What I call a spade, but other people argue with.
As in, a short pointed shovel with a D handle. Granted, I’m short, so this kind of shovel works best for me. But my spade is shorter than most, so it’s a matter of finding one the right length for your body.
Ergonomics are everything when it comes to saving your back with the kind of repetitive tasks that gardening demands. Having the ability to step on the spade means you can put all your weight into digging, using very little muscle. Having a short handle means you aren’t lifting as much weight when picking things up. (Although with a long shovel you can get better balance by pushing down on the end while lifting nearer the shovel.)
With this one tool you can do a multitude of tasks. I rarely even use a trowel, as a spade digs a hole for transplanting much faster and with much less effort. Even for a tiny plant. Why bend over or kneel and try to penetrate the ground using wrist muscles and poor leverage, when 2–4 slices down into the earth around the plant will free it? Features to look for in a D-handled short shovel (or spade.):
A comfortable handle - not all D-handles are created equally. Try it out in person to make sure it fits your hands comfortably. I've seen shovels with round handles at the top. That makes no sense ~ you would put pressure on your knuckle joints by twisting them to the side. You want to try it out by applying pressure and lifting the shovel. Like testing mattresses. A few seconds embarrassment in the store is worth saving your body for years.
A rolled over edge at the top of the blade to provide a flat surface to step on. This is critical! Don't even bother buying a shovel without this feature. Feet were not designed to hold your entire body weight on a narrow blade.
Weight. These shovels now come in fiberglass. Mine is made of Ash. It's lasted twenty years and would look new if the blade wasn't worn down from hitting all those rocks in the soil. But it's not light. On the other hand, with the carbon steel blade and heavy wood, it hasn't broken or bent, either.
Height. Get one that is the correct length for your body. You want to be able to jump up on it with both feet on the blade at a comfortable height, not bending over precariously. If you're short, you don't want one so tall that your hands are up by your shoulders. It's much safer to do this with a short shovel/spade than one with a long handle, as there is no danger of the pole whacking you in the head or shoulder when you lose balance or footing.