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There are a few hand tools that are essential for every vegetable gardener to have. shovels, rakes, forks and hoes are all important for preparing and maintaining and even harvesting a healthy, productive vegetable garden. Just remember the old adage - there's a right tool for every job. You might be able to complete a task using the wrong tool, but using the right one makes getting it done much easier. If you start off by buying good quality tools and take care of them properly, they can not only last a lifetime, they can last even longer than that.
Digging and moving soil are essential garden chores, but there are several styles of shovel - each with a special application for the home gardener.
A Standard Round Point Shovel is ideal for digging and moving soil, sand, screened compost and other heavier material. It's the one that most gardeners have on hand.
Square Point Shovels are good for moving sand and gravel from a flat surface, like a concrete driveway. They make a pretty good dustpan too for clean-up after the job is complete.
Trenching Spades (also called a planting spade) are the perfect tool for planting or transplanting trees and bushes, as well as stripping sod. It allows you the control you need make clean cuts, and can easily cut through tree roots and hard soil.
Grain Shovels are high capacity tools made for lighter material like granulated animal feed or ground bark mulch. It also makes a pretty good snow shovel. I've been known to use a grain shovel to move sand and loose soil, but I don't recommend it.
For most gardeners, there are two types of rakes that are handy to have around.
The standard Garden Rake is used to move heavy loose stuff like sand, gravel, and prepared soil. I use mine to hill up rows in my garden, to loosen compacted mulch in flowerbeds, clean up spilled soil in the lawn, and smooth out a freshly tilled garden. It can also be used to de-thatch a small section of yard.
Leaf Rakes are used for...well...raking leaves. but are also hand for raking up and handling other light bulky stuff like grass clippings, hay, straw, and mulch. A good one is light and easy to handle, but wide enough so that it can handle fairly large amounts of material at a time.
There are two types of forks that should be in every gardeners arsenal.
A Potato Fork is short handled and has wide stout tines. Made for working in the soil. They are primarily used for digging up - you guessed it - potatoes and other tubers and root crops. They are also very handy for turning over and breaking up small areas of soil. You can essentially use it as a small tiller. It can also be great for growing blisters if you have to work up more than a relatively small area at one time.
Hay Forks are lighter weight, have thinner, lighter tines, and are designed for use on light bulky material. Designed for handling hay and straw, this is tool can be used to move any light bulky material, like hay, straw, leaves, grass clippings, and raw material for compost piles. Basically things that a shovel can't handle very easily. They aren't great for actual digging, but I have found mine useful for digging and turning over peanuts plants (because the peanuts grow just beneath the soil) when they are ready to harvest.
There are lots of different designs of garden hoes available on the market, but there are two kinds that I own (use regularly), and recommend.
The standard Garden Hoe is used primarily for weeding and cultivating around young plants. It's also handy for working in fertilizer around your garden plants. for example - working fertilizer in around young sweet corn plants. There are two important things to remember about a garden hoe. First - pick a smaller light version. wider, heavy ones are harder to handle and maneuver around young vegetable plants. Not to mention that they get heavier the longer you have to use them. Second, keep the blade sharp. Most people use hoes for chopping big weeds - which works fine, but I find it much easier and generally quicker to use a good sharp hoe to skim over the surface of the soil to cut off small weeds at ground level, and a sharp blade does a much better job.
A Two Pronged Hoe has a narrow blade on one side and two prongs on the other. This is a great tool for not only weeding and cultivating, it's also handy for digging shallow drainage and irrigation trenches, and planting holes for started plants like tomatoes and peppers. It's also handy for chopping up larger weeds if you want to leave them in the garden for compost/mulch. One other handy thing I use mine for is to quickly lay out and rows for planting seeds.
A final word on hand tools - It's important to keep your tools clean and well maintained. Wash them off with water and a stiff bristle brush after you use them. Sit them out to dry in the sun after cleaning, then apply a light coating of oil or WD-40 before storing them. This prevents formation of rust, and removing soil may help prevent the spread of plant diseases. If rust does happen to form, use a bit of 000 steel wool to remove it before oiling.
Finally keep shovel and hoe blades sharp - you'll find that they'll work MUCH better when you do. If you take care of your hand tools they will last a VERY long time. Case in point - I have a mattock (also called a grubbing hoe) that belonged to my great grandfather. I've had to replace the wooden handle, but I still use it for digging out tree stumps, and it still works like new.