Today's tools are ergonomically designed to spare backs, shoulders, and wrists.
A spade is not the same tool as a shovel. A spade is short-handled and has a flat, squared-off blade. It is ideal for edging beds, digging planting holes, slicing under sod, and working soil amendments into the garden. In a pinch you can even use a spade to chop ice on walks. Its versatility makes it a staple in the tool shed.
A garden shovel typically has a dished (concave) blade that is rounded or mildly tapered at the tip. Most shovels are long-handled, although you can buy them with short handles, too. Because the blade is canted at an angle to the handle for greater leverage, a shovel is ideal for attacking piles of soil, sand, and other materials you need to load or move.
Dig into the soil with the four straight, sturdy steel tines of a garden fork. Also known as a spading fork, it's a good tool for turning and aerating the soil. Use it to break up chunks of soil and to work organic matter, fertilizer, and other amendments into the soil. A garden fork copes easily with occasional buried roots or rocks and comes in handy for dividing clumps of perennials.
Cultivate the soil and remove young weeds in a garden bed with a hoe. The simplest hoe is basically a straight-edged, square blade attached at a right angle to a long wooden handle. It's useful for chopping clumps of soil and scraping the soil surface to cut off sprouting weeds. When tilted at an angle, the corner of the blade traces neat planting furrows in prepared soil. There are many different types of hoes. A swan hoe has a curved neck. A diamond hoe has a head that is diamond-shaped, perfect for pulling weeds from between plants.
Also called a garden rack, this tool features 12 or 14 short steel tines mounted on a sturdy steel bridge at the end of a long handle. Use a steel rack to dress and smooth out prepared soil in a planting bed. Its tines simultaneously break up small clods of soil and corral stones and debris. Use a flathead style to level the soil for planting. Flip the rake over so its bridge scrapes along the surface of the soil.
The basic hand tool for digging, a trowel is indispensable for planting bulbs, seedlings, and other small plants in a garden bed. Trowels are available with sturdy handles and narrow or wide, cupped metal blades with tapered tips. Different sizes -- widths and lengths -- suit different planting jobs.
The business end of this rake, sometimes called a lawn or leaf rake, is a fan of flat, flexible tines. Typically bent at their tips, the tines are made of lengths of metal, bamboo, plastic, or even rubber in a variety of styles. The tines are attached to a long handle for easy control. Use a flexible rake to gather light debris that is spread out on beds, lawns, and walks, and to rake up leaves.
This tool is basically a miniature hoe, which most gardeners use for down-and-dirty weeding. The short handle at the end of a flat, straight-edged blade allows you to maneuver between plants in a bed. The blade may be square or triangular and mounted at various angles for flexibility. Position the blade on the soil and draw it toward you to cut weeds off at -- or just below -- the soil level. Or turn the blade upward, so its corner digs deeper to dislodge stones or pry out larger weeds.