Gardening tools Planting

My trowel collection

One of the most unpleasant things about gardening is breaking your trowel in the heat of the moment. Yes, there is worse in life. And gardening is still an activity from which there are many more benefits than disadvantages. All the same, seeing the blade twist, bend in two or even give way is an experience you could do without.

However, the trowel, like the pruner, is a very important gardening tool. Widely used in the spring and fall (for bulbs), it is used to plant vegetables, annuals and any other wonderful little plants that make their way into the garden. Spring is its finest hour. It is also useful throughout the summer to dislodge well-rooted weeds. It’s so popular and essential that it is the gardening tool found in just about every business that deigns to display a gardening section.

Family portrait, but one is missing. Image: Julie Boudreau

Beware of Beauty

There lies the great misfortune of the evil trowel. More often than not, the trowel is sold more as a decorative object. Its real function has been completely omitted from the design equation. A beautiful handle with a string to hang it on the wall. Cute. A lovely blade covered with a floral pattern worthy of the finest Victorian tapestries. Splendid. Curves reminiscent of technological innovations making objects more aerodynamic. They pull at our heart strings. Beautiful trowel or cute kitten on social media? Same thing.

Unfortunately, even if they prevail with their irresistible charms, these “fashionistas” of the gardening tool world flinch at the slightest intention of being planted in the ground. They bend just by looking at them. They have forgotten their function and their raison d’être: to play in the dirt and play hard!

Weigh for the Good One

This is how, after a few very disappointing experiences, you begin to recognize the snake charmer and learn how to outsmart him. Your brain returns to a pragmatic mode and the real quality criteria of a real good trowel become the priority. Because, a good trowel can accompany you as long as a good pruner.

The first thing to help recognize a good trowel is its weight. It is heavy. Not surprising. The blade is thick and often made of steel. The handle is full. Just by weighing the object, you quickly know if this trowel is “funny or serious”. When the weight is satisfactory, move on to a more thorough inspection. Because a trowel that can’t dig a hole without breaking feels kind of funny to me.

Funny or serious?

Is the blade really thick and strong? One of the flaws of funny trowels is that the metal of the blade bends in half at the slightest effort. The serious trowel does not bend. Move on to the attachment point between the blade and the handle. When you get stuck with only the handle in your hand, while the blade is planted in the ground, you are dealing with a ridiculously funny trowel. A small insertion in the handle has a good chance of coming out. Sometimes, simply by playing with the blade, you feel a little looseness which does not bode well.

Then the other enemy of your trowel will be rust. It’s a little harder to guess, as most of the blades are chrome plated to look pretty. This defect will be revealed in broad daylight after only two or three nights outside.

Do I Really Collect Trowels?

Almost. Much like just about all of my gardening tools, I have lost and misplaced many trowels in many gardens (and probably compost heaps). And thinking I’ve lost them forever, I struggle from trowel to trowel (funny ones, those), until I finally find a serious one. A good suitable trowel. So, I have on hand four good trowels:

The Korean trowel is quite a superb tool. She is named Ho-Mi, which means a little ground spear. I call this trowel “my Ho-Mi”! I use this trowel mainly during the sowing period, because we can dig a furrow with the tip and bury our seeds simply by turning the blade over. It’s a bit difficult to explain, but the particular angle of the blade means that it offers several possibilities, with a simple flick of the wrist . Everyone I know who owns this tool is in love with it!

My Ho-Mi trowel with my lettuces. Image: Julie Boudreau

And here is my faithful companion, my “old trowel“, which unfortunately is at the end of its life. I’ve had this trowel for over 20 years. I don’t even know what brand it was at the time, because I would have bought the same one. Now that the handle, once made of rubber, is starting to fall apart, I can see that the steel of the blade was continuing inside the handle, which explains its incredible solidity. So strong that for some reason I managed to nick the tip of the blade, but not break the handle. The little curved tip would be easy to straighten, but for now it complicates planting. Instead of penetrating the ground, the point slows down the gesture.

Fifteen years later… still doing it! Image: Julie Boudreau

Because I found the concept brilliant, I also have a famous “seven-in-one” trowel. On one side there is a blade, like a saw. It has a ruler inside the blade and if anyone can tell me what the notch on the end of the blade is for, I would appreciate it. It’s not the best for planting annuals and digging deep holes with one strike (like the pros!), but I found two great qualities in it. First, it’s very solid and durable. Then, the saw-like blade! It is the only one of the seven that is useful to me. It’ a great tool for digging holes under trees, when the root thatch is dense. So I saw my way to the glory of successful planting!

A seven-in-one trowel.

And finally, my new baby, a serious trowel to replace my missing old trowel. Of course, I found my old trowel the day after my purchase. Anyway, I’m quite proud of my wisdom in the search for a replacement. Weighing trowels, holding back. Waiting for the right one. I searched for it, avoiding all the traps set by the “funny” trowels and the “cute kitten style” ones. His weight is good. She inspires confidence. And its seemingly cork (but maybe it’s plastic) handle seems durable. Let’s grant it a few years of service before giving it his titles of nobility.

My new addition, thinking I had lost my old trowel. Lets hope she will be a keeper! Image: Julie Boudreau.

Certainly, a single good trowel is more than enough to meet the planting needs of the garden. But in my case, it’s “four’s company”. Like the musketeers?

Julie Boudreau is a horticulturist who trained at the Institut de technologie agroalimentaire in Saint-Hyacinthe, Québec. She’s been working with plants for more than 25 years. She has published many gardening books and hosted various radio and television shows. She now teaches horticulture at the Centre de formation horticole of Laval. A great gardening enthusiast, she’s devoted to promoting gardening, garden design, botany and ecology in every form. Born a fan of organic gardening, she’s curious and cultivates a passion for all that can be eaten. Julie Boudreau is “epicurious” and also fascinated by Latin names.

3 comments on “My trowel collection

  1. Dan Bolton

    The best tool to have is the one you have close at hand, and can use while doing the job. I have some hand-me-down and garage sale tools that I’ll use if I don’t have to search for them too long, but also use a beater knife, sticks, or my own fingers depending on soil compaction. Any job too big I’ll go for larger hand tools like shovels or hoes.

    I do have one tool I will spend time looking for however, a large screwdriver sized tool with a flared, split tip, that digs deep to pry up roots of weeds. It is about 1/2 the width of of your 7-in-one tool at the tip, and durable!

    In general I’ve been disappointed by the latest labor saving tools, like the winged affair that is now a fiberglass handle with a piece of twisted metal on the end.
    For the most part I’ll make due with what is available, but that Mi-ho caught my attention and might be worth a look if I find a need for a tool that cannot be filled by any other tool close at hand.

  2. Mij Convery

    De Wit tools have every must-have quality you mention. And, they can readily be sharpened. A dull trowel or “onion weeder” (as it is called by De Wit) takes more effort to use. Steel wool & mineral oil keep them in like new condition, accompanied by a tough plastic carrier to transport them to the garden & back to the shed or garage at day’s end.

  3. marianwhit

    Great piece…the garden is only as good as the gardener, and the gardener only as good as their tools and will. <3 Lee Valley is a great Canadian company that guarantees its tools. Also in the US A.M. Leonard is a nursery supply wholesale outlet that ships to Canada. I use one of their products called a "handy weeder" and it is the only thing I use…I have a friend weld the blade to the head more strongly and then this less than $20.00 tool lasts for years…it is all-in-one for my professional work and so ergonomic it gives me great power and I can work for days even though I have fibromyalgia. I work with invasive species so these tools get brutal treatment. Note that if you choose to not take the step of welding the head, that you don't want to "lever" from the point too much. That point also allows almost surgical removal of things like creeping buttercup next to orchids without damaging the plant you want to keep. I am also older, and find for bigger tasks, a long handled fork is the way to go.

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