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3 reasons to use a Garden Fork & how to choose one

Written by Sarah Talbot

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Posted on 13 September 2021

When most people start gardening, they usually have a few pots, a trowel for planting, a spade for big jobs and a watering can.  

These basics are not always the most efficient for every gardening job though. Once you realise this your garden tool collection will start to grow. This will happen faster if your garden is full of stones or you are gardening on heavy, clay type soil.  Digging rocky or extremely compacted, clay soil with a garden spade is back breaking. It’s at this point that you fire up Google which will tell you, you need a garden fork.

Types of Garden Forks

There are 3 main Garden Forks. Each type is made for specific purposes.

Haxnicks-Digging-spade-Border-Spade-Hand-Fork-leaning-against-planter

Hand Fork

A small hand tool. You may have got one of these in a set with your trowel.

Border Fork

A full size but a little smaller and lighter than the Digging Fork

Digging Fork

A full size, heavier and packs a punch

There is also a Compost Fork - a full sized fork similar to a Pitch Fork with slightly curved tines. Its not in the main list though as very few home gardeners or allotment holders have one of these and use a digging fork instead. So its probably best to disregard this unless you have stables to muck out!

What's the difference between Garden Forks & which to get?

The Hand fork

This is good for digging over a bed where shallow rooted weeds have started to grow. Its small so you can get in between rows of veg or border plants.

Border Fork

This fork previously had the very un-PC name of a Ladies Fork. You don’t have to be a lady to use one anymore though (phew!) The Border Fork is smaller and lighter than a Digging Fork.

Some say that this is the fork of choice if you are gardening on light, sandy or loamy soil where you don’t need the clout a Digging Fork packs. However, we believe the opposite is true.  A smaller fork is great for tougher jobs as smaller fork requires less force.  It breaks the soil and the job into smaller chunks and puts less strain on the tool and the gardener.    

It is also good if you are gardening in raised beds or, as the name suggests, in borders where the space is tight. And lastly if you are on the shorter side then it might just be more comfy to use a Border Fork.       

Digging Fork

A Digging Fork, also known as a Garden Fork, is the work horse.  It is used, as the name suggests, for digging things big areas. This fork is ideal for use in areas of loose, sandy or loamy soil. Its strong tines will make quick work of turning over large areas. 

This includes breaking up the soil and turning over new beds and moving plants with large root structures.  Most people also use their Digging Fork for turning their composts and spreading mulches too. 

Why use a Fork and not a Spade?

The first reason for using a fork rather than a spade is that the strong tines penetrate problem soils easier than a spade could do.  On stony ground the fork breaks up the ground so that you can use a spade to dig it out.  On clumping, clay soils you may be able to use the fork to both loosen and dig out the soil.

The second reason for using a fork rather than a spade is that the tines of the fork will cause less damage to root structures.  Important when you are harvesting root vegetables as you want to loosen soil without damaging your crop.  Also, when transplanting, the fork will loosen the soil and allow you to get out more undamaged roots than you can with a spade. This will allow your plant to re-establish itself more quickly in the new position. 

The last reason for using a fork rather than a spade is for weeding.  A fork will help you get out all the roots so they don’t return.

How to choose a Garden Fork or Spade

With so many garden tools on the market its daunting to choose a tool that is hopefully going to be with you all of your gardening life.  So, here are the things to look out for

Weight

This is a balance. You need to be able to lift your tools so you want them to be light.  And remember, you will be lifting the tool plus soil so the weight of the tool s only part of the equation.  But don’t just go for the lightest. 

Garden tools are put under a lot of pressure.  So, it is important for them to be sturdy enough or they just won’t do the job.  If they are too light they won’t last either and continue to do the job.   

Tools with the blade/ tines and shaft made of steel are always the best option. The shaft and handles are made from wood usually to keep the weight down. The tools would just be too heavy and lack the flexibility to use if the whole thing was constructed of steel.

Materials

The tines or blade

The tines or blade need to be made from strong stuff as inferior materials mean that the tool will not take the pressure and bend, or worse, break.  Stainless Steel is best for the business end of your tools as it is strong but will not rust and weaken over time. 

Beware of the pretty looking tools.  There seem to be a lot on the market made of beautiful Instagram-able brass and copper which will look good in photos but certainly won't last the test of time!

Solid forged steel is stronger than stainless still but unfortunately it also a lot heavier and also less flexible.  This means the shaft is usually the first part to break when put under pressure unlike stainless steel tools.

The Handle

Haxnicks-Border-Fork-in-garden-with-blue-iris-behind

Gardeners are more aware of their impact on the planet than many groups.  So it is important to make sure the handle of your tools are made from FSC Certified wood.  FSC forest management certification confirms that the forest is being managed in a way that preserves biological diversity and benefits the lives of local people and workers, while ensuring it sustains economic viability.

The wood needs to be strong enough to cope with the pressure though so avoid anything with soft wood handles as these will not stand the test of time. 

You can get handles in carbon fibre which is stronger and lighter than wood.  However carbon fibre takes a lot of energy to produce, and the creation process produces a significant amount of greenhouse gases. So, unless you are a professional gardener, carbon fibre may represent an over engineered solution when natural wood has worked for hundreds of years.

Comfort

Select your garden tools based on height.  Shorter people need a shorter shaft and just as important, taller people need a bigger tool to reduce stress on the back.  

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