Garden Trowel vs Spade: 6 Differences

Gardeners use plenty of things to perform daily gardening tasks. Sometimes, they use the same tool for multiple tasks, but it’s always best to use the tools for what they are designed for to ensure the best results. However, some people may confuse tools like a garden trowel and spade, so it helps to know their differences.

A garden trowel is a small, handheld tool used for light digging and tending to small plants. In contrast, a spade typically has a long handle for heavier digging and straight-edging. These two tools have different sizes, materials, and purposes.

Further in the article, I will discuss these differences in detail to help you choose the right tool for your gardening needs. Read on to learn more!

Quick Guide

DifferencesGarden TrowelSpade
Size & UsageSmaller, handheld tool for light digging, tending small plants, and indoor gardening.Larger tool with long handle for heavy digging, straight-edging, and larger garden tasks.
Blade DesignPointy end with a deeper inward curve, available in narrow and wide blades.Flat blade tip with a shallow inward curve, designed for making straight edges.
MaterialCan be made of various materials, including plastic, ideal for light tasks.Typically made of sturdy materials like carbon or stainless steel for heavy digging.
Task SuitabilitySuited for light gardening work, such as aerating or moving small amounts of soil.Designed for heavy gardening work, like digging through hard ground and cutting large roots.
Blade SharpnessSharpness can vary; plastic trowels with rounded blades are used for gentle tasks.Requires a sharp blade for efficient soil penetration and reducing physical strain.
FunctionsSuitable for digging through loose dirt, scooping soil, cutting thin roots, and aerating.Ideal for digging compact soil, scooping soil, cutting woody roots, and transplanting large plants.

1. A Garden Trowel Is Smaller Than a Spade

As mentioned, a garden trowel is a short, handheld tool you can use while sitting down and dealing with small plants in your garden. You can also use it to tend to your potted indoor plants. Garden trowels can vary in size, but a comfortable length would be approximately 8-12 inches (20-30 cm)

You may find narrow and wide blades, depending on the purpose. The thin blades are ideal for light digging through limited spots between plants or rocky soil. Meanwhile, the broader blades help with scooping out soil or plants. 

Regardless of the blade design, the smaller size of the garden trowels allows gardeners to tend to small areas at a time. It is ideal for small garden beds or indoor gardening with potted plants.

Conversely, a spade is a garden tool used while standing up. Its long handle provides the gardener control while driving the blade deep into the ground. The handle can range from 3-5 feet (0.9-1.5 m) long, depending on purpose and preference.

The length of the blade can also help determine how well you can perform your gardening task. A long blade may seem to make it quicker to dig a hole. However, any longer than 12 inches (30 cm) and you risk the blade bending over from the weight of the soil, especially in dry and rocky ground.

2. A Spade Has a Flat Blade

One common mistake new gardeners make is telling a spade apart from a shovel. Spades typically have a flat blade tip, while a shovel’s blade has a curved, pointy end. It’s vastly different from the image you have when you think of spades in poker.

The body of a spade’s blade is also almost flat, with a shallow inward curve for when you need to scoop dirt off the ground. Its flat shape also allows it to make straight edges on your garden bed or when you need to dig a square trench.

Meanwhile, a garden trowel’s blade typically has the same shape as a shovel’s blade but in a much shorter handle. The blade of a garden trowel usually has a pointy end and a deeper inward curve, allowing it to lift small volumes of soil.

A sturdy garden trowel can also help when digging the soil to transplant small plants. However, you can use garden trowels with a rounded blade tip when tending to loose, lightweight, sandy soil.

3. A Garden Trowel Can Be Made of Plastic

A spade should be made of sturdy materials like carbon or stainless steel to help it perform its task of heavy digging. Otherwise, it will quickly chip or bend at the resistance of the soil, especially when dealing with compact or rocky ground.

Gardeners often use a spade to cut through roots. For instance, when you need to transplant large plants but cannot carry the entire root system that has grown extensively over the years, you will need to cut through them using a spade.

You should ideally use one made of stainless steel to ensure that the roots will not be contaminated with rust as you cut them. Additionally, stainless steel has a higher tolerance to thorough washing to remove dirt and reduce the risk of introducing microbial infections through the plant’s wounds.

On the other hand, a garden trowel is a lightweight tool that can be made of multiple materials, including plastic. Although the best choice will always be stainless steel for its durability and rust resistance, a plastic garden trowel is suitable when you need to be careful around plant roots.

Sometimes, when digging around the plants to promote aeration in the soil compacted by flooding or other factors, you may need to use lightweight materials. Otherwise, you risk damaging the already sensitive plant roots.

4. A Spade Is for Heavy Gardening Work

When you think about several gardening tasks, you can imagine some you can do leisurely while sitting down and those that require you to exert much force. A garden trowel helps you with light gardening work, such as aerating or moving small amounts of soil.

Depending on the material, you may need to be careful when using garden trowels, as they can bend or break when used beyond their capacity.

On the other hand, using a spade requires strength. It is made of sturdy materials that can withstand heavy force. Sometimes, you may even need to use your foot to drive the blade deep into the ground. 

A spade’s design makes it bearable to dig through hard ground and even cut off large tree roots. Its large size also allows you to perform gardening tasks in larger spaces. As a result, it can be exhausting to use as it requires upper and lower body strength.

5. A Spade Should Have a Sharp Blade

If you want to dig through the hard ground using a spade, you will need one with a sharp blade. Garden spades have flat but beveled tips that allow them to enter the soil more smoothly.

Using garden spades with blunt or dull ends will put you at risk of shoulder injuries from the excessive force you need to exert to cut through the soil. Ensuring your garden spade has a sharp edge will significantly reduce the power required and improve the tool’s efficiency.

On the other hand, garden trowels can vary in sharpness, depending on the purpose. You can use plastic trowels with rounded blades if you need to be gentle around your plant. However, if you need to dig out or cut through weed roots, you may need to use ones with sharper blades.

6. Differences in Functions

A garden trowel and a spade may have similar functions, but the degree and capacity can greatly vary.

In general, both tools can perform the following tasks in varying capacities:

Digging the Ground

Both tools are designed for digging. However, spades are typically used for digging compact soil like clay or heavy rocks. Meanwhile, garden trowels can dig through loose dirt and may chip or break when used on heavier soil.

Scooping Out Soil

The shape of the spade’s blade can help scoop out soil, but you may need to find the right kind of spade for that purpose, as most spades are designed for edging. On the other hand, garden trowels can scoop out small amounts of soil.

Cutting Plant Roots

As discussed, spades can cut through woody plant roots. Meanwhile, garden trowels can do the same for much smaller plants with thin roots.

Aerating the Soil

Although not the best tool for the purpose, you can use a spade to turn over the soil in your lawn for aeration. When tending to your potted plants, you may need to aerate the soil at least once a month using a garden trowel.

Doing so can prevent soil compaction and improve drainage.

Transplanting Plants

A spade can help you transplant large plants like shrubs and bushes. On the other hand, a garden trowel can only handle transplanting small seedlings.

Final Thoughts

Garden trowels and spades have several differences, including the following:

  • A spade is larger than a garden trowel.
  • Garden trowels are for light work, while spades are for heavy gardening tasks.
  • A spade should be made of sturdy material, while garden trowels can be made of plastic and other lightweight materials.
  • All spades have to be sharp, while garden trowels can vary in sharpness, depending on the purpose.

Understanding them can help you choose the appropriate tool to use in your garden. Using the right tool can help you perform your tasks efficiently while reducing the strain on your body.

Dr. Moritz Picot

Dr. Moritz Picot is a horticulture enthusiast and the founder of, where he serves as the lead content writer. He established the website in 2022 as a valuable resource for both gardening aficionados and beginners, compiling all the gardening tips he has accumulated over the past 25 years. Alex has a passion for nurturing plants, transforming backyards into inviting spaces, and sharing his knowledge with the world.

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