The Gardener’s Hand: Picking the Best Garden Trowel

June 18, 2024

Getting The Perfect Fit For Your Hand, Your Task & Your Soil

The best garden trowel for each of us fits our hand like a glove, helps in our planned tasks, and cuts easily through our specific garden soil. Garden trowels are made to suit these three requirements; our job is to get the best fit for our hands, tasks, and soil.

Refined over the years since early human gardeners dug the soil with a large animal bone, there are specific types of trowels for all of our needs.

Lets start with our three essential requirements, and then move on to the types and features of the choices we have.

Notice on the left how the tang of the trowel keeps your hands safe. Also, the bone has moved on to someone who appreciates it!

The (not so) Humble Garden Trowel

The trowel is our basic soil-moving tool regardless of where or when you dig in your garden. We will all own and use one or more and do so almost every day. Here is why they are so important in our toolbox.

  • The garden trowel is a versatile, multi-purpose tool for close soil work; it is at the very heart of gardening. When we are weeding, digging, transplanting, mixing soil and fertilizer, and removing debris; this is the little tool that does it all.
  • It does not cover the most ground quickly like the rake but it does all the precise jobs. It helps us plant seeds and transplant seedlings.
  • It helps us handle soil, you can aerate the soil, mix potting soil or fertilizer, and remove weeds, stones, and debris as you go.
  • A good trowel should be durable and last for years.
  • The right tool should help with efficiency.

(If this information prompts you to search for a trowel online, make sure you specify a Garden hand trowel, if you just search Hand trowel, you will get a wonderful, but useless, assortment of flat mason’s trowels. These have a fascinating history, descending from the flat tools invented by the ancient Egyptians: entertaining but no help!)

The Perfect Fit for Your Hand

Here is how to get the best size, shape, and handle materials for yourself. When you consider a trowel the important time is not how it feels when it is new in your hand. Think about how it will feel after several hours on your knees!

holding a trowel
  • The handle should be longer than your palm, this will reduce back strain from excessive bending, handles that are excessively long are difficult to use with one hand. The shape of the handle should feel comfortable in your hand, you may be holding it for a long time. The handle shapes and thicknesses are varied; some ergonomic designs have distinct curves designed to reduce effort in moving soil. Hold these and see if they work for you.
  • Materials; the classic version of the trowel has a wooden handle, these can be shaped for comfort and the wood selected is significant. Most are made of hardwoods such as ash or oak. Ash (the material of baseball bats) has a straight grain and has shock-absorbing qualities. Oak is strong and flexible. Newer handles are made of rubber or silicone, they can provide both grip and shock absorption.
  • The thumb rest: this is a comfort feature that we tend to overlook; this should allow your thumb to rest naturally and often is contoured or textured to provide comfort and control. Some rests will have ridges and grooves, these are designed to enhance your grip and prevent slippage. If you have heavy clay soil or work in wet conditions this can help you maintain control.
  • How do you like the balance and weight? A well-balanced tool will be comfortable in your hand and make work easier.

Choose a Trowel For Your Soil

Below I have listed the most popular types of garden trowels with their features and uses. You should find just what you need.

If you are working in soft soil, and especially doing repetitive tasks like planting a group of annuals a concave trowel that will move soil quickly is a good choice. You will appreciate a pointed end to the digging tool if you have rocky, heavy, or weed-filled soil.

Again refer to the list of Types for details.

Each Trowel is Designed for a Specific Task

Now that a single animal bone won’t do all the jobs we need to get done while digging in the garden, many types of garden trowels have evolved.

Today’s garden trowels come in distinctly different shapes and styles, each designed to do a certain job. When buying, consider choosing types that can do several jobs or focus on those that work for your most important tasks. You may wind up with more than one.

I have described the major trowel types with their features, intended purposes, the soil they are most effective with, and how they feel to work with. I will follow this with information on the materials you have to choose from.

types of garden trowels

More Trowel Types

  • The Great Dixter Trowel: Designed by famous British gardener Christopher Lloyd, creator of the Great Dixter Garden, this trowel is strong but narrow and fits into tight spaces. Use it for planting and weeding. It has good leverage and allows you to weed and plant in tight spaces. The tool was and still is made by Sneeboer, a family-owned Dutch company who have made hand-forged, stainless steel garden tools since 1913.
  • Dandelion Trowel: With a long, narrow, and deeply cupped blade you can use this trowel to reach under the root of a weed and pull it all out. Dandelion has a taproot and to remove it you need to be able to reach under and lift it. The tool saves a lot of time.
  • Potting or Scooping Trowel: This version has a deep bowl, it is cup-like with high sides, suitable for transferring potting soil, organic matter, or fertilizer. It is perfect for handling large amounts of material efficiently, however its deep bowl and blunt sides are not for digging. It is ideal if you do a lot of transplanting and mixing soil and related material.
  • Transplanting trowel:
  • Weeding Trowel: With a narrow blade and a forked tip this trowel can get under the weed and lift it for removal.
  • Heart-Shaped Trowel: Wide, flat, very pretty, and pointed at the bottom. Use this one for shallow digging and scooping when planting bulbs, bedding, or plug plants. It works best with smooth, prepared soil.
  • Planting Trowel: Spade-like, this oval trowel is small and relatively flat, use it for digging holes, for new plants and bulbs.
  • Hori Hori Knife: This narrow, relatively flat knife has a serrated edge on one side and a knife edge on the other with a point at the bottom. The soil in my garden is easy to dig in but has thin roots throughout. This knife cuts them easily and is great for bulb planting. It is also easy to cut bags of soil, fertilizer, or mulch. With a holster, it is one tool we carry everywhere. A Japanese product, the name means dig dig! ‘Trying Out a Hori Hori Knife.’
  • Right Angled or Hoe Trowel: The blade is at right angles to the handle, this means that in malleable soil you can dig this into the ground and pull back, all in one sweep. It is convenient for planting.

Parts of A Trowel and What to Look For

This is a perfect place to discuss how the handle attaches to the blade. The tang is essentially a metal spike and when attached to the handle as shown via a ferrule, it can separate. The most sturdy joint is for them to be forged together. Choose the forged joint to avoid failure or even injury. Also, we like to avoid handles that attach directly to the blade.

Blade

This part will change dramatically in the different types of trowels. Choose the features you need. See below for information on the materials used.

Tang

This is the part that joins the handle to the blade. It is curved to prevent injury to your hands as you move in the soil.

Handle

Garden trowel handles can be made of wood, plastic, aluminum, fiberglass, and rubber-coated metal.

Wood handles, especially ash, can be curved for comfort, are attractive, and long-lasting. (We are using some second-generation wood tools!) Aluminum handles are lightweight, and rubber provides softness but can separate over time.

Garden trowel handles come in multiple shapes designed for ergonomic benefits. You can find large curves and even an upright handle for people with hand pain. If you don’t want your arthritis, hand or arm pain to slow down everything in the garden but weeds, try them out.

For more information on choosing Garden Tools try this.

Materials Used In Garden Trowel Blades

A trowel blade needs to be strong, durable, and rigid, you will be digging and cutting with it and working close to it. You will require those features for both safety and productivity.

Materials used in trowels

The first trowel blade is painted, the bright colors have one big advantage. It should be easy to find if you leave your trowel behind in the garden. It will, however, rust and be damaged as is the sample beside it.

If you are afraid of losing your trowels, a common problem you can use the colored handles or tie a colored cord through the handle’s end hole.

A trowel blade will typically be made of high-quality steel. Steel, like the example on the lower right, will be shiny and soil will tend to slide off and not make a mess.

High-carbon steel makes strong blades for digging, weeding, planting, and cutting. It is an alloy made from iron with a small amount of carbon and makes a strong steel. It will appear in dark shades of gray like the example on the lower left. This blade will be very strong and last for a very long time.

Some trowels are made of copper. Why? Copper tools are the most expensive, longest lasting, and sharpest, and as they develop a beautiful patina over time, and are the most beautiful! If you want everything in your garden to be beautiful this one’s for you. Soil will stay on the trowel a little longer than it will on a steel trowel.

Garden Trowel Makers and Prices

You can find a garden trowel for $20.00 (US) and perhaps less, that will do the job for you, have safe and comfortable construction and last for a reasonable time. You will find these in a variety of shapes. There will be classic trowels, narrow trowels and garden knives. For the longest-lasting materials, as well as unique shapes shop at the specialty manufacturers.

This is a review of two of the major Dutch brands with some good detail.

Garden Trowel Colors- Why Do They Have Red Handles?

Why do so many garden trowels have red handles? Color can be more important than you think. With the possible exception of the hand clipper, the trowel is the tool most often lost in our gardens. Garden trowels are small tools used in garden beds, we get tired and they are easily lost! Gardeners talk about finding them, anytime from one day to several years later. Pretty trowels painted in bright colors will not last but if you lose trowels a colored handle can make a big difference. Also, many trowels have a hole on the handle with a loop to hang it with. We can add some color to that. It can make a difference when you are out with the flashlight hunting for your trowel.

Care of Your Trowels

The point of gardening is caring for the plants. There is no bigger disappointment than spreading disease among plants. The easiest way to protect your plants is with cleaned and disinfected tools here is what we have learned. We garden in a twelve-month-a-year environment, with many good points, but diseases spread all year long. How to Disinfect Your Garden Tools for Healthy Plants.

Summary,

What do we do in our garden? We own several trowels, we pick from the features described above. We like a classic trowel, a narrow trowel, and a good garden knife. In our garden with a lot of shrubs and trees, we like the serrated edge as it will quickly cut the long, thin vine-like roots we find in our soil. (Remember, cutting a root over one inch in diameter puts the plant at risk.)

We are happy with stainless steel, perhaps one day we’ll spring for a copper beauty. (But then we would squabble over it!)

Happy Digging,

Jane