Last spring and summer I spent an unspeakable amount of time re-landscaping our front yard. This ordeal was captured, in part, so Home Fixated fans could learn from my many “educational opportunities.” If you’d like to see how I pickaxed, shoveled and jackhammered my way through those months, have a look at our Yard Wars re-landscaping article 1 and article 2, along with the crowning jewel when we documented how to tile a new front walkway. One thing I learned very quickly is that in landscape work, using the right tool can be the difference between miserable, multi-week, agonizing work and far less agonizing, multi-hour work. If you’re getting ready to tackle a garden or landscaping project, read on to get the scoop on the most essential landscaping tools to maximize your results and minimize the anguish.
When it comes to landscaping projects, all the dirt is rarely in the right place. Even when the dirt is in the right place, chances are you’ll need to dig holes in it and plant stuff. Different landscaping tasks call for different shovels, but they are perhaps the most widely used landscaping tools. All that dirt that’s in the wrong place isn’t going to move itself!
If you’re digging plants out, then a specialized root-cutting shovel like the menacingly-named Root Slayer or Root Assassin will save you many profanity-filled hours. We’ll get into all the nuances of shovels in a future article, but the shovel I use the most in my landscaping projects is a transfer shovel.
Transfer shovels are not going to be what you reach for when digging a hole, but they are vital landscaping tools when it comes to moving material from one place to another. They are also useful for carving out a relatively flat area in your soil for planters, patios, or that olympic bocci ball court you’ve always wanted. So while you’ll always need a spade or two for digging, having a transfer shovel handy is vital. You can find the Fiskars Pro Transfer Shovel that Fiskars sent us recently in the link below. It retails for around $60:
If you’re dealing with shovels, chances are you are moving material from point A to point B. Short of having a Bobcat handy, or one of those fancy-pants motorized wheelbarrows from Makita seen below, you’ll want a good old fashioned wheelbarrow. A wheelbarrow makes moving material over most terrain much more efficient. I used my ancient wheelbarrow to transport dirt (a LOT of dirt), gravel, small-ish boulders, decomposed granite, broken up concrete, plants in containers, plants headed for the compost pile, and mulch. It has even been the mixing vessel for some small batches of concrete.
Ideally, I’d recommend a model that has a single, flat-free tire and wheel in the front. This means not having to worry about filling up or replacing the tire regularly. The single wheel in front makes the wheelbarrow much more nimble to navigate. I ran mine across planks and through narrow passages regularly, and those things are just tough to do with a couple wheels in front. I also vote for steel over plastic or poly – I’m pretty sure I would have cracked/destroyed anything other than steel at this point.
I use a wheelbarrow model similar to this one from True Temper, which retails for just under $100 at The Home Depot:
San Angelo Bar or Digging Bar
One of my first tasks in our epic re-landscaping project was removing agave and sugar cane plants from a narrow planter by our driveway. The planter was flanked with concrete, making digging around the plants impossible. This meant I had to attack the plants from two side only rater than from 360 degrees.
The landscaping tool / weapon you’ll want for intense digging, breaking up stubborn soil in small areas, and for some prying is the San Angelo Bar or a digging bar. The San Angelo Bar tends to look like a javelin that Hercules might toss around, whereas a more typical “digging bar” will have the equivalent of a mini shovel at one tip. The tips on whatever variety bar you get can range from spear-like “pencil point” to a small tamping head for tamping soil in small areas like a post hole.
The San Angelo bar I used was invaluable for helping me excavate in and around plant roots in a tight space. Due to their heft and length, you can also get a lot of leverage when prying out stubborn roots, rocks, etc. They are also popular tools for assisting with digging post holes. I even used mine when finessing a few boulders into place. Just make sure you keep a grip on the bar – you do NOT want one of these flinging back in your direction.
I bought the 72″ Ames True Temper Pencil Point San Angelo Bar for around $40 on Amazon:
Pickaxe and/or Mattock
You know that feeling when you’re digging and your shovel just glides effortlessly into the soil, and you scoop it out like powdered sugar? Yeah, neither do we. Despite living in an area known for loam soil (a mixture of sand, silt and clay), I managed to find many portions of that soil that did NOT want to be disturbed. A shovel literally was not going to cut it.
This is a great time to bring out the pickaxe, which I used to loosen up soil for trenching irrigation lines. I also used it to carve out recesses for boulder placement. And it came in handy when digging out a few particularly stubborn plants that did not want to give up their tenacious grip on our supposedly sandy soil.
A mattock looks very similar to the pickaxe, but it has a small axe blade on one end and a broader adze-like blade on the other. I actually wished I had a mattock on-hand a few times as they can be very handy for chopping away at roots that are too thick for the root cutting shovels mentioned above.
While we used a wood handle pickaxe for a long time, it couldn’t handle the abuse we threw at it. Our favorite pickaxe is the Fiskars Isocore (Fiskars sent us one last year and it performed admirably despite a lot of heavy use). It’s available for around $50 on Amazon:
Sometimes even a Pickaxe is like using a small wood chisel to chop down a giant tree. You might get the job done, but it will take you forever and you’ll probably destroy yourself in the process. We recently talked about the difference between SDS-Plus vs SDS-Max tools, and when it’s time to reach for a full size jackhammer. Unless you live in a mystical place with soil that is like powdered sugar, a moderately sized SDS-Max tool with a spade bit is worth its weight in gold.
When I encounter soil that doesn’t cooperate immediately with my manual shoveling, I don’t waste any time deploying my beloved Bosch SDS-Max with a spade bit attachment. You can find SDS-Max tools sold as drills / rotary hammers as well as demolition hammers. The demo hammers area a good choice if you don’t plan to do any drilling with the tool. Whatever you choose, pick a model that has anti-vibration features to help protect your hands and arms.
You can find rotary hammers and demolition hammers like the Bosch model 11264EVS we use starting at around $500 tool retailers nationwide:
Metal Rake or Landscaping Rake
Sometimes landscape work is a lot like neatly raking gravel in a zen garden, only a LOT less peaceful. While garden rakes are handy for things like tidying up fallen leaves, they just don’t cut it when raking soil and gravel. For that you will want a metal rake in your landscaping tools arsenal. Most of these have heavy wooden handles and a steel rake attached to the end.
Fiskars sent us a couple metal rakes, including their new Pro model. We used their normal version extensively and honestly expected it to break almost immediately. It is incredibly light which I assumed would mean an early demise. However no matter how hard I yanked on that rake, it clawed its way through rocky soil, roots, and weeds without complaint. After months of daily abuse, it is still in one piece.
Metal rakes, and more specifically, landscaping rakes can also come in very handy for leveling out areas. This applies to sand, decomposed granite or even some gravel. If you’re tackling a small area, a typical metal rake works great. However if you are leveling out a large expanse I found a very wide landscape rake to be a worthwhile investment. They are basically like a very wide metal rake, but they have a flat edge as well to smooth out the material as you level it. These rakes tend to have aluminum tines on them, so don’t try to use them for ripping up your yard.
You can find the Fiskars Pro Garden Rake for around $40 online or in stores:
Or their “normal” Garden Rake which we found very light but still remarkably durable for around $35:
The GroundWork Landscape Rake is similar to one we use, and it retails for around $45:
Woohoo, you are done toiling on your yard for the day, congrats! Wait a sec’, not so fast. Now it’s time to tidy up before the neighbors complain (more). Sure, you could clean up the driveway, patio or sidewalk with a normal broom. The only problem with that plan is it will take you about twenty times as long as it would with a decent push broom.
Push brooms have different bristles and widths designed for different tasks. Shoot for about a 24″ wide push broom, with bristles designed for heavy outdoor use. Until they make a Roomba for your hardscape, the push broom is your next best bet for a tidy jobsite or yard, without much effort. You can have neighbors that complain (less) with a meager investment of about $30 with a push broom like this Quickie model.
In landscape work, moving things with your teeth or feet is quite ineffective. As a result, most people use their hands extensively when landscaping. I also discovered relatively few landscape tasks that can be done quickly. All this means you’re likely to spend many hours with your hands wrapped around several of the landscaping tools documented throughout this article.
Tools come down to personal preference and what is the best landscaping glove depends a lot on the type of work you are doing. Most of the time I shifted between a synthetic glove and a cloth, partially dipped semi-disposable glove. You’ll see many all leather gloves on the market, but I find them too hot and their loose wrist opening seem to attract dirt INTO the glove rather than keep it off my hands.
Whatever glove you choose, I recommend something with a minimum of seams and that fit you comfortably. Poorly fit gloves, or having seams in all the wrong places can quickly invite blisters to form. I found the partially-dipped gloves were good for grip, general protection, and their knit cuffs kept the dirt and debris out of my gloves. Stay away from 100% latex / nitrile gloves unless you want minimal protection and maximum sweat.
My go-to are semi-disposable gloves like the ones sold here for about $10 for six pairs:
Hi, it’s your mom speaking. Don’t forget to put on sunscreen AND wear a hat! I get it, sometimes wearing a hat just doesn’t seem appealing. And, when it comes to hats for sun protection, some can get rather geeky. Our favorite in that category is this Luwint gardening “hat” we found on Amazon.
I wore a baseball cap a lot, especially when it was very windy or when wearing hearing protection, but on sunnier days I opted for a huge straw lifeguard hat, or a lightweight Columbia Booney hat I’ve had for years. It keeps your head relatively cool and provides a brim to shade your ears and head more than a baseball cap. It’s available at around $25:
Although you wouldn’t know it looking at some gardens, it turns out seeing what you’re doing is pretty important. I value my eyesight and made a habit of always wearing eye protection of some kind. Even a task as simple as digging or pruning can send a wayward chunk of dirt or swinging branch into your eye. A cloud of dirt dust can be at least partially thwarted with a good pair of safety glasses. Since you’ll be outside, have both a tinted and clear option readily available.
You can find a variety of eye protection starting at about $10 for reputable quality:
Last but not least, you don’t want to take on a landscaping project in your loafers. When you are trudging through dirt all day, stomping on shovels and rolling rocks around, having good footwear is vital. I favor boots over low-rise models to better keep dirt out of where your little piggies reside, and for better ankle support.
We are fans of several of the KEEN Utility lineup. The boots we have tested tend to be extremely durable, protective and actually waterproof for when things get sloshy. Most of their boots are in the $100-$200 range, and models for both men and women are available. You might even buy your significant other a pair as a subtle hint and then see if they help you in the yard. Hey, it’s worth a shot!
This list doesn’t cover everything you’ll need, but with these essential landscaping tools you’ll be well on your way to tackling most projects. Naturally, there will be hours, days, weeks, (in our case, months) of backbreaking manual labor too. Hopefully in the end you’ll have a garden and landscape you’re not only proud of, but that contributes to the beauty and utility of your home.
If you have any favorite landscaping tools, please mention them in the comments below. We might even feature them in a future Home Fixated review or article. Happy landscaping in the meantime!