pots.

With nine tools down and three to go, Gibbs and Cutler disagree on the basics.

Cutler's final three are:


For chores such as harvesting fruit, flowers, vegetables or cutting twine.


There are always things to be moved in a garden - plants, soil, compost, etc. Pick one with an extra-deep tray of steel or polyethylene and an inflatable tire.

Garden cart

You don't need this right away as long as you've got a wheelbarrow, but they are easier to balance and push, and they can carry larger loads. Look for a plywood cart with a steel frame, inflatable bicyclelike tires and a hinged front panel for dumping.

Only one of the last three made Gibbs' list. You don't need a wheelbarrow and a garden cart, she says. One or the other will work fine.

Instead of a pocketknife, she'd choose a file. Shovels, hoes, and rakes, along with other tools, should be kept sharp, she says.

"A sharp tool is important for a clean cut, and it will save you a lot of aching muscles."

In place of either the cart or the wheelbarrow, she'd choose gardening gloves. "You can't beat them, especially the ones with the knobby grips, if you're going to do a lot of digging. "


Tool Terms
Although you probably do need a green thumb to create a beautiful garden, you certainly can't do all of the digging and cutting by hand. Thankfully, there are myriad tools to pick up where your hands and fingers leave off. If you're looking for the right tool for your next gardening job, check out our glossary of some of the common.
This sturdy tool is good for trimming large branches, pruning trees and cutting wood. The face of an axe can also be used to drive nails into wood or stakes into the ground. Most axes have either a single or double blade with a long or short handle made of fiberglass or a strong wood such as hickory.

This handy piece of equipment can be used year-round. Powered by either a small gas or electric motor, they blow unwanted leaves, grass and dirt from sidewalks and patios. Many newer models even vacuum debris and mulch it into a collection sack for easy disposal.

Bow Saw
This saw is perfect for removing dead tree branches and pruning large bushes. Resembling a hunter's bow, the single C-shaped frame and handle design provides proven stability. The replaceable steel blade ranges in size from 21 to 36 inches.

Bulb Planter
Bulb planters can make your life easier if you spend a great deal of time digging during the spring and fall planting seasons. The device resembles a tin can with a handle on top and a tapered end on bottom. Simply push the sharp end into the ground, catch the soil inside the planter, drop a flower bulb in the hole and replace the dirt. Grooves on the side of the planter help maintain a common depth when planting several bulbs.

Bypass Loppers
Many non-gardeners refer to the lopper tool as a bolt cutter. It features long wooden handles connected to small sharp blades. Like its distant and much smaller cousin, the scissors, the lopper blades are opened and closed by moving the two handles. This tool is ideal for cutting small tree branches, thick bushes and even an occasional wire fence.

Edgers make it easy to trim under decks and shrubs, or to outline grass along a walkway. Today, most edgers are either gas or electric, and spin a tough nylon string at a high speed to cut thick weeds and grass. Cutting areas vary from nine to 17 inches, according to the size.

Fruit Picker
This handy tool makes it easy to pick apples, oranges and peaches from high tree branches. It features a long pole with a small metal basket fastened securely on the end. When the fruit goes in the basket, a handle is pulled to retract a series of tines to grab the fruit. A quick yank and the fruit is all yours.

Garden Hoe
The hoe is one of the most used garden tools. The flat metal blade makes it easy to pull, push and shape soil in the garden. Many gardeners own several hoes with different sized blades making it more convenient to handle both small and large jobs.

If you do a lot of garden work, gloves are a necessity. They not only save your hands from calluses, gloves can also protect your skin from harmful chemicals and UV rays. Most garden stores, hardware stores or discount stores provide a nice selection of gloves, from the classic canvas style to the comfortable cotton-lined edition with reinforced tips. Both men's and women's sizes are available.

Grass Shears
These hand-held clippers are perfect for small jobs such as trimming tall grass and pruning bushes and flowers. The compact design makes it easy and comfortable to hold and squeeze the handle, move the blades and cut your target in one hand.

Group and Scoop
This tool cuts down on the number of times you have to bend over to pick up debris when sweeping or raking. Simply place the plastic, horseshoe-shaped scoop on the ground, sweep or rake your dirt and leaves into the scoop and then dump it when it gets full. The scoop is 35 inches long, 22.5 inches wide and 13 inches high. It's light, durable and holds approximately two cubic feet of debris.

Hedge Trimmers
Electric trimmers have made it easy for gardeners to beautifully shape their trees and bushes. Most trimmers feature a steel blade cutting area between 16 and 22 inches. Many models can even cut branches up to 3/4 inch thick.

A hose is a hose is a hose. Right? Wrong. Today's garden hose options include lengths that reach from 25 to 100 feet. Many models feature tough rubber/vinyl construction that remains flexible even in subfreezing temperatures. When buying a hose, consider its burst strength -- most brands can withstand pressure between 300 and 500 pounds per square inch.

This ordinary tool can be used to cut flower stems, prune small branches or penetrate hard soil to create holes for planting seeds. Blade sizes and materials vary, so be sure to buy a knife that is constructed of stainless steel to withstand the daily use and harsh elements.

The large durable blade makes this tool a close relative of the sword. The wide and extremely sharp blade makes it perfect for cutting through heavy underbrush or small branches.

There are many styles, types and designs of nozzles. Some are made to deliver a soft water shower so plants and small bushes aren't harmed during watering. Others are designed to produce a high-pressure stream of water. These are best used to remove dirt and debris from windows, walls and walkways. Many nozzles today feature several pressure selections in one pistol-style design.

Pick Axe
When you need a tool to break things, the pick axe is a good selection. The T-shaped design features extremely sharp points on each end. It works great when the job calls for breaking apart cement, digging through extremely tough clay or soil, or chipping away unwanted rocks.

Though the pitchfork might generally be considered a farm tool, it can also be useful for the home gardener. It makes moving compost, hay, straw and piles of tree and bush clippings a breeze. When shopping for a pitchfork, look for one with square tines. These tend to be stronger than the flat-tine versions.

Pole Prune
This device is designed to prune dead or unwanted branches high in the tree. The simple construction features a long pole with two cutting blades on the end, with a rope or cord attached to one of the blades. When this rope is pulled, the blades come together and the branch is cut. There are many different lengths of pole pruners, some even offer a telescoping feature that greatly extends its reach.

Pruning Saw
This saw is designed to cut small branches. The blade typically measures between eight and 10 inches. Some models even feature a blade that folds into its handle making it convenient and safe to slip into a back pocket or tool belt.

This tool is particularly popular with flower enthusiasts. The hand-held clippers make it a snap to splice the branches from rose bushes and small trees. Pruners come is a variety of sizes to handle different jobs.

Metal Rake
This tool is a home gardening staple. From routine raking to chopping and leveling soil, nothing works as well as an old metal rake. When searching for a rake, select the one that best suits your job requirements. For instance, if you plan to do a lot of grading and leveling of new planting areas, choose a rake that features more tines, or teeth. This style has a larger head to cover a bigger working area.

This gas-powered machine with rotating perpendicular blades is used to chew up grass and dirt to prepare an area for new grass, bush or flower planting. The churning action brings fresh dirt to the surface to provide a healthy base for new vegetation.

Round Point Shovel
This type of shovel is best used for digging. The point makes it easy to pierce even the hardest soil. The wide shovel head design holds a large pile of dirt which cuts down on the digging and transfer time.

Three-pronged Cultivator
This hand-held tool features three hooked prongs attached to a handle. The cultivator is perfect for loosening and aerating soil before planting flowers and shrubs. It can also be used to uproot weeds.

Similar to a spade, this tool typically features a flat surface. It is handy when the job calls for preparing a hole for planting, or removing a plant from one location to transplant it to another.

This hand-held tool is most commonly used for digging small holes and removing plants with their roots intact. It is the prefect choice to handle jobs in small places such as a flower box.

Watering Can
The watering can may be used for both indoor plants and outside gardens. Models are typically available in plastic or metal and can hold a couple quarts or a couple gallons of liquid. Some feature an open spout to allow water to flow out or a sprinkler head so water falls on plants like raindrops.

This tool resembles a screwdriver with a split blade on the end. It is used to dig up dandelions and other weeds, roots and all. It comes in a variety of lengths and sizes. Be sure to select one that features a sturdy neck so it won't break or crack during use.