Spade Speak: The Inside Story

There are two things to consider when choosing the proper gardening tool: What is appropriate for the gardener? And what is appropriate for the garden?

This concept is by no means static; in the past, traditional digging spades, forks and shovels were designed for working gardeners who tended large plots of lands. While such tools remain viable today for tackling an allotment or large bed, they fall short in the more detailed and delicate arena of the modern gardener. What about planting in densely packed borders, or weeding in a raised bed, or container gardening? Different sizes and shapes of gardens require different tools.

With so many choices and varieties in the garden market today, choosing the right tools can be a daunting task. But if a gardener focuses on the three main considerations of garden tool quality, he or she can eliminate most of the guesswork and see past the superfluous frills.

A Garden Tool Must be Long-Lasting

Of course, there are the many obvious reasons why a tool should be made to last, like the practical aspect of replacement costs or the simple frustration of a breakage in the middle of gardening, but what about the unseen advantages?

With every shovelful of mulch and every flower planted, a tool picks up sentimental value. The blades take on the patina of their garden and the handles pick up the imprint of their gardener’s palms. The tool matures—it becomes an extension of the gardener. There is no reason to subscribe to the idea that “they just don’t make ‘em like they used to.” With the right tool, the right care and a little luck there is no reason why a tool cannot be handed down to the next generation of gardener.

A Garden Tool Must be Easy to Use

Too often an exhilarating afternoon in the garden can quickly turn into a grueling exercise in torment; the back starts to ache, the blade of the tool feels like a lead weight and the sweat drips off in buckets. In this situation it is all too common for gardeners to become frustrated or accept the idea that this is how gardening has to be when oftentimes the culprit is simply an unbalanced tool.

While part of the contentment in gardening is the hard work involved in getting your hands dirty, an experienced gardener should be able to last a good while in the garden before their day is done. A well balanced tool is essential to the enjoyment of gardening.

A Garden Tool Must be Reasonably Priced

Purchasing a quality tool over a cheaply made tool will initially save a gardener money. This is a given. In the long run, however, replacing a cheap tool annually becomes exponentially more costly than a onetime investment in a quality tool could ever be.

Still, in the past the cost of the highest quality garden tools was often prohibitive. Today, due to more direct distribution markets, these tools are now becoming affordable. Fine quality stainless steel tools, which once cost in excess of $90, can now be purchased in the $45 to $50 range. While this price remains a few dollars more than the painted bent metal shovel, these high quality tools can provide strength and durability for many years.

What is a High Quality Garden Tool?

While we have already gone over the main characteristics of a quality garden tool, let’s go into more depth about what such a tool is composed of.

Blade Materials

  1. Bent Sheet Steel: As far as blades go, these are the least expensive of the bunch. They are manufactured by the thousands and found in abundance in outlet stores. They are very prone to bending, rusting and even breaking. These blades are heavy, cumbersome and require a significant amount of effort to use. Do not be seduced by a low price. Unless this purchase is for a single project or you consider the tool disposable, avoid this purchase.
  2. Tempered Carbon Steel: Because of its strength, this material is a popular choice in the manufacturing of tool blades. The blades are often painted or coated with zinc to prevent rusting. If fitted with a quality handle, this tool should last a good while, but the zinc or paint protection tends to wear off, requiring routine coats of oil to prevent rusting in the future. Should the blade be allowed to rust, its rough texture will stick to soil making it 75% more difficult to use. Essentially, a well-made carbon steel tool can have good balance, but there will be significant sacrifices with regard to lightness of weight.
  3. Stainless Steel: For some years, this material has been the preferred choice for many gardeners. The polished surface makes it easy to use and its weight-to-strength ratio is excellent. While the strength of stainless steel has been long admired, it is the slickness, even in soil or clay, that is making this material a very popular choice among a wide range of gardeners and professionals. Like carbon steel, stainless steel has a long life expectancy, but unlike carbon steel, it is very easy to care for and can continue to shine and stay free from rust indefinitely. In years past, this option was by far the most expensive, but prices have declined to a point where a stainless steel tool can often be found for less money than one made with carbon steel.

Handle Materials

The handle is the only part of the tool that is in constant and direct contact with the gardener. Because of this, a handle must not only be durable, but comfortable, no matter the what temperature and regardless of whether or not the gardener is wearing gloves. While there are several designs of handles, we will limit our attention to the evaluation of materials only.

  1. Plastic: Historically, this has been a poor choice for gardeners due to its lack of longevity. Over time, the plastic becomes brittle, tending to crack or split at the ends. While polypropylene and fiberglass innovations have improved some of these shortcomings, the plastic handle has never been an acceptable option for nature-loving gardeners.
  2. Steel: If strength were the only concern in a handle, this would definitely be a prime choice, but after considering the weight of the tool (even without soil on the blade) this option fades quickly. Commercial landscapers tend to use these because the type of work they do demands durability, regardless of the sacrifices made in weight, balance or comfort. Recently, some manufacturers have implemented steel handles with plastic sleeves; the question the industry continues to struggle with is whether this addition improves the strength of the plastic handle and the feel of the steel one, or if the combination of the two design problems essentially creates one poor design.
  3. Wood: Even after thousands of years, wood continues to be the choice for gardeners when it comes to tool handles. Wood is the most versatile material—it is relatively lightweight and generally feels comfortable in the hand. With this in mind, the only question is which wood.
    1. Ash: This is the popular option for large, box-store types of garden tools. It satisfies the need for a wood handle and delivers it at an
      inexpensive price. There are sacrifices however. Ash is the same wood that is traditionally used to make baseball bats, and just as the bats are prone to cracking, or even shattering, so is a garden tool made of this material. A gardener must be cautious with these tools, always with the thought of a broken tool in the back of his or her mind. It is an unusual gardener that has not experienced a cracked ash handle after a slightly more vigorous tug. A testament to the fragility of these tools is the fact that stores selling them stock ample replacement handles in the same aisle.
    2. Hickory or Elm: While this wood is aesthetically pleasing, it is also rather flexible. As far as impact tools like axes and mauls are concerned, this extra flex is a distinct advantage. When it comes to garden tools, however, this elasticity becomes a burden on the gardener because of
      the common need to use the tools as a prying device. Additionally, while these tools tend to cost a little more than ash tools, they can break just as easily, depending on the grain of wood.
    3. Red Oak: If wood is the most versatile of the handle materials in general, then red oak is the most versatile of the woods themselves. It is relatively lightweight, especially when compared with its amazing strength, and if finished properly, should never be prone to splintering. One of the most beneficial aspects of red oak is that as it ages it becomes more impervious to breakage; try driving a nail into an old piece of oak without bending the nail. If the handle is manufactured correctly and if a gardener properly cares for it, red oak tools should last a lifetime. While this wood is indeed the best choice for garden tool handles, there are two factors prohibiting it from being used in a widespread sense—the cost of the wood and its aversion to being worked and bent into shape. Because of this, the wood requires a great deal of hand-craftsmanship and there is usually a high incidence of rejects during manufacturing.

Measures of Quality

While the handle and blade of a garden tool are obviously the most important individual components of a garden tool, there are additional measures of quality to consider:

Is the tool socket into which the handle will be inserted sufficient in length and depth? This is a load/force transfer point and is critical to the strength of the entire tool.

Is the socket back-welded closed or is it only bent into a tubular shape and left open? Open backs are a weak point and allow the exposed wood to deteriorate.

Is there a substantial weld where the blade meets the socket?

Will the blade maintain a sharp edge for easy working.

Will the tool rust? Does the tool require oiling to prevent rusting?

Is the handle excessively flexible? Such flexing can result in considerable force being applied to the handle before the blade ever moves, thereby
overworking the gardener.

Does the tool have a “you break it, we replace it” warranty?

The Bottomline

This list could go on and on, but the ultimate measure of quality is the gardener’s own eyes and hands. Do they like the tool? Are they proud of it and are they anxious to show it to their neighbor?

Finally, does the tool improve an afternoon of gardening; is it just another part of a chore or is it truly a “Gardening Companion?”