You wouldn't drive a railroad spike with a craft hammer, and you wouldn’t tap a picture hanger into place with a sledge hammer. Why, then, should you rely on just one tool to dig holes in your garden?
Nearly every gardener has a simple hand trowel, but there are a number of other useful hand-held diggers out there. Here’s how to choose just the right one for the task at hand.
Down and dirty
If you (and your wrists) are lucky, you’ll be gardening in loose soil where nearly any tool works. But in soils that are hard, drought-stricken, stony, or filled with shallow roots, you’ll need small but mighty tools such as a Japanese planter, a mattock, or even a pickax.
Of course, if you’re digging among plant roots, be careful. You don’t want to damage the trees or shrubs that are attached to those roots. It’s hard to predict how much damage a plant can sustain without significant harm, but as a rule, don’t cut through major roots and don’t disrupt more than 10 percent of the small, fibrous feeder roots, which usually extend underground as far out as the branches do.
When purchasing a digging tool, go for top quality. You may be able to buy a trowel for just a dollar or two, but something that cheap is likely to have poor handle construction, which means it will get wobbly after a year or two. Cheap trowels also tend to have painted metal blades that rust.
For just a few dollars more, you can get top-quality construction. Look for one-piece construction, so handles can’t work themselves loose. Plastic coating on the handles is more comfortable than wood and, in my experience, more durable. The bright colors also make it easy to find the tool in a flower bed.
Look for stainless steel or solid cast-aluminum metal parts that won’t rust. And use your common sense: If it feels and looks sturdy, it almost certainly is.
If you’ve ever spent the day planting, ended up with throbbing knees or aching wrists, and wished there were a better way, you’re in luck. As America’s population ages, inventive garden suppliers have come up with all sorts of designs that cater to those of us who aren’t as spry as we once were.
To prevent repeat kneeling, look for hand tools with handles that are 18 inches or longer instead of the standard 8 inches or so. Long-handled tools are also great for folks who are pregnant or overweight, and those who have bad backs.
If you have arthritis or a weaker grip than you’d like, seek out tools that have fat, cushioned, rubbery handles. They provide better traction and absorb the impact of the tool hitting the soil, making it easier on your joints.
Some hand-digging tools even have a handle designed for gripping with both hands to make the most of weak grips or less-than-strong arms. Still others have braces that fit across your wrist to allow you to use your whole arm rather than relying on the power of your grip.
Find your favorite
Each gardener will find a personal favorite among hand-digging tools. My life-changing tool has been the Asian plow. I knew the moment I held it in my hand, slowly practicing digging imaginary holes in the air, that I was going to love it. When I head out into the garden, I absolutely must have an Asian plow in my hand. I rely on it so much that when I travel to another state to garden with my mom, I pack it and take it along.
So experiment and try some new tools—you, too, may find a new tool you can’t live without!
Choosing hand-held diggers
View our buyer's guide to getting what you need
Veronica Lorson Fowler s a garden writer in Ames, Iowa.