The trowel is practically the only tool you need for gardening in containers and raised beds, and for transplanting annuals, perennials, and vegetables. Considering how indispensable it is, it makes sense to spend a little time shopping for a trowel that best meets your particular needs.
Three main types
General-purpose trowels typically have 3- to 4-inch-wide blades. If you own only one trowel, this is the type to get.
Transplanting trowels have blades about 1 1/2 to 3 inches wide. Most of these have inch/centimeter markings on their blades to help you plant bulbs or seeds at the recommended depths.
Crevice trowels have the narrowest blades, about 1 1/4 inches wide. They're designed for work among the crannies of rock gardens.
Trowels with stamped-steel blades ($1 to $5 and up) usually have short life spans. Rivets hold the blade to the tang (the shaft that joins the blade to a plastic or wood handle), but rivets aren't as durable as good welds. Avoid these trowels, except for use as scoops for potting soil.
High-carbon steel blades ($10 to $20) are strong and can last for decades. The steel may be forged, so it's less likely to bend under stress, or it is tempered (heat-treated) to make it tougher and better at holding a sharp edge. (If a tool is forged, it's safe to assume that it's tempered as well.) High-carbon steel is easy to sharpen but prone to rust.
Stainless steel blades ($10 to $40) are slow to rust. They're also easy to clean, since soil doesn't stick to this steel. Nearly always forged and tempered, stainless steel blades hold an edge well.
Rustproof aluminum blades ($5 to $10) are perfect for work with potting soil, but they have trouble penetrating hard garden soil and are prone to chipping in rocky soil. Also, aluminum blades become dull quickly and don't hold an edge long.
Most trowels come with handles made of plastic or wood; both are comfortable, but wood is more durable. One-piece aluminum or steel trowels often have handles covered with soft rubber or plastic grips.
Most garden centers and some hardware stores sell trowels. For the best selection, try one of these mail-order specialists: Corona Clipper ( www.coronaclipper.com); Denman & Company (714/639-8106); Gardener's Supply Company (800/863-1700); Kinsman Company (800/733-4146); Smith & Hawken (800/776-3336).