Dogs (and kids) often dig for no apparent reason, for the sheer pleasure of getting deeper into the ground and letting the dirt fly. Gardeners, on the other hand, dig with a purpose — to create a new planting bed or hole, to create a trench, or to harvest a delicious, homegrown root vegetable. Nonetheless, gardeners have the right to have fun in the dirt! And having fun turning the soil is possible when you have the right tool.
Shovels and spades are digging tools, and you may be astounded at the array available. "Necessity is the mother of invention," as the adage goes, and never is this truer than in the great variety of shovels in the world. Each one was invented by someone with a specific kind of digging in mind. However, generally speaking, digging tools fall into two main types: shovels and spades. Choosing one within a type requires matching it to your needs — the sort of soil it'll be digging, plus your own height and body strength.
When you go shovel (or spade) shopping, you may observe various grades and prices. You get what you pay for, folks. A so-called "homeowner" or "economy" shovel looks good enough, but it may not stand up to tougher jobs or rocks in the ground. Contractor shovels, on the other hand, have a thicker blade and strong attachments for forging where the blade meets the handle. Be sure to pay close attention to the labels to know what kind of shovel you're looking at. You can usually find a range of quality at a single store.
Forged shovels and spades are the best because they're made of a single piece of metal. Stamped ones are okay for lighter jobs, but because the metal is cut from a single thickness, they're not as strong or tailored to a job.
To determine whether a shovel is well-made, examine where parts come together (assuming the shovel you're contemplating is not all one piece). Rivets and welding points are weak spots, though often necessary. Avoid anything with sloppy workmanship. The following sections outline other things to look for.
The reason the shaft is straight is simple: Bends or curves create weak or stress points. Do check that the tool you're thinking of buying has a nice, straight handle. Material is equally important. A "solid hardwood handle,"
although desirable, is also rather vague. You want a strong, solid, splinter-resistant wood; ash is considered the best, with hickory in second place. Maple is okay, too, though it's heavier and can break in unpredictable ways.
Painted shafts? No doubt they're attractive in their jaunty color and smooth texture, but beware: A coat of paint may be hiding weaknesses or flaws, such as knots or grafted pieces of wood. Better to go with a plain, unadorned model so you can see what you're getting (and paint it yourself at home if you'd like).
Metal (including steel) and fiberglass handles are also available. Though they can be quite strong and weather-tough, their drawback is that when they bend or break, the tool is finished. And either of these materials may transport uncomfortable or numbing vibrations into your hands and arms. Also, metal tools can be darn cold during the winter (and they conduct electricity if you happen to electrical live wires — yikes!).
You need good leverage; the right grip, well-designed and durably constructed, delivers just that. Seek a comfortable fit for your hand and peer closely at the rivets that attach the handle to be sure they're neatly installed and flush. You'll likely see the classic D-handle most often, usually made of durable but lightweight plastic (which can and does crack or break down over the years due to use and exposure to sunlight, though you can certainly get many good years out of it). A good handle is easy and comfortable to hang onto, especially during twisting and lifting motions.
A variation on the D-handle is the so-called YD handle, which is longer and potentially sturdier. The two sides of the handle converge in a Y, and a cross-piece of wood (usually metal-reinforced) joins them. This design has the advantage of dissipating twisting forces.
Last but not least is the T-handle, which is excellent for two-handed pushing work, such as in the shallow-angled spades that gardeners use to edge planting beds or peel off turf or topsoil. The drawback is that the impact of your digging travels straight into your wrist, so look for a coated handle or wear gloves to alleviate the shock, at least somewhat.
Cant refers to the angle between the head of the spade or shovel and the ground. A lower angle is best for digging and holding soil; a steeper angle is better suited to lifting and tossing soil and other materials. To check the cant, place the tool on the ground and see how flat it lies.
The frog is the open-backed tube or socket, meant to fit the head of the tool to the shaft. It's vulnerable to collecting dirt along its length, so unless you assiduously clean your shovel after every use, the dirt eventually starts to rot the wooden handle. Some shovels have metal welded over this area to prevent that, which helps, although the front side is still a point of weakness
Trowels: More than just little shovels
A good trowel is an indispensable gardening friend, with you through thick and thin for many years. Consider everything I say here, but definitely pick one that feels right to you when you hold and use it. As with shovels and spades, many different kinds of trowels are on the market. You have plenty of choices, so be sure to pay attention to the labels at the store and ask for assistance if you have trouble determining which trowel is right for you.
As you may have gathered if you read about shovels in the preceding section, good-quality materials make for a more effective, longer-lasting trowel. The blade (from cheapest on up to best) is made from
1 Stamped metal 1 Aluminum
1 Forged carbon steel or (no rust!) stainless steel
Top-of-the-line trowels feature a carbon steel blade that's epoxy-coated to resist wear and rust. As for the handle, good, strong wood is what you want — ash or hickory is best. Avoid cheap trowels of lightweight materials, because they seem to bend or even break at the slightest challenge.
A sign of a quality trowel, one that can stand lots of use, is one whose wooden handle meets its metal blade in a strong and lasting manner so it won't bend or break, of course. Cheap ones employ a simple tang-and-ferrule design. The ferrule is the circular clamp that holds the blade to the handle, and the tang, or shank, is the part of the blade extending into and usually through the ferrule. After a while, the ferrule tends to loosen and rattle around on the trowel's shank. This statement is not to criticize all tang-and-ferrule attachments; good, solidly anchored ones exist and are sometimes even reinforced with rivets. The alternative is a one-piece metal trowel.
The one-piece metal trowels may send tiring shockwaves into your hands as you work and be icy cold to the touch, but clever manufacturers have solved this problem by coating the handle with rubber or PVC plastic. For other types, seek a smooth wooden handle so you don't get splinters or blisters. In any event, you should be able to squeeze the handle comfortably, with little stress to your wrist.
Some trowels have a hole drilled into the very top part of the handle, perhaps with a string or leather thong loop for hanging and storing the tool when it's not in use. Though this feature may seem frivolous, it can be a handy extra if you're the sort of person who needs to be reminded to bring your gardening tools indoors and clean them up after use. Another feature you may appreciate is a ruler stamped or etched into the blade — built-in rulers are helpful when you're planting various sorts of bulbs or other flowers that require varying planting depths.
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