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Choose the Right Long-Handled Garden Tool for the Job

By Noble Sprayberry

When Tim Carter began moving from Ohio to New Hampshire, he left his garden tools behind — and learned a valuable lesson about shovels, rakes, hoes, and spades.

“I had to buy some new ones,” says Carter, who operates the website and provides a free e-mail newsletter. “I went to a big box store, and when I used them they were really uncomfortable. The shape of the handles, where you would normally grasp them, were thicker than the ones I have at home.”

The grip is key. “It’s really important to find a tool that matches your grip, because if it doesn’t, you’re really going to be uncomfortable,” he says.

The steel used in the business end of tools also makes a difference. Generally, better steel — also more resistant to rust — will weigh a little more than lower-quality steel, offering one guide to choosing between two sets of tools.

Each item from a category of tools is often made with a task in mind. There are potato forks and digging forks. Hoes range from draw hoes to scuffle hoes. Shovels, rakes, and spades are similarly divided into distinct categories.

Consider shovels. Many don’t know the difference between a shovel and a spade. “A flat spade is like a knife and is used for cutting and slicing soil, but it’s not usually meant for moving material,” Carter says. “A shovel has a bowl shape like a spoon and it allows you to pick up and move material.”

The design of a shovel also will tell you what to use it for, Carter says. For example, a square-point shovel works great for loose dirt, sand, or pea gravel but a round-point shovel does a better job for digging into the ground, particularly in heavy clay soils.

Similarly, hoes may seem the same, but they often have very specific uses. “A mortar hoe may look the same as an ordinary garden hoe, but it has two big holes in it,” Carter says. “When you’re using the hoe to mix mortar, those holes relieve the tension as you mix it. Just a little detail like that makes all of the difference in the world.”

A scuffle hoe, also known as a push-pull hoe, has cutting edges on both the front and back and is commonly used for weeding. Meanwhile, a draw hoe, which has a gently curving neck above the triangular blade, works well for downward chopping.

Likewise, there are many types of forks. A potato fork earned its name for the main use: digging potatoes from the ground without damaging them. Tines are normally flat, which keeps the fork from spearing potatoes when you’re digging.

The slightly smaller digging fork is used for loosening, turning over, or lifting soil in your yard or garden.

Careful selection of your tools can make a huge difference in day-to-day garden chores. “The design of the tool,” Carter says, “can really minimize the amount of effort you have to put into the job.”