We researched 35 models and spent more than 10 hours digging, cutting, and scooping dirt with 24 models to find the best trowel for most gardeners. Our pick is the Wilcox 14” Garden Trowel—buy this trowel, and garden for life.
The Wilcox 14” Garden Trowel penetrates the soil and slices roots better than any other trowel. Its stainless steel blade will last forever with occasional sharpening, the sharp tip makes digging fast and easy, and its wide blade puts soil where you want it quickly. The long, continuous piece of steel provides better leverage than shorter trowels, and gives it a nearly indestructible level of durability.
If you can’t find the Wilcox, try the A.M. Leonard Soil Knife. It looks like a scuba knife, but it slices through soil, not moray eels. When compared with a trowel, it’s better at penetrating the soil, snapping thick roots like toothpicks, and fitting in your hand. It isn’t quite as great at cutting through hair roots or scooping soil, though.
The Sneeboer Transplanting Trowel is a pleasure to use. Its stainless steel blade will last forever with occasional sharpening, and with it you’ll be cutting through soils and roots with confidence and ease. Its super-sharp tip and knife-sharp edges make digging faster and easier than with the Wilcox, and its wide surface will have you moving soil where you want it in a snap (although that width makes digging in tight spots tougher). This is the trowel to give your gardener spouse to make them look at you through the eyes of love.
For the budget buyer, we recommend Coghlan’s Backpackers Trowel, a 3-ounce orange plastic trowel that gives you roughly the level of performance you’d expect at this price. It’s a standout because during testing its blade proved sharper than half the trowels in my sample, and it’s stronger and more durable than you’d expect.
For the 2015 update, we tested 11 additional trowels, but nothing beat our previous picks. The Wilson Garden Trowel is also $8 cheaper than it was when we first published this guide.
I’ve been gardening in the Boston area for 19 years, planting tulips, crocus, and narcissus bulbs, potatoes, lowbush blueberries, and hundreds and hundreds of tomato seedlings, and digging up even more potatoes, Rudbeckia laciniata, and overwintering rosemary. I am one of the pillars of the Menotomy Gardeners e-group. I earned a certificate in field botany from the New England Wild Flower Society in 2007, and I cofounded the Lexington Community Farm Coalition, which is devoted to preserving working agricultural land. In 2010, I published the Boston Gardens and Green Spaces, a Boston Globe Local Bestseller, and I am the co-creator of the GREEN SPACES: Boston app. I have appeared on NPR’s Radio Boston and WCVB’s Chronicle discussing Boston’s open space, and my work has been featured in the Boston Globe, the Boston Phoenix, Boston Magazine, and the Time Out Boston guide. I give frequent talks to historical societies, garden clubs, and book groups about New England landscape history and agriculture. My blog about Boston’s plants and landscaping appears at Green Space Boston.
There isn’t much technology to trowels. 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, and would not rust: 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 a daffodil-mad planter who spends 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 accurately measure the depth you’re digging for planting bulbs and other elevation-obsessed plants. We wanted to find both of these features in our pick.
We researched articles and blogs by professional landscapers, metal detector hobbyists, and archaeologists. We looked for trowels that were full-tang, with their metal blade’s handle extending the full length of the handle, or had hardwood ash or hickory handles.
I also eliminated most 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; I did review two of the cheapest models available on Amazon for gardeners who want a disposable or dirt-cheap trowel.
I also made exceptions for a trowels that were supposed to be especially ergonomic and easier for users with arthritis to grasp; most of these models have handles made of slightly squishy plastic.
I disqualified unusual shapes that seemed closer to being weeders than trowels, such as 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 cofounder 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 handled 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.”
But many trowels will feel comfortable in your hands; most round handles feel pretty much the same. I focused on performance in my testing.
I tested the trowels’ and soil knives’ performance 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 10 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 half-inch-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 (about 10 inches 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, when it came to getting dirt from place to place, the wider trowels did a much better job than the soil knives. But if you’re planning to shift large quantities of soil, compost, bat guano, or anything else, either use a shovel or make a soil scoop out of a plastic milk jug.
The Wilcox 14” Garden Trowel does everything well, and makes most tasks that involve soil easier. At $17, the Wilcox is in the same $10 to $20 price range as other metal trowels, but it’s made with better materials and techniques. The plastic-coated stainless steel handle is sturdy, and its single, solid piece of stainless steel means there are no welded joints to break and no risk of rust.
That long blade, coupled with a short red handle, makes it look like the kind of small sword 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 long, continuous piece of steel provides better leverage than shorter trowels, and adds durability—among its positive Amazon reviews (where it averages 4.9 out of 5 stars), it’s routinely praised for not breaking, even when users are prying rocks out of hard desert soils. Some of the most common words in those reviews are “unbreakable” and “indestructible.”
The Wilcox trowel has many other fans as well. James Folsom, director of the Botanical Gardens at the Huntington Library, Art Collection, and Botanical Gardens, in San Marino, California, 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 ecological landscaping company in San Francisco said, “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 noted, “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 explained, “Stainless 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.”
The trowel could have a better cutting edge. It’s heavy enough to easily and neatly separate carrots into slices. However, it slices hair roots indifferently, leaving teasing strands on the cutting board. To get better results on that kind of delicate slicing, you’ll need the super sharp edge of our Upgrade pick.
If you can’t find our pick—or if you already have a trowel that you like for digging—consider buying the A.M. Leonard Soil Knife. Its narrow, 1¾-inch blade can’t dig as quickly as the 3-inch-wide Wilcox, but it’s sharp enough to slice through soil like butter, cutting matted roots, dense soils, and any small mammals that get in your way.
Curtis Adams, landscape designer and author of the Adams Garden Native Plants blog, comments,”I really like my stainless steel soil knife from A M 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, Massachusetts-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 other major flaw is that the knife isn’t as good at digging as a wider, more concave trowel blade. It’s shaped more, well, more like a knife, with a narrower, flatter blade that doesn’t scoop as effectively as the Wilcox.
The Sneeboer Transplanting Trowel just works. It’s beautifully balanced and very, very sharp. Every garden task feels effortless and easy. It chops hair roots and taproots with ease, slides into sod, and shovels soil speedily. It is a pleasure to use, and aesthetically pleasing with a sturdy beech hardwood handle. “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 more than $40 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 inches per stab as opposed to 3.2 inches for the soil knives, and 3 inches for the Wilcox. This is likely due to its wide blade (which helps it scoop more soil per heave). But it excelled at every other task—slicing alfalfa and carrots, lifting small seedlings out of the soil, even piercing potting soil bags. It was simply the best.
The only drawback of the Sneeboer Transplanting Trowel, aside from the relatively high price, is that it’s too wide to fit into the narrowest spaces. The tool is almost 4 inches wide at the widest part; our Wilcox pick is 3 inches, and the slim soil knife is only 1¾ inch. If you’re planting in rock-garden crevices or stuffing crocus bulbs in between your perennials, stick with our pick for soil knife.
If you want to buy garden equipment for, say, a group of very young scouts who tend to lose things, the tool you want is Coghlan’s Backpackers Trowel ($5). Weighing in at a mere 3 ounces, you can’t miss these screaming orange trowels (unless you actually bury them under several inches of soil). Its overall performance is mediocre, as you’d expect from a lightweight plastic trowel; it just doesn’t penetrate soil as well as a metal trowel with a heavier blade, or scoop as much soil as a larger trowel. But its blade is sharper than half the trowels in my sample, and Amazon reviewers praise it for its strength and durability … for a plastic trowel. (Be warned that most Amazon buyers use it for burying human waste while backpacking, and happily discuss that use in their reviews.)
If you want an even meaner-looking soil knife than the A.M. Leonard Classic Stainless Steel Soil Knife, with an artery-blood-red handle, clutch the Lesche Standard Digging Tool (Left Serrated) or the Lesche Standard Digging Tool (Right Serrated) for all you lefties, both about $40. Beloved of metal-detector hobbyists, the Lesche Digging Tool will penetrate any kind of soil with its heat-treated steel blade, and its full-tang plastic-coated handle is made for the long haul. Amazon reviewers use words like “indestructible” for this tool. It’s an excellent soil knife, and it aced all my tests involving cutting carrots and bags and seeing how far it could push into the soil, but it has some shortcomings as a trowel. The blade is offset from the handle by about an inch. That’s great for protecting your hands from rocky soil, but makes it harder to position the trowel precisely near plants. For accurate digging around delicate roots, the A.M. Leonard soil knife is a better choice with its in-line blade. The Lesche Digging Tool was also one of the worst performers in my sample for moving soil thanks to its shallow, almost flat blade. But if you need to hack into soil packed with hard clay, or rocks, or matted Norway maple roots, or you just like to stab the ground violently, this tool will make you very, very happy.
It’s hard to rate the Tierra Derco Trake ($30), which is a 17-inch handle with a trowel on one end and a hand rake on the other end. The trowel blade is sharp, and cuts easily through alfalfa sprouts, and it penetrates soil well. It excels at extracting weeds, as the long handle between the trowel and rake allows for excellent leverage under weeds. But the trowel blade is small compared with other trowels in my sample, making it hard to scoop soil or do extensive digging. It’s a sturdy tool, made of a rust-proof alloy, and it’s handy for weeding and garden cleanup tasks. I can’t recommend it as your only trowel, but if you have room in your toolbox, it would make a useful addition.
I evaluated three large-handled “ergonomic” trowels for this review: OXO Good Grips Gardening Trowel ($13), Fiskars Big Grip Trowel ($11), and Garden Guru Hand-E Garden Trowel ($15). All of them have stainless steel blades that won’t rust if you leave them outside and large scoops for moving soil around, and the handles all incorporate a sort of nonslip slightly soft black plastic. However, there are subtle differences between them.
If you want an all-purpose ergonomic gardening trowel, opt for the OXO Good Grips Gardening Trowel. Side serrations make this trowel sharper than the other two models; if you’re opening a lot of soil bags, this is the trowel you want. Its real strength, though, is the handle. It’s tapered and shaped with a narrower grip in the front, and wider toward the back, making it easier to grasp and hold than the cylindrical handle on the Fiskars Big Grip, or on the Garden Guru Hand-E Trowel’s indented handle. The blade is also engraved with inch and centimeter measurements, a handy touch for gardeners planting small bulbs. This trowel is also an inch longer than both the Fiskars Big Grip and the Garden Guru, giving users slightly more leverage for prying up plants. However, it doesn’t excel at any one thing as well as our pick or the runner-up. The Wilcox is better for actually digging. It’s a little narrower, sharper, and more pointed at the tip, and it penetrated the soil better and deeper than any other trowel—including the Good Grips (although the soil knives did get in deeper). The Wilcox is also just one piece of metal with a plastic coating around the handle, so there are no joints to break. The OXO isn’t full tang, and users report that doesn’t break often, but it does break on occasion.
The Fiskars Big Grip Trowel ($11) has a different look from the OXO and Garden Guru. Its blade is more square and pointed at the end, not rounded, and the handle isn’t contoured. The Fiskars has a bigger soil scoop than the OXO Good Grips trowel, and does a slightly better job of penetrating the soil than the OXO, thanks to its pointed blade which is moderately sharp—not as sharp as the Sneeboer trowel or the soil knives, but more than adequate for digging or opening bags. However, the handle is simply a slightly tapered cylinder, and it isn’t quite as comfortable as the contoured handle on the Good Grips.
The Garden Guru Hand-E Garden Trowel ($15) is an “ergonomic” model with a thick, molded plastic handle with indentations for your thumb and fingers. It was a solid performer, but not exceptional. The blade isn’t quite as sharp as the OXO Good Grips Trowel, which also has a thick ergonomic handle, but costs $2 less. The OXO also doesn’t have molded thumb and finger grips, which means that the OXO can be more comfortable to use if your hands are too big or too small for your fingers to align with the grips. The Garden Guru trowel does weigh slightly less than the OXO Good Grips—9 ounces versus 12 ounces—but most users who want a large-handled trowel should opt for the OXO.
The Spear & Jackson Traditional English Style Stainless Steel Hand Trowel ($18) is a pretty little thing with a shiny blade and a hardwood handle, and it’s a perfectly decent trowel. It scored in the middle of the pack in most of my testing—cutting alfalfa sprouts and carrots, penetrating the soil, digging up a small tree. It excelled as a soil scoop, but that’s about it. Buy it if you like the looks of it for your traditional English-style garden, but for performance, get the Wilcox or the Sneeboer.
I would love to recommend the Fiskars Big Grip Garden Knife ($11), but I just can’t. This was the top-performing soil knife in my 2015 sample. It’s sharp and slices through soil, carrots, and alfalfa sprouts effortlessly. The cast-aluminum head won’t rust, and the blade’s forked tip works beautifully for opening bags, transplanting tiny seedlings, and skewering soft-bodied garden pests. However, it’s not full tang, and there is a consistent, ongoing pattern of complaints on Amazon about a small number of these knives snapping off at the joint between the blade and the handle, often on the first day of use. If you want to take a chance, buy this Fiskars garden knife—or better yet, buy two.
The Burgon & Ball Stainless Steel Transplant Trowel ($20) has a small scoop, moderately dull blade edges, and a nice-looking handle made of “FSC hardwood.” It’s fine for scooping small amounts of soil, but isn’t really exceptional in any way. If you want a traditional-looking “English style” trowel, opt for the Spear & Jackson, which has slightly sharper edges and a larger scoop.
The Fiskars Composite Trowel ($4) is exactly what it says it is; a black plastic trowel. It isn’t very sharp, or effective at, well, much of anything. I suppose you could let it heat up in the sun on a cool day and use it as a hand-warmer. If you want a lightweight trowel for backpacking and short-term garden use, buy the Coghlan’s Backpackers Trowel.
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 ($35), 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 versus the Sneeboer’s 118, and sunk 2.5 centimeters into the soil overall while the Sneeboer only made it in 2.2 centimeters. 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 the hair-root sprouts and carrots. On the other hand, it’s also cheaper than the Sneeboer, coming in around $25. With a traditional trowel shape, an ash wood handle, and a dark gray boron steel blade, it’s sturdy and 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 circa 1908, if you find that sort of thing inspiring.
The Ames True Temper 2500700 Planters Buddy Multi Purpose 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 taproots, 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 about 50 cents less than the Garden Tool’s list price, you can get an A.M. Leonard Soil Knife instead. The Ames 2332100 Planters Pal Multi-Purpose 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 not even $15, it is cheap.
The Radius Garden 100 Ergonomic Aluminum Hand Trowel ($15) 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 taproot 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 ($12) It isn’t sharp though. It couldn’t cut hair roots at all, got through carrots only 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 long-term life of this tool. The one thing this trowel did better than others was scoop up potting soil, an average of 149 grams per trowel-full. 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 ($9) 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 ($6) and the Corona CT3710 Trowel ($11) 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 is 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.
Originally published: August 21, 2015