The essential tools for the home gardener include a trug to hold all the smaller items, gloves, a sharp knife, a hand fork, a trowel, a rake, a leaf rake, pruners, hedge clippers, a small hand saw, and, most essential of all, a spading fork. Barbara Damrosch, gardener extraordinaire, wrote a great essay about the spading fork.
A spading fork is not a rake and it is definitely not a pitchfork. It is a long-handled tool with four heavy tines. You use it for loosening the earth before digging a hole, for lifting plants out of the ground, for loosening and removing turf, for dividing plants, for turning compost, for digging in compost, for digging up root crops. It’s much, much, easier to dig with a fork than with a spade. It’s always the first tool to use when you have to dig.
It’s important to use a spading fork correctly. Suppose you’re digging up a large perennial: Place the tines as close as possible to the base of the plant and push straight down as far as you can. Then step on one side of the fork with the heel of your foot–not the toe or the instep–to drive it in as far as it will go. If you use your toe, you’re likely to slide off and fall down; if you use your instep, you can break your foot. Use your heel, which is strong and powerful, to push down as hard as you can. Then push down on the handle, lifting the tines, and the plant will most likely pop right out of the ground. If it doesn’t, repeat all around the plant, loosening the roots. Eventually the plant will come right out, the roots unharmed.
Spading forks come in different weights and lengths. You want the heaviest one you can manage, and for length, you want the one that’s most comfortable for you. Be sure the handle and fork are attached firmly to the shaft–your fork will get a lot of heavy use.
Take a look at this New Yorker cartoon about the spading fork on the Conde Nast website.