As an avid gardener, one of my most trusted tools is the humble garden hand trowel. Though small, this versatile digging device packs a big punch when it comes to planting, weeding, transplanting, and all sorts of garden tasks. If you’re new to gardening, learning how to use a hand trowel properly makes a world of difference. With just a little know-how, you’ll be digging and planting with the best of them!
Choosing the Right Trowel
Not all trowels are created equal. When selecting a hand trowel, there are a few key factors to consider:
Trowel blades come in a variety of materials, each with their own pros and cons:
- Stainless steel – Strong and durable, maintains a sharp edge. Can get hot in the sun.
- Carbon steel – Holds a sharp edge, but can rust if not cared for. More affordable than stainless steel.
- Aluminum – Lightweight and corrosion resistant. Not as durable over time.
- Plastic – Very lightweight. Not ideal for heavy use.
For most garden applications, I prefer a sturdy stainless steel blade. It’s strong, rust-proof, and should last for years with proper care.
The shape of the blade affects how the trowel penetrates and scoops up soil:
- Pointed – Great for digging in compacted or heavy soils. Can also be used to make holes for planting.
- Rounded – Scoops and lifts soil easily with less effort. Good multi-purpose shape.
- Square – A flat, rectangular tip ideal for transplanting seedlings with minimal root disturbance.
I like using a trowel with a rounded tip since it seamlessly tackles most gardening tasks. However, having a pointed trowel on hand for densely packed soils can be helpful.
The handle provides control and leverage when digging. Look for a material that’s durable and comfortable to grip:
- Wood – Warm and easy on the hands. Can deteriorate over time.
- Plastic – Lightweight but tends to be slippery when wet or dirty.
- Rubber – Provides a secure, comfortable grip, even when wet. My personal favorite.
- Aluminum/steel – Slip-resistant and durable but can get hot in the sun.
An ergonomic handle makes troweling less tiring on your hands and wrists:
- Straight – Offers good leverage but can strain your wrist.
- Pistol grip – Curved shape keeps your wrist in a neutral position. More comfortable for prolonged use.
- T-grip – Handle forms a T-shape for optimum wrist comfort and control.
I opt for a trowel with a T-grip handle to prevent wrist fatigue, but pistol grips are a fine choice as well.
Heavier steel trowels provide power, while light aluminum models are less tiring to use. I prefer a sturdy steel trowel with some weight behind it – generally 8 to 12 ounces. This makes easy work of stubborn soils without wearing out my arm.
Proper Digging Technique
With the right trowel in hand, it’s time to start digging! But there are some techniques that will make troweling much easier on you and your plants:
Loosen the Soil First
Don’t just start jabbing away at compacted earth. Take a garden fork and gently loosen the top 4-6 inches of soil first. This gives the trowel blade space to penetrate deeply without excessive force.
Hold It Like a Dagger
Grip the trowel handle near the base, with your forefinger pointed down the handle for control. This allows you to apply downward pressure as you dig.
Use Your Body Weight
Leaning into the trowel gives it the force needed to cut through packed soil. Let your core and shoulder muscles assist so your arm doesn’t have to bear the full brunt.
Rock It Back And Forth
Rather than struggling to pull the trowel straight up, rock it back and forth to break up the suction of the earth. The momentum makes it easier to lift out clumps of soil.
Clear Debris Often
Frequently flick off clinging soil from the blade tines to keep it digging efficiently. Trying to penetrate the earth with a clogged trowel takes loads more effort.
With practice, your digging technique will become second nature. Proper body mechanics protect your joints while getting the job done more effectively.
Planting With a Hand Trowel
One of the most common uses for a hand trowel is planting – flowers, vegetables, small shrubs and anything else you want to add to your garden. Here are some tips for planting success:
Dig A Proper Hole
First, dig a hole that’s about twice as wide and just as deep as the pot or roots of your plant. This gives the roots ample room to spread out and establish themselves.
Roughen Up The Sides
Scuff up the insides of the hole with the trowel so the soil has a rough texture. This encourages the roots to penetrate into the surrounding earth as they grow.
Build A Mound
Place some loosened soil in the bottom of the planting hole and make a mound for the plant to sit on. This prevents the roots from sitting lower than the level of the ground.
Remove The Plant
If the plant is potted, squeeze and massage the sides of the pot to loosen it while inverting the pot in your hand. Use the trowel to gently loosen the roots if needed. For bare root plants, keep the roots damp and protected.
Position And Backfill
Place the plant atop the soil mound in the hole. Start backfilling with the native soil, firming it gently around the roots with your hands or trowel to stabilize it.
Give the plant a good, deep watering to settle the soil and eliminate air pockets. Avoid getting the foliage wet to prevent disease.
Spread 2-3 inches of mulch around the plant to conserve moisture and inhibit weeds. Leave a gap near the stem to prevent rot.
With the right planting steps, your flowers and veggies get their roots firmly established to grow healthy and strong.
Weeding and Cultivating
One of the perpetual tasks for any gardener is keeping on top of weeds. A hand trowel allows you to weed and cultivate with precision around delicate plants.
Pull Weeds Early
It’s much easier to pull weeds when they are small. Trying to extract large, deeply rooted weeds can disturb your precious plants. Stay vigilant.
Loosen the Soil
It takes less effort to pull weeds if the ground is cultivated first. Use the corner of the trowel blade to gently turn and loosen the soil.
Get The Roots
Don’t just break off the top growth – tug weeds straight up to remove as much of the root system as possible. This prevents regrowth.
Shake Off Soil
Give weeds a good shake and fling the soil back into the garden. Leaving piles of uprooted weeds can redeposit weed seeds at the surface.
Mulch Bare Areas
After weeding, spread fresh mulch over any bare spots to discourage new weeds from sprouting. A little prevention goes a long way!
Weeding with a hand trowel gives you surgical precision in the garden. With practice, you can quickly identify and extract weeds while protecting your valued plants.
As seedlings outgrow their pots or trays, hand trowels allow us to transfer them into the garden with minimal disruption:
Select Healthy Plants
Pick stocky, vigorous seedlings showing no signs of disease, discoloration or bug infestation. Avoid specimens with roots already emerging from the pot.
Water Ahead of Time
Water plants thoroughly the day before transplanting. This makes removing them from pots easier and minimizes shock. Allow the excess moisture to drain away before transplanting.
Dig A Hole
Use your trowel to dig a new hole the appropriate size for each plant’s root ball. Having the hole ready makes transplanting faster.
Prep The Roots
Gently remove the seedling from its pot and loosen any circling roots with your fingers or the tip of the trowel so they grow outward.
Place In Hole
Set the plant in the awaiting hole at the same level it was growing before. Allow the loosened roots to spread out naturally beneath the soil.
Refill the hole with native soil, firming it down with your fingers to support the plant. The crown (where stem meets roots) should remain at soil level.
Give transplants a gentle first watering to settle the soil without disturbing the roots. Provide shade for tender plants to reduce wilting.
With care, seedlings transition seamlessly from pots to garden thanks to the handy hand trowel!
Digging Holes for Fences, Posts, and Structures
A hand trowel comes in handy for minor digging jobs around the garden like setting posts or sinking hardware:
Outline The Area
Use a hose, rope, or spray paint to mark the spots where you’ll need holes for fencing, posts, trellises etc. Planning ahead makes the digging go faster.
Measure Hole Depth
Determine how deep each hole needs to be for stability. Digging too shallow leads to wobbly structures, while going overboard creates extra work.
Clear Away Obstructions
Before digging, use a trowel to selectively clear away sod, rocks or other debris where holes will go. This prevents snags mid-dig.
Working hole by hole, use the trowel to loosen and excavate dirt, piling it neatly nearby for backfilling. Angle the blade inward around the edges to create slanted walls.
Occasionally place your hardware into the hole as you dig to gauge depth and fit. It’s easier to fine tune before completing all the holes.
Once posts, fence panels or other structures are positioned in their holes, return soil around them and pack it down firmly with the trowel to stabilize.
Though simple in design, a garden trowel tackles small-scale digging jobs with ease!
Caring For Your Trowel
A quality garden trowel should last many seasons if properly maintained:
Clean After Use
Remove caked on soil after each use and clear debris from the tip tines. Wipe the blade and handles down with a damp cloth.
Use an absorbent cloth to dry the blade, handles and crevices so moisture doesn’t linger. Let air dry fully before storing.
Oil The Metal
Apply a lightweight machine oil periodically to the metal parts to prevent rust. Wipe away excess.
Check For Damage
Inspect for bent, cracked, loose or worn parts needing repair. A loose rivet can be re-peened with a hammer and nailset.
Sharpen As Needed
Use a metal file or sharpening stone to restore a clean, sharp edge if the blade becomes dull. Don’t let it get too far gone.
Keep your trowel somewhere clean and dry between uses. Hang it up or keep in a protected box. Never leave tools lying on the ground.
With minimal care, a quality hand trowel truly becomes your trusted sidekick in the garden year after year.
Troubleshooting Common Problems
Even veteran gardeners run into an occasional hiccup using hand trowels. Here are some quick fixes for common snags:
Can’t penetrate packed soil?
- Loosen the ground surface first with a garden fork or cultivator
- Apply more downward pressure on the trowel as you dig
- Choose a trowel with a pointed tip to cut through dense soil
Blisters forming on your hands?
- Make sure you’re gripping near the base of the handle
- Wear gardening gloves to protect your palms
- Opt for a trowel with a rubber grip if the handle is slick
Trowel not scooping well?
- Sharpen or replace a worn out dull blade
- Clean out packed soil lodged between the tines
- Use a rocking motion as you dig to penetrate better
Wrist or hand getting sore?
- Take occasional breaks to rest your muscles
- Use your arm and body weight more to dig rather than just the wrist
- Consider switching to an ergonomic handle that puts less strain on your wrist
A little troubleshooting keeps your troweling smooth, and your garden thriving.
Frequently Asked Questions
What features make a high quality hand trowel?
Look for a trowel with a durable stainless steel head that keeps a sharp edge. It should have a secure, slip-resistant handle made of rubber, wood or metal. Opt for an ergonomic grip shape that minimizes wrist strain. High carbon forged steel blades offer strength and longevity.
What size hand trowel is best?
For general gardening tasks, a 6-8 inch trowel with a 2-3 inch wide blade is ideal. Very small trowels don’t have enough leverage. Overly large models are heavy and unwieldy. Choose compact sizes for planting in tight spots.
When is a hand trowel better than a shovel?
Trowels are perfect for digging small holes for planting, weeding in tight areas, working around delicate plants, transplanting seedlings, and other light precision tasks where a shovel is too large and disruptive.
How can you tell when a hand trowel needs sharpening?
Signs your trowel needs sharpening include slipping when trying to penetrate soil, inability to dig efficiently, and jagged tears rather than clean cuts in the soil. Sharpen the edges with a metal file or sharpening stone.
Should you oil garden hand tools?
Yes, lightly coating steel tool heads with household machine oil can prevent rust and corrosion while maintaining smooth operation. Wipe off any dirt or debris first. Allow oil to penetrate briefly then wipe away excess.
How do you clean a hand trowel?
Rinse mud and debris off with the hose after each use. For a deeper clean, scrub the trowel head with a stiff brush and mild soap, using an old toothbrush to clear soil from crevices. Rinse and dry thoroughly. Avoid soaking wood handles.
From soil preparation and planting to weeding and transplanting, a good hand trowel truly does it all. With the right selection, technique and care, this versatile small tool provides gardeners with endless benefits. By following the tips outlined, you can become adept at unlocking the full potential of your hand trowel for gardening greatness.
Prepare the garden to enjoy it to the fullest; with a little practice, your hand trowel will soon feel like an extension of your hand as you tend, cultivate, and harvest in your little corner of nature, making every gardening task easier and more enjoyable with a sturdy, trusty trowel by your side. So go forth, dig in, and enjoy the fruits of your labor!