Practical tools for the vegetable gardener

Hori-hori knife. (Photo by Weston Miller)
The hori hori knife is a Japanese gardening tool. (Photo by Weston Miller)
Spading fork and garden spade.
A spading fork and garden spade helps till and prepare the soil for planting vegetables. (Photo by Weston Miller)
Scuffle hoe (Photo by Weston Miller)
A scuffle hoe is pictured. (Photo by Weston Miller)
Last Updated: 
August 30, 2013

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Many gardeners rely on a few "go-to" tools that make digging, planting and weeding easier in the vegetable garden. But how do you decide from the bounty of options available in the hardware store?

"In general people should buy the best tools they can afford and plan to take care of them," said Weston Miller, horticulturist with the Oregon State University Extension Service. "High-quality tools will last a lifetime."

Here are Miller's picks for must-have dirt tools in the vegetable garden:  

  • Spading fork – "The single most useful, versatile tool for tillage and preparing the soil is a spading fork, a robust pitchfork-type tool," Miller said. This long-handled or D-handled tool helps to "fluff" up the soil to prepare it for planting and also mixes compost, lime, and fertilizer at least eight to 12 inches into the soil – if you add amendments before you dig. This tool also makes it easier to pull out weeds and get vegetable plants ready for the compost bin.
  • Hard rake – After you till the soil with a spading fork, prepare seed beds with a rake. It helps to chop up clods of soil and get rid of rocks.
  • Hori-hori knife – "Indispensible to the vegetable gardener is the hori-hori knife, a Japanese hand tool that looks like a gardening knife with a serrated edge," Miller said. "It's useful for popping out dandelions and prying out the roots of perennial grasses. It's used for hand weeding and also as a trowel for planting."
  • Scuffle or hula hoe – These long-handled hoes have a triangular-shaped blade or hoop shape that makes them perfect for scraping away young annual weeds before they can grow strong enough to compete with your crops, Miller said.  

These tools are also good options, Miller suggested:

  • Broad fork – "For the adventurous, a lot of broad forks are being made these days," Miller said. "It's a large spading fork and probably the most efficient way to prepare the soil. But they're very heavy and not for the faint of heart. You'll build muscles and it takes the right technique." To use it, pre-water an area that you want to have a new bed and loosen the soil as deeply as you can with the broad fork while working your way backward along the length of the bed. You can use the spading fork and the rake to shape the bed and level the surface of the soil as well.
  • Five-gallon bucket – Buckets are useful for carrying your hand tools and also for carrying compost, weeds and more. Use two buckets loaded with the same weight to even out the load.

Quality gardening tools are an investment, so don't let them rust, Miller advised. Be sure to sharpen the cutting edges of tools regularly. Keep a vice and hand files in your shed, or use a grinder if you are skilled in using them. Wear leather gloves and safety glasses when sharpening tools.

Also, always clean the dirt off tools at the end of the day. "Using a wire brush to clean them off will extend their life considerably," Miller said. "The metal can rust and weed seeds can collect in the dirt."

To learn about using garden tools if you face physical challenges, see the OSU Extension Service guide Adapting Garden Tools to Overcome Physical Challenges (pdf)

Author: Denise Ruttan
Source: Weston Miller