Northern Virginia Soil and Water Conservation District

Fairfax County, Virginia


TTY 711

12055 Government Center Parkway
Suite 905, Fairfax, VA 22035

Willie Woode,
Executive Director

Tools and Glossary - You and Your Land

Tools | Glossary


Tools for General Care and Maintenance - You and Your Land

Good tools are not always the most expensive tools for sale. But if the tool you select is expensive, treat it as an investment. A few high-quality tools will serve you better than many poorly-made specialty tools.

Always choose tools that match your height and build. Before purchasing a tool, pick up several different versions of it, pretend to dig or rake, and make certain the tool you select is comfortable for you to use. Special tools designed for left handers and people with arthritis or other disabilities are available as well.

Good maintenance of your tools is as important as your initial selection. Stainless steel tools are more expensive than carbon steel tools but are easier to maintain. A bucket of sand saturated with a quart of motor oil is good for cleaning your tools and keeping them from rusting. Oil all the movable metal parts of your tools and sharpen the blades. Remove sap from pruners with steel wool and oil.

Garden fork

A pitchfork or garden fork is a useful tool for working heavy soil, lifting root vegetables, dividing perennials, and turning over the compost pile. Invest in a good quality steel or stainless steel fork with four well-spaced, rounded, or angled prongs. A flat-pronged fork may also be useful for lifting root crops.  

Garden rake

This metal flat-headed tool is useful in removing debris, breaking up and leveling soil and gravel, and preparing seedbeds.


A pair of heavy gloves is essential for protecting your hands when pruning. Hand cultivator A hand cultivator’s three or five tines are curved and claw-like, differing from a flat-tined hand fork. A claw-like tool is good for loosening the soil and for weeding. It is less precise than a trowel but is often faster to use.  

Hand fork

A hand fork is to a garden fork what a trowel is to a shovel. It is good for loosening soil in tight spaces and lifting small plants. You can also use it to cultivate between rows of crops. Hand pruners Maintaining your landscape requires hand pruners. Use these to trim shrubs, roses, berry canes, and twigs and branches that are no larger than 1/2 inch in diameter. Hand pruners come in two styles: one has a blade that cuts against a flat surface; the other operates more like a pair of scissors. Choose pruners that have replaceable parts, blades that can be sharpened easily, and a safety latch to keep the pruners closed when not in use.  


Two types of hoes are useful in the garden. A draw hoe with a long handle and a 4 to 6 inch blade is good for surface weeding, aerating, and hilling up soil. A narrower hoe, or onion hoe, has a 3 inch blade and is good for cultivating between rows.  

Irrigation equipment

The equipment required depends upon the scale of planting. A one- or two-gallon watering can is sufficient for a small plot, but large areas need a hose. Soil soakers can be laid between the plants to conserve water and minimize water loss to evaporation. More elaborate irrigation systems can be installed by a contractor.    

Lawn mowers

Reel mowers are good when you want to maintain a dense, short turf. A reel makes a clean, even cut and is preferred for warm-season turfgrasses such as bermudagrass and zoysiagrass. It is also the most environmentally friendly choice. If you mow with a reel, you must mow frequently. A reel mower cannot effectively mow grass shoots or weeds that are higher than the horizontal centerline of the reel. Reel mowers come in various sizes from a push mower to a large tractor-pulled mower.  

A sickle bar mower is good for higher cutting heights where you only plan to cut the turf one to four times a year. It is usually mounted on a tractor and used for large areas such as pastures and common areas.  

A rotary lawn mower is the most common backyard lawn mower. Many are gas powered, but you can also purchase electric-operated machines. The rotary machine cuts the grass with a horizontal impact of the blade. This can cause a certain amount of injury to the leaf blade and is not adapted to putting green quality mowing — very short and very dense. The rotary mower can be used for cutting taller grass and weeds and to mulch fallen tree leaves. Be careful because it is easy to scalp an uneven ground surface. The blade needs to be balanced at all times. Look for a well-constructed and well-protected machine. The rotary blade action can eject stones and metals as easily as grass blades.  

The mulching mower is a variation of the rotary lawn mower. This mower cuts grass clippings into very small pieces assisting the natural decomposition of the clippings and adding needed nitrogen to the soil. Cut frequently. Removing less of the grass blades at each cut will speed the decomposition process.  

Lawn (Leaf) rake

This tool is indispensable and is made of plastic, metal, or bamboo. Select a metal rake for raking twigs and debris. Select a bamboo rake to reduce potential damage to the lawn. Long-arm pruners This is a useful tool if you don’t want to climb a ladder. One type has a 6- to 10-foot-long metal pole with a blade attached by a wire to a lever. This blade cuts with a slicing action, moving upwards against a fixed hook-shaped blade. Another type is basically a pair of shears on the end of a rod.  


These are long-handled, heavy-duty pruners. They are useful for pruning bushes, thinning trees, and clipping thorny plants. They are about 18 inches long and will cut branches up to about 1 1/2 inches in diameter.  

Pruning saws

These are used for cutting branches over 1 inch thick. The teeth are widely spaced to keep them from clogging with wet sawdust. There are three basic types: a straight-bladed saw good for light pruning; a curved saw that works well in awkwardly placed branches; and a bow saw most often used for heavy work.  


A round-pointed shovel is the basic garden tool. It is good for digging and mixing soil, compost, and fertilizer.  


A spade is a straight-sided square shovel that easily cuts through sod and is ideal for edging and transplanting.  


These are useful for applying pesticides. There are different kinds of sprayer containers. The simplest is a hand pump. To gain and maintain pressure, you must pump the sprayer periodically. This type of sprayer can also be pumped mechanically. Another type of sprayer is pressurized and does not require periodic pumping. Sprayers should be strong, light, and able to take different nozzles. If you intend to spray more than an acre at one time, you may need a motorized sprayer. Wash out your sprayer after use, following the instructions in Controlling Pests starting on page 49. You should use separate sprayers for insecticides and herbicides.  


A spreader is used for evenly distributing fertilizer and lime. Drop-type or rotary spreaders are the most effective; however they are more difficult to maneuver around trees and shrubs. Rotary spreaders usually give better distribution because they spread over a large area.  

Stringtrimmer (Weed Eater)

This is either electric or gasoline powered. It is a useful and timesaving tool if you have areas which cannot be mowed with a lawn mower. Use with care to avoid tearing tree bark or damaging painted surfaces. Trowel A good trowel is indispensable for everyday gardening chores. It is a small handheld tool. It has a medium-width shovel with a pointed end. Invest in a high-quality trowel made with strong steel.    

Wheelbarrow or garden cart

A one-wheeled or two-wheeled cart is essential for hauling heavy or large loads.


Glossary - You and Your Land


A | B | C | D | E | F-G | H | I | L-M | N-O | P | R | S | T-W

  • Acid soil, Alkaline soil
  • A pH of 7 is neutral, below 7 is acid, and above 7 is alkaline. Soils in areas with high amounts of rainfall tend to be acidic. Soils in areas with limestone tend to be alkaline. Many plants will grow well in soils with a range of pH from slightly acid to slightly alkaline.
  • Aeration
  • The process of introducing air space in soil. (See core aeration)
  • Aerobic
  • A process of decomposition that is active in the presence of oxygen. A properly working compost pile will decompose under aerobic conditions.
  • Anaerobic
  • A process of decomposition that occurs without the presence of oxygen. The organic solids are disintegrated by anaerobic bacteria in a septic tank.
  • Annual plant
  • A plant that completes its life cycle in a year or less.


  • Balled and burlapped (B&B)
  • Some trees and shrubs are dug from the field and sold with a large ball of soil around their roots. This ball of soil is traditionally wrapped with burlap cloth but may also be wrapped with a plastic cloth or wire mesh.
  • Bare root
  • Some trees, shrubs, and perennials are sold, while dormant, with the soil removed from their roots.
  • Bedrock
  • The consolidated rock that underlies the topsoil and subsoil.
  • Biennial plant
  • A plant that completes its life cycle in two years.
  • Botanical name
  • The combination of the genus and species names of a plant. It is expressed in Latin.
  • Branch collar
  • A branch collar is the swollen area of trunk tissue that forms around the base of a branch. If you prune away the branch collar, you remove not only branch wood, but also trunk wood, opening the plant to more extensive decay.


  • Compost
  • A mixture of decomposed organic materials such as leaves, twigs, grass clippings, and kitchen waste. It is used as a fertilizer or to improve your soil’s texture.
  • Container grown
  • Some trees, shrubs, and herbaceous material are grown in pots instead of grown in a field and dug for sale.
  • Core aeration
  • A practice that forces hollow metal tubes into the ground and brings up small cores (plugs) of soil. Beneficial for air and water movement into the soil.
  • Cover crop
  • An annual planting of grasses or legumes that protects soil from erosion and improves its fertility.


  • Deciduous
  • A plant that annually sheds its leaves.
  • Dormant
  • The stage when a plant has stopped growth and production. For example, deciduous trees are dormant in the winter.
  • Drainfield
  • In a septic system, the network of pipes or tiles through which wastewater is dispersed into the soil.
  • Drainage easement
  • A dedicated area of land for stormwater storage and movement. It is identified on a plat of the development.
  • Drip line
  • The circle you would draw on the ground directly under a tree’s outermost branches. It is referred to as the drip line because rainfall tends to drip at this point from the branch tips. The tree’s feeder roots extend to this point, and the term is used in conjunction with fertilizing, watering, and grading around trees.
  • Dry well
  • An underground reservoir filled with stone and lined with filter fabric that holds water until it seeps into the soil.


  • Erodibility
  • The potential for a soil to erode. Can be found in the soil survey.
  • Erosion
  • The washing away of soil particles by water, wind, ice, or other geological events.
  • Eutrophication
  • An accumulation of plant nutrients, such as nitrate and phosphate, in a water body leading to an overabundance of algae and other water vegetation.
  • Evapotranspiration
  • The loss of soil moisture from the ground’s surface and growing plants.
  • Exotic
  • Plants or animals introduced into a community that are not native to the area.


  • Fertilizer
  • Supplemental nutrients for your plants, often purchased as an inorganic derivative of nitrogen, phosphate, and potash. You can also use composted manures as an organic alternative.
  • Filter fabric
  • A porous cloth-like material used to prevent fine soil particles from clogging gravel or tile drains.
  • French drain
  • Length of perforated pipe placed underground in gravel with an open surface drain inlet.
  • Gabions
  • Wire cages filled with crushed stone that are often stacked and used to reduce erosion along steep slopes and streambanks.
  • Grading
  • The moving of soil and rocks to shape the land.
  • Groundcover
  • Plants that cover the ground like a carpet and are grown for their ornamental value and their ability to protect soils from eroding.
  • Groundwater
  • Water that exists underground below the water table. It fills up pore spaces in soil and joints in rocks.


  • Habit
  • The shape and character of a plant as it matures.
  • Habitat
  • The specific environment of a plant or animal. The appropriate habitat for a species often varies in size, content, and location, changing with the phases in an organism’s life cycle.
  • Hedgerow
  • A group or row of trees and shrubs separating two grassy areas. It can provide habitat for small wildlife.
  • Herbaceous
  • A plant that dies to the ground each year and regrows stems the following year.
  • Horizons
  • The noticeable layers of a soil structure — topsoils, subsurface soils, subsoils, parent material, and eventually bedrock. Described together, these make up a soil profile.
  • Hydric soil
  • Characteristic of wetlands. The soil is characterized by wet conditions, saturated most of the year, and often organic in composition.


  • Impervious cover
  • Any hard surface material such as roof tops, asphalt, or concrete that limits infiltration and induces high runoff rates.
  • Infiltration
  • The amount of water from the soil’s surface that can move through a soil through its joints and pores.
  • Inorganic
  • Materials that were not created through living processes, such as minerals, chemically derived nutrients, and rock.
  • Invasive
  • A plant that proliferates quickly and can aggressively compete with desired plants.
  • Irrigation
  • Supplemental water applied to plants.


  • Leaching
  • A process in the soil that is similar to brewing tea or coffee. Water moves through the soil removing soluble nutrients and minerals. In areas of high rainfall, rain water leaches good as well as bad substances from the soil.
  • Lime
  • Added to soil to raise pH and lower the soil’s acidity. Sources include Dolomitic Limestone and Calcium Carbonate.
  • Master Gardener
  • A volunteer program run by Virginia Cooperative Extension to train citizens in many areas of horticulture.
  • Microclimate
  • An area where climatic conditions differ from the norm. It can be natural, such as a mountain valley, or constructed, such as a wind-protected deck.
  • Mulch
  • Organic materials, such as shredded bark, sawdust, straw, or leaves, spread on the soil to protect roots and reduce or prevent erosion.


  • Nitrogen
  • A key nutrient needed for plant growth. It improves leaf and stem growth.
  • Nonpoint source pollution
  • Pollution which cannot be traced to a direct outlet or discharge point. Examples would include chemicals applied to lawns and gardens, and automotive fluid spills or leaks on roads and driveways. Runoff from a heavy rain then carries them directly into nearby streams.
  • Nutrients
  • Various types of materials that become dissolved in water and induce plant growth.
  • Organic matter
  • Matter derived from living organisms. Organic materials such as leaves, peat, grass clippings, and compost are often added to your soil to improve its fertility and structure.


  • Parging
  • A cement mixture used to coat the outer basement walls prior to backfilling. It is combined with an asphaltic coating for waterproofing.
  • Peat
  • A marsh or swamp deposit of water-soaked plant remains containing more than 50 percent carbon. It is a highly water-retentive, spongy, organic soil amendment that is available for your garden or flower bed. It may add to your soil’s acidity.
  • Perched groundwater table
  • Water that cannot infiltrate the subsoil due to a restricting layer of material such as clay or shale.
  • Percolation
  • The downward movement of water in a soil.
  • Perennial plant
  • A species of plant that lives longer than two years.
  • Permeability
  • The ability of water to move through your soil.
  • Phosphorus
  • A key nutrient for plant growth. It improves the plant’s root growth, flowering, and fruiting.
  • Physiographic
  • The physical features of the land, in particular its slope and elevation.
  • Plugging
  • A method used to plant warm-season grasses with small sod pieces. It is commonly employed on established bentgrass or bermudagrass turf. Because the soil remains attached to the rhizomes, plugging is better able to survive drought than sprigging.
  • Point source pollution
  • Water pollution from a single source such as a sewage plant pipe outfall.
  • Pollutants
  • Contaminants to the environment.
  • Porosity
  • The volume of space in a rock or soil between soil or mineral particles.
  • Potassium (K)
  • A key nutrient for plant growth. It is also referred to as potash.
  • Pruning
  • The cutting and removing of a plant’s twigs or buds to improve or maintain its health or direct its growth.


  • Rhizomes
  • Thick, horizontal stems that grow below the ground. They may be long and slender, as in some lawn grasses, or thick and fleshy, as in many irises. Rhizomes are often specialized for food storage, and they allow plants to survive and spread after mowing or clipping.
  • Rip rap
  • Large stones placed on soil surfaces or stream beds to reduce erosion by flowing water.
  • Riparian
  • The area adjacent to a stream, river, or lake.
  • Root ball
  • The intact soil and roots of balled and burlapped and container grown plants.
  • Runoff
  • Water from rain, snowmelt, or irrigation that flows over the ground surface and returns to streams, “running off” the land to the stream. It includes the water and everything it picks up along the way.


  • Sediment
  • Soil particles transported from their source and deposited by water.
  • Septic system
  • A sewage system that relies on a septic tank and drainfield to store and/or treat wastewater.
  • Soil
  • The surface layers of sand, clay, silt, and organic material on the surface of the earth that support plants. Soil has properties resulting from the integrated effect of climate and living matter acting upon the soil’s parent material over time.
  • Soil survey
  • The document created by the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service which records soil types with maps and describes soil characteristics.
  • Sprigging
  • A method of planting grasses with stolons or rhizomes in furrows or small holes. The bermudagrass or zoysiagrass rhizomes or stolons have little or no soil attached to them and can be planted by hand spreading.
  • Stabilization
  • The protection of erodible soils along streams or slopes with bioengineering techniques, terrace walls, erosion mats, or rock.
  • Stormwater
  • Water from rain or melting snow. Many communities are concerned about the management of stormwater in developed areas because the amount of impervious surface has increased, thus reducing the area where rain water may naturally infiltrate the soil.
  • Sump
  • A built in basin containing a pump that continually removes groundwater from outside your basement’s walls and floor, discharging the water away from your house. It prevents water from inundating your basement.
  • Swale
  • An elongated depression in the land to channel runoff.


  • Terracing
  • Shaping a slope with a series of “steps.” The steps allow for planting and maintenance on level areas and reduce the potential for erosion across a steep slope.
  • Thatching
  • The removal of excess grass clippings from a lawn. The build up of too many clippings prevents the breakdown of the grass and can be a home for harmful insects.
  • Tilling
  • The working of the soil to improve its structure and drainage.
  • Topsoil
  • The surface soil layer. This layer may be very shallow or very deep and is a precious resource.
  • Transplanting
  • Moving a plant from one place and planting it in a new location.
  • Vine
  • Plants that climb by twining, tendrils, or clinging.
  • Watershed
  • The region or area contributing to the supply of a river or lake. It is a drainage area separated from other drainage areas by a dividing ridge.
  • Weed
  • A plant out of place.
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