If you thought you couldn’t give less of a fork about what multi-pronged garden tool to use, then this blog post may change all that – as we ‘dig down’ into the backstory of the humble garden fork.
There are 11 different types of garden fork: digging, ballast, spading, garden (or English), border, ladies, compost, ensilage, manure, potato and broadfork. These can be further refined into four popular groups: garden forks, pitchforks, border forks and digging forks.
Let’s ‘turn the soil’ on this subject to discover the various uses of different types of forks, and ‘unearth’ a little bit of the history behind them. (Editor: I hope there won’t be too many bad jokes in this article for fork’s sake). 🙂
What is a Garden Fork?
You may be asking yourself – who gives a fork about gardening forks? Answer – we do! Experts do, too. Experts say that the four must-have gardening tools are shovel, rake, pair of shears and – a garden fork.
Looking through references, we found 11 different types of garden fork: digging, ballast, spading, garden (or English), border, ladies, compost, ensilage, manure, potato and broadfork. We will be diving into the top four.
Even though there’s a confusing amount of fork types, uses overlap. The truth about garden forks is that you should choose the one that best suits your needs regardless of the name. A high-quality garden fork will be your gardening friend for many years.
Go to a hardware or garden store and try some forks on for size. Make sure the one you pick feels good in your hands. If a tool is too heavy for you, it won’t be used. Likewise, you won’t use a tool if you are tall and the tool is too short.
Let’s start with the standard, or traditional, garden fork. They usually have four thick, straight, square, or rectangle-shaped tines. The tines are a little pointy and long.
Most garden forks, from end to end, are a little over 40 inches, including a “D” or “T” handle. The shaft should be around 30 inches.
When starting a new garden bed, the first tool you need is a garden fork. Shovels are designed to penetrate dirt, scoop it up and move it. But sometimes, shovels just can’t penetrate. That’s where the garden fork comes in.
Here’s a video on how to use a garden fork to loosen garden soil.
Using a garden fork can be hard work. But it’s much better for the soil than mechanical methods, like rototilling. Rototilling kills good garden organisms – like bacteria, fungi and nematodes – by exposing them to light.
What’s a Garden Fork Used For?
Garden forks are used for loosening up heavy soils. They are dirt workhorses – the strongest of forks. They are your go-to tool when starting a new garden bed. Got soil full of clay? A garden fork will help. Got a big rock in the middle of your new garden area? Yup, garden fork.
The garden fork’s strong, flat, bladed tines can penetrate compacted and rocky soil better than a spade can. A garden fork can go around roots instead of cutting through them.
Many weeds have a shallow root system. A garden fork will disentangle the weed’s roots from soil. Use the fork, then just pull out the weeds, roots, and all.
Garden forks can also help with water problems – both too much and too little. They are great for adding mulch to garden soil.
If you are shopping for a garden fork, experts say the best ones are forged steel. The head and tines should be made of a single piece of forged, high-carbon steel. You may be tempted with a lighter-weight aluminum garden fork, which does work for light work, but these tend to bend if you are doing some serious earth-turning.
Experts recommend a garden fork with flat-faced tines, not round. For most purposes, a wooden, 30-inch shaft with a “D” shaped handle is best.
What is a Pitchfork?
Pitchforks have been around since the Middle Ages. Originally, they were all wood. They were designed to pitch (or throw) sheaves of wheat or hay onto a stack or a cart.
Those old-time pitchforks had long handles and long skinny tines (only two), so that hay slid onto the tines and then slid off easily. The long, no handled shaft allowed the pitchers to slide their hands up and down the shaft when they needed to adjust their hand positions to throw the hay.
Today, pitchforks still have long shafts without handles. A pitchfork can have two or three tines, or prongs. The tines are round, thin, sharp, and widely spaced. They are slick so vegetation just slides on and off.
What’s a Pitchfork Used For?
Pitchforks are not designed for digging. Use a pitchfork for lifting and moving bunches of long, loose, vegetation, like hay, long cut weeds or tall grass. If you have hay bales, pitchforks are perfect for grabbing flakes.
A pitchfork’s tines are ideal to stab into compost when your pile needs turning. Or use a pitchfork to help clean up slash or tree and bush trimmings, then toss it onto your compost pile.
What is a Border Fork?
A border fork is first cousin to the traditional garden fork. It’s just smaller. Sometimes (insultingly) called Lady Forks.
A border fork is a good, general purpose fork that is ideal for tight spaces. The border fork serves much the same purpose as the traditional garden fork, but it’s smaller – both shorter and narrower. If you have small, raised gardens or a greenhouse with limited space, then a border fork is a good choice.
Border forks are about half as wide as standard garden forks, so they take up less space. They are also shorter by about 10″. Fair warning – if you are a tall gardener, these might not be for you. Border forks are lightweight (some just 4 pounds).
Experts say that the best border forks, like the traditional garden fork, should have heads and tines of heat-treated steel. The head and tines should be one piece of forged steel.
What’s a Border Fork Used For?
The border fork is for light to medium digging. It’s shorter than the standard garden fork so it won’t have the same leverage for rocks or compacted soil. A border fork is used for loosening soil or mixing in compost. It is ideal for lifting perennials gently for transplanting or mixing compost into soil.
Of all the forks here, the border fork is the most transportable. If your garden beds are far apart and you work with wheelbarrows or carts, the border fork might be a good choice. Also, border forks are smaller to store if storage space is an issue.
What is a Digging Fork?
Another traditional garden fork cousin, the digging fork (aka the spading fork) is used in lighter soil types that the standard garden fork.
A digging fork has a long shaft (usually 30 inches) and a “T” or “D” handle. The entire digging fork is around 40 inches long. It is typically used while standing up, like the traditional garden fork.
Digging forks normally have four tines and weigh less than a standard fork but more than a border fork. The tines on a digging fork are usually triangular, with a flat face pointing forwards. The tines are slightly wider than a traditional garden fork and curved a little. Many digging forks have tines with a triangular, pointy end.
What’s a Digging Fork Used For?
A digging or spading fork is ideal for digging in sandy, loose, or loamy soils.
Because their tines are slightly more blunted, they won’t cut into your root vegetables. Digging fork tines are also set slightly wider than the garden fork, so the digging fork works well to mix in compost or lever out vegetables.
Experts say digging forks are better for transplanting than traditional garden forks. The triangular shape of the tines does less damage to roots. Use a digging fork in weed patches.
Conclusion: Who Gives a Fork?
Before writing this article we couldn’t have given a fork about the different types of fork available – but it turns out we were being hasty.
The background and history of forks is actually fascinating, and the various types of forks are very useful in their own ways.
So it turns out there was actually loads to dig up about them (sorry!), which is why this article is such a forking good read! (Editor: ok Larry – enough already!)
Homeowner and property investor Larry James founded Take a Yard in 2020 to bring you the very best outdoor living content, based on his years of experience managing outside spaces. Read more >