A trowel is a small shovel that fits in your hand. It’s one of my most reached for tools. The only other tools I use more are my secateurs, and that’s probably because my garden is mature so I have to do a lot more trimming than planting these days.
I’m tempted to say that my favourite garden trowel is whichever one I can find at the moment (I swear they have legs!) but the truth is that I am quite selective about which trowels I buy, so the ones I have are all good.
Trowels that are constructed poorly don’t last as they are subject to a lot of torque when you use them to dig in anything but loose, dry potting soil, and how often do you do that? I’m far more likely to use my trowel to dig in more compacted soil, often slicing through the roots of nearby plants as I wedge in one more perennial, or to dig a hole in the vegetable garden to plant a tomato.
When I first started gardening on my own, and I’m sure this is the case with most new gardeners, I bought and broke a few poorly made trowels before figuring out what works and what doesn’t.
Trowel features to avoid
When I’m shopping for a trowel I avoid those that have a narrow rod connecting the handle you grip and the scoop.
The one pictured may be sturdy, but every trowel built like this that I’ve used has bent the first time I used it. If you want to buy one designed like this make sure that it’s really heavyweight, and that the weld is secure–if it doesn’t bend the point where it’s welded is the next weak spot.
I also avoid those with a plastic handle that connects right to the scoop.
There’s often only a small nub of metal at the top of the scoop to attach up into the handle–not enough to really give you leverage. Put a little pressure on the trowel and the handle snaps right off. Note that the shovel pictured is just used as an example of a style–I can’t tell without seeing it in person if this particular shovel is constructed better than that or not.
Another type of trowel I avoid is the pretty floral patterned one. I may be missing out on a solid trowel that’s also attractive, but in my experience, these paint jobs are meant to market ineffective tools to women, with the idea that they don’t need something sturdy, or won’t notice if it’s not as long as it’s covered in a nice floral. This is wrong on so many levels. I don’t need any of my tools to be pink or pretty, I need them to work. There are probably a dozen of these hanging at your local dollar store right now.
Similarly, steer clear of any trowel marked light duty or for women and children (the product photo I’m linking to has all of those descriptors, plus arthritis and seniors–ugh!) A “solid” metal trowel with a hollow handle is landfill waiting to happen.
So that’s what not to buy, let’s move on to what to look for in a good trowel.
I really like my solid stainless steel trowel. Because it’s heavyweight and constructed of one piece of steel there aren’t any weak points to bend or snap when you dig.
The grip isn’t as comfortable as some of the more cushioned types but I usually wear gloves anyway. If I have to dig in something hard I know it won’t give out on me. This one* on Amazon looks to be similar to mine.
A well made trowel with a solid scoop and shaft, and a nice grip, is a pleasure to plant with. I have a few of them so that I can always find at least one.
One that a bought a couple years ago is the Fiskars Big Grip Transplanter* and it’s really well designed. I’ve used it to chip away at frozen planters, put a lot of pressure on it prying out stones, used it for everything in between and it’s still in great shape.
Speaking of shape, I like that it has a relatively deep and narrow scoop. It’s a good shape to dig holes for planting garlic cloves or tulip bulbs. But really, I use it for everything, preferring the trowel in my hand to walking back to the potting shed to get a flatter and wider one for tasks where that might be more appropriate.
This trowel has one other good thing going for it, and that is the orange on the handle. It helps to make it easier to find when I drop it in the garden. But this feature can easily be added to any other trowel with a couple sprays or swipes of brightly coloured paint.
I never thought I’d be the type to lose tools in the garden as I always put them away at the end of the day, but when you’re planting and moving around a lot of soil, plant roots aren’t the only things that get covered up! I found one of my trowels in a planter in November, as I prepared it for a winter arrangement—apparently I’d buried it there in the spring, alongside the begonias. Another one emerged as I dug out finished compost from my composter–judging by how eroded it was I suspect I lost it a few years ago.
Some trowels, like the one I just talked about, have inches marked on them so you can see how deep the hole you’ve dug is (something you pay attention to when you’re planting bulbs).
It seems like a handy feature but I’ve never used it, so it’s not something I’d look for if I was trowel shopping. It also has one serrated edge, which is likely intended for helping you cut through plant roots. If I have to cut through something tough I usually grab my Hori Hori knife*, but i suppose this would be helpful if the roots weren’t too big and you didn’t have a big garden knife.
*Disclosure: some of the links on this page are affiliate links, meaning, at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase.