The Best Garden Trowel

If you want to buy just one tool for digging, weeding, dividing perennials and just plain scooping dirt, get the Wilcox 14” garden trowel for $25. Its stainless steel blade will last forever with occasional sharpening, and you will cut through soil and roots with confidence and ease.

The Wilcox 14” garden trowel’s sharp tip makes digging fast and easy, and its wide blade makes it easy to put soil where you want it quickly.

Who should buy this?

The Wilcox 14” garden trowel makes most tasks that involves soil easier. If you don’t have a trowel, save yourself some misery and time and buy a tool that works. You can buy a trowel for under $10, but that trowel will have a duller blade that’s harder to push into the soil, and it will make dividing perennials a hellish chore.

If you don’t have a trowel, save yourself some misery and time and buy a tool that works.
That said, the Wilcox 14” garden trowel is more expensive than typical hardware-store trowels. There is a school of thought that says that you should buy the cheapest trowel possible because trowels will inevitably be lost when you forget them outside in the shrubbery, and you’ll have to replace them anyway when you can’t find them. If you enjoy spending the summer trudging off to the store to buy new trowels instead of luxuriating in the splendor of your yard, so be it, but I cannot endorse your profligate ways. Buy one trowel and keep track of it. You should be able to spot a Wilcox trowel’s bright red handle under the weigala anyway, so invest in a tool that will work.

If you already have a trowel that you like for digging, it may not be worth spending $25 to upgrade to the Wilcox 14” garden trowel for its superior cutting tip and leverage alone. Instead, consider buying the A.M. Leonard Soil Knife ($18). You can’t dig quickly with its narrow blades, but it is sharp enough to cut through matted roots, dense soils and small mammals that get in your way.

Context

There isn’t much technology to trowels. After all, our ancestors made do with sharpened rocks.

There isn’t much technology to trowels. After all, our ancestors made do with sharpened rocks.
To find the best modern trowel, I looked for trowels with forged blades that would stand up to digging through hard, rocky soil without rusting: blades made of stainless steel, carbon steel or aluminum. Aluminum blades aren’t as sharp as steel and are more easily chipped, crushed or bent, but aluminum trowels are lighter than steel trowels—enough to make a difference to gardeners with arthritis, or daffodil-mad planters who spend days at a time planting bulbs.

Reviews by professional landscapers and gardeners frequently mention soil knives as an alternative to trowels, so I decided to include soil knives in my sample as well. While soil knives aren’t terribly efficient at scooping dirt out of the ground, many gardeners use them for digging through compacted soils and efficiently slicing roots.

Most soil knives (and some trowels) have one serrated edge for sawing through woody roots and sod. Some have inch or centimeter markings on one side so that you can measure the depth you’re digging accurately for planting bulbs and other elevation-obsessed plants.

Stamped metal blades—the type you find at the hardware store for under $10—are weaker than forged blades and tend to bend and break easily. The joint between the blade and the handle on these trowels also becomes loose over time; I removed them from my sample. I also eliminated trowels with plastic and nylon composite blades on the grounds that they snap too easily when gardeners try to pry up rocks or simply hit a rock while digging. (Although if you are a backpacker looking for a lightweight trowel for your backwoods toileting needs, the discontinued Fiskars 7978 composite trowel is a steal at 97 cents.) I also disqualified unusual shapes that seemed closer to being weeders than trowels, like the DeWit tulip trowel, and trowels where gimmicky characters were more prominent in the description than the trowel’s performance, like the Sock Monkey trowel.

What experts look for in a trowel is simple: a tool that doesn’t hurt their hands. Larry Foglia, second-generation farmer and co-founder of the Long Island Community Agriculture Network, told us: ”If I am using [trowels] to plant many plants in succession, they should be constructed such that they are easy to hold, allow for good use of body weight as leverage, allow one to hold it off to the side of the palm allowing fingers to be used to plant without putting the trowel down…”

Better Homes and Gardens warned, “Is it too big or too heavy? Also consider the handle — some trowels feature coatings, such as rubber, that are easier on your hands than a wood handle.” Aussie Green Thumb echoes the sentiment: “You will likely spend many an hour in the garden with your trusty garden trowel in hand, you want it to be comfortable. This also takes into account why you shouldn’t buy a plastic handle[d] trowel, it isn’t very strong and they don’t tend to be high on the comfort stakes. A good rubber coated metal handle I find to be best, though there are a few other coverings to metal handles you might find and they are normally ok as well…The key here is choosing one that feels comfortable to you.”

I tested the trowel and soil knives’ performance on scooping soil, cutting and pulling weeds, slicing through dirt and opening bags of potting soil.
But how well do these feel-good trowels actually work? I tested the trowel and soil knives’ performance on scooping soil, cutting and pulling weeds, slicing through dirt and opening bags of potting soil. (Opening plastic bags is not the primary purpose of owning a trowel, but something millions of trowel-owners attempt every weekend, with sad results.)

To determine the tools’ dirt-scooping capacity, I dug ten full trowels of loose dirt out of a bag of potting soil and weighed the total. I simulated slicing through hair roots and tap roots by putting broccoli sprouts and ½” diameter carrots on a cutting board and seeing if the trowels could get through them. I investigated how well the trowels acted as levers for extracting shallow roots by digging out common buckthorn seedlings (ca. 10” tall) from my backyard. Finally, I tried to puncture taut plastic from a 16-quart bag of potting soil, and described the balance and feel of each tool.

Unsurprisingly, the wider trowels did a much better job of getting dirt from place to place than the soil knives. But if you’re planning to shift large quantities of soil, compost, bat guano or anything else, consider using a shovel.

Our pick

The Wilcox 14” garden trowel does everything well. Its long blade and short red handle makes it look like a small sword—the kind of weapon a swashbuckling garden pirate would use. It’s made of a single piece of stainless steel with red plastic wrapped around the handle, so it’s sturdy (and shiny!), and has inch and centimeter markings along the blade for calculating planting depths and distances. The pointed blade stabs deeply into soil, its heavy edge separates carrots into neat slices and it can scoop dirt by the kilo (with an average 113 gm/load.). Its one shortcoming is that it slices hair roots indifferently, leaving teasing strands on the cutting board. Otherwise, the Wilcox 14” garden trowel is a very solid performer.

Who else likes it?

The Wilcox trowel has many, many fans. James Folsom, director of the Botanical Gardens at the Huntington Library, Art Collection and Botanical Gardens (in San Marino, California) likes Wilcox trowels. He commented in Garden Design, “I use trowels in many situations, and my favorite is the Wilcox. It’s sturdy, so you can use it as a lever without worrying that it will bend on the shank. And it has a little heft to it, which helps when you’re stabbing at soil. Plus the Wilcox is made from stainless steel, so you can be sure it won’t rust or shed chrome.” Jill Steinberger, owner of The Garden Artisan, an ecological landscaping company in San Francisco, writes, ”Wilcox All-Pro trowels are the absolute best I’ve come across. They make about 20 different types. Steel. No more expensive than any other decent trowel. Buy ‘em in bulk!” The Gardening At Draco blog got a Wilcox trowel and wrote “It was just perfect. Stainless construction, solid built handle with a good grip. The best part…..there was no shank. It was a part of the blade, just blending right into the handle.” Anne Marie Van Nest at Tibesti writes that the “[s]tainless steel blade is strong, won’t rust and quickly cleans up for storage…Easily handles all your mighty “oomphs” for tough prying or digging jobs without fear of bending.”

Also good

The A.M. Leonard Soil Knife is a sharper alternative to our pick, better at penetrating tough ground and snapping thick roots.
The A.M. Leonard Soil Knife ($18) is a great tool for a great price. Anything your trowel can do, it can do better. It’s better at penetrating the soil, it’s better at snapping thick roots like toothpicks, and it fits in your hand better. It isn’t quite as great at cutting through hair roots or scooping soil as a trowel, but we all have our flaws.

Curtis Adams, landscape designer and author of the Adams Garden Native Plants blog, comments,”I really like my stainless steel soil knife from AM Leonard. It has very good hand feel and balance. Great for planting bulbs, small perennials and cutting roots. Easy to clean, too.” That said, a soil knife can be too sharp. Nick Novick, owner of Ashland, MA based Small Planet Landscaping warns, “I tried the second-generation, orange-handled knife from Leonard which had a thicker blade, but they decided to further “improve” it by making the serrated edge a whole lot sharper. What used to be the equivalent of a butter knife is now something close to a bread knife. Cut myself a number of times in the first few days I tried to use it.” Wear gloves, gardeners.

The step up

Also Great
The Sneeboer is capable of tackling any gardening task, though it is a bit wide for some tighter areas.
The $41 Sneeboer Transplanting Trowel is a pleasure to use. Like our pick, it has a stainless steel blade that will last forever with occasional sharpening and it also cuts through soils and roots with confidence and ease. This is the trowel to give your gardener spouse at Christmas to make them look at you through the eyes of love.

The Sneeboer Transplanting Trowel just works. It chops hair-roots and taproots with ease, slides into sod and shovels soil speedily. It is a pleasure to use and aesthetically pleasing. “…as a self-confessed tool geek, I’m partial to the Sneeboer. I call it ‘art on a stick.’” said Blake Schreck, owner of Garden Tool Company(which sells Sneeboer trowels.) Mind you, you’ll pay $42.25 for the privilege of using the perfect trowel; better not forget it in the compost pile.

In my testing, the Sneeboer performed almost flawlessly. It didn’t penetrate the ground quite as well as the soil knives did in the sod-stabbing test, digging in an average of 2.2” per stab as opposed to 3.2” for the soil knives, likely due to its wide blade.

The only drawback of the Sneeboer Transplanting Trowel is that it’s too wide to fit into the narrowest spaces. If you’re planting in rock-garden crevices or stuffing crocus bulbs in between your perennials, stick with one of the soil knives.

The competition

The Nisaku Hori Hori soil knife performs just as well as the A.M. Leonard Classic stainless steel soil knife, but costs almost twice as much ($32) and the squared-off handle is slightly awkward and sharp-feeling. On the plus side, it looks more like the sort of knife you’d bring to a tropical jungle episode of “Survivor,” if you find that sort of thing inspiring.

The DeWit Ultimate Dutch trowel is actually very slightly better than the Sneeboer at scooping dirt and penetrating soil. It averaged 126 grams of potting soil per load vs. the Sneeboer’s 118, and sunk 2½ centimeters into the soil overall while the Sneeboer only made it 2.2cm in. But in all other categories the DeWit trowel was worse. It’s heavier, and the blade isn’t quite as sharp—it had a hard time cutting through hair-root sprouts and carrots. On the other hand, it’s also cheaper than the Sneeboer at $24.90. With a traditional trowel shape, an ash wood handle and a dark gray boron steel blade, it’s sturdy. And it looks like the sort of thing Gertrude Jekyll would have used to plump up a mixed perennial border at the Manor House in Upton Grey ca. 1908, if you find that sort of thing inspiring.

The Ames True Temper 2500700 Planters Buddy multipurpose garden tool excels in one area: opening potting soil bags. The size notch in the flat blade is well-positioned and sharp enough to penetrate any plastic covering a typical gardener might encounter. That said, its performance on my tests was merely average. It took effort and sawing to get through hair roots and tap roots, it couldn’t shovel much dirt at a time, and it didn’t penetrate the soil especially well—probably due to the notched “weeder tip” at the end of the blade. For half-a-dollar less than its list price, you can get an A.M. Leonard soil knife instead. The Ames 2332100 Planters Pal multipurpose garden tool has a similar design and similar performance issues—except that it can’t even open bags particularly well because the notches are too shallow for some thick plastics. But at ~$13, it is cheap.

The Radius Garden 100 ergonomic aluminum hand trowel ($12.39) is ergonomically designed to reduce hand and wrist stress, and is favored by gardeners with arthritis, repetitive strain injuries and other ills. The curved handle does make it easier to dig…once you get the trowel into the soil. However, the Radius’s blunt edges and wide, rounded tip make it hard to get the trowel into the soil in the first place, and it failed the hair-root and tap-root cutting tests. Some users find that digging with the Radius requires a different technique than conventional trowels—a “jab and pull” motion, as one Amazon reviewer put it. It can also be hard to get enough leverage with the Radius to force weed roots out of the soil.

The A.M. Leonard steel nursery trowel is heavy and economical ($11.49). It isn’t sharp though. It couldn’t cut hair roots at all, only got through carrots with sawing and was one of the poorest performers in my sample for stabbing into the soil. The connection between the blade and the hardwood handle was slightly loose on my sample as well—not enough to affect my digging, but it made me question the longterm life of this tool. The one thing this trowel did better than others was scoop up potting soil. It did so at an average of 149 grams per trowelful. Unless you have a predilection for using heavy-powdered steel tools for moving potting soil around, though, give this trowel a pass and get the A.M. Leonard soil knife instead.

Corona’s trowels had the budget category to themselves. The Corona CT 3010I ($8.71) is a single piece of aluminum; the handle portion is coated with red plastic with an odd assortment of bumps (“cushioned grips”) on both the top and underside of the handle. It’s light and sharp enough to cut a carrot, but it’s an utter failure at slicing hair-roots and one of the worst trowels in the sample for penetrating soil and sod.

The Corona Clipper Egrip Transplanter 3720 ($5.79) and the Corona CT3710 Trowel ($10.58) have cast aluminum heads and fancy red and black handles that are supposed to be ergonomic. They have a thumb rest and a sort of hook on the underside of the blade that are supposed to keep your fingers from sliding forward. What these trowels don’t have is sharp blades—although the Egrip Transplanter makes up for that by having a serrated edge that can cut a tap root (with some sawing). Their narrow blades can’t scoop much soil, and their dull tips can’t get into the soil. Give these Coronas a pass.

Wrapping it up

The Wilcox 14” garden trowel is a solid tool that will let you dig and weed with ease, indefinitely—and the bright red handle makes it impossible to lose in the compost.

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Sources

  1. "Avoid stamped metal trowels - these cheap tools have a short life-span. They will bend or the joint between the handle and blade will become loose. Good quality trowels have a carbon steel blade solidly fixed to an ash or hickory handle. A stainless steel blade (carbon steel with chromium and nickel added) has the advantage of being rustproof."
  2. aussiegreenthumb, Buying Gardening Tools – Garden trowel, Aussie Green Thumb, January 23, 2010
    "Many people go out and buy a cheap garden trowel, take it home, start digging and find that the blade is as malleable as the soil they are digging in! Though a garden trowel with a warped blade can usually still do the job, it isn’t nearly as efficient. To ensure a long lasting trowel blade make sure you buy a trowel with a blade made of metal, not plastic. Steel blades are the best but I have had some success with blades made of an aluminium alloy. This all depends on the composition of aluminium to allow. What I do to test them is i place a little force on the blade to see how strong it ‘feels’. Be careful obviously because you don’t want it to actually BEND in store, you can usually get a feel for the strength of the blade without actually damaging it."
  3. Daniel DiClerico, Anatomy of a Trowel, Garden Design
    "Select a broad blade to move soil; a pointed V-shape for rocky terrain; and a long, narrow blade for weeds and rockeries. Forge-welded joints will resist separation far better than spot-welded joints. The handle and blade should be sturdily linked (better still if they're fashioned from a single piece of metal.)"
  4. Deborah Stephenson, The Best Trowels, Garden Guides
    "New to the gardening world, the Radius trowel is for persons with arthritis or limited grip strength. Designed ergonomically to be comfortable with long use, it aids people with carpal tunnel syndrome or weak wrists to lever soil out without wrist strain. It has an aluminum blade for light weight."
  5. Justin W. Hancock, Top Gardening Tools for Maintaining Your Garden, Better Homes and Gardens
    "There's a seemingly endless variety of trowels available. Before purchasing one, hold it in your hand and see how it feels. Is it too big or too heavy? Also consider the handle—some trowels feature coatings, such as rubber, that are easier on your hands than a wood handle."
  6. Barbara Damrosch, The indispensable trowel, The Washington Post, May 15, 2013
    "A big trowel’s weight is also good for weeding where weeds are large and stubborn. But if I’m getting weeds while they’re small, as a gardener should, the small narrow tool makes much quicker work of them. Someone might prefer a claw weeder, but I like this tool’s point, which I’ll plunge into the ground with the right hand while pulling the dislodged weed with my left. Stab and pull, stab and pull. For dandelions, this trowel doesn’t go as deep as one of those notched dandelion diggers, but I find it’s more accurate and frees up more of the root."
  7. Anne Marie Van Nest, Best Garden Trowels & Best Hand Trowels, tibesti
    "Sneeboer Trowels: Each hand tool is unique and an instant family heirloom to pass along to future gardeners. Exceptionally designed for balance, comfort, and durability."
  8. "Quality matters, and I am afraid there’s some dreadful stuff out there―things with flowers on, pink handles and so on. In my book trowels have to be stainless steel...since nothing else quite cuts the mustard. You can pay a lot or a little, depending on the quality of the steel, no doubt, and the type of handle....My personal favorites are made by the Dutch company Sneeboer. "
  • Alexei S

    This is a useful guide, thanks. Just so you know: Sneeboer’s cheapest shipping option (they call it ‘slow’) is $10, so you’ll spend over $50 altogether – twice as much as Wilcox… hope it’s that much better.