Four Digging Tools

All gardening begins with soil preparation. Shovels, spades, forks, and hoes are just some of the tools used to shape beds, loosen the earth, mix in soil amendments, and prepare seed beds.

SHOVELS AND SPADES
These two digging tools are often confused. A look at the blade will readily distinguish the two. Shovels have blades bent at a distinct angle from the handle, and these blades are deeply dished and often round or pointed. Shovels are used for digging and moving soil from one place to another. Spades, on the other hand, have blades that are more in line with the handle, and tend to be flat and square edged. Spades are excellent for slicing sod, for dividing daylilies, and for creating root balls when transplanting a tree. If you aren’t sure whether to call a tool a shovel or a spade, try lifting up a scoop of soil and holding the handle at a 30° angle to see whether the soil falls off the blade. If the blade is level, you have a shovel.

There are hundreds of different shovels and spades. Many are named for thei r use, such as the transplanting spade or the floral shovel. Both shovels and spades can be long or short handled. The long handle provides greater leverage and saves your back. Short handles allow you to work in tighter places. Even short handles should be long enough to come up to your waist, unless you plan to use ihe tool while down on your knees.

Both spades and shovels should be kept sharp. Use a 10-inch bastard mill file (the term “bastard” refers to its coarseness, not its parentage) to keep your edge keen. A single bevel along the edge of the tool will make it slice through the soil more easily. The edge doesn’t have to be razor sharp, but the few minutes spent restoring the blade’s edge will be paid back amply.

FORKS
There are many types of forks, from hay forks to manure forks. The ones that are used for digging in a garden are the spading fork, the English (or garden) fork, and the broadfork. The first of these, the spading fork, may well be the most versatile of garden tools, for it can be used for digging, for mixing in organic matter, for dividing plants, and for turning compost piles. The spading fork is only 150 years old, and its four diamond-backed tines are made from an alloy that provides both strength and springiness. The older English fork, whose four tines are square instead of triangular in cross section, is not quite as resilient but is still a favorite of many gardeners. Neither the spading fork nor the English fork should be used to pry out rocks, because once bent, the tines are virtually impossible to realign.

Spading forks and English forks typically have a short handle with a D-grip or a Y-grip. The broad fork, by contrast, has two long handles. These handles are connected to a crossbar from which project a series of tines. Because of its shape, it is also called the U-bar digger. It is a tool designed for loosening the soil without turning it or disturbing the natural soil strata. Stepping on the crossbar drives the 10-inch tines into the ground; pulling back on the two handles then gently lifts and breaks the soil open. It is a good tool for stirring and aerating the soil in raised beds that are already well amended and weed free.

THE HOE
The oldest hoes of all are the so-called eye hoes. These are serious digging tools. With a heavy blade and a long handle, they are swung over the head into the ground. The term eye hoe refers to the heavy socket or “eye” through which the handle passes. Eye hoes still exist—the pickax, mattock, and grub hoe are all examples—and are used for breaking new ground.

 When it comes to the lighter task of shaping a garden bed and creating furrows, most gardeners turn to one of the more modern hoes that have a swan-neck design. These are lighter tools not meant to be swung over the head but rather held in two hands in front of the body. Their blades differ depending on their use. A basic garden hoe may have a blade six inches long by four inches wide. The Warren hoe has a heart-shaped head, with a point perfect for opening furrows. These hoes are both known as draw hoes, since they are pulled or drawn toward the user. There are also push hoes, intended to be wielded in the opposite direction, but these are better suited for weeding than for moving earth.

Most hoes have long handles. To be used comfortably, the handle should reach between a person’s shoulder and nose when held upright. Many of the models being sold today are long enough for a person of average height, but require a taller person to work with a partially, and ultimately painfully, bent back.

Keeping a handle in good condition is also important. Metal and fiberglass handles are the strongest, but many gardeners prefer the feel of wood in their hands. The trick is to keep the wood from becoming dry, weathered, and splintery. Sanding and oiling with linseed oil is often recommended, but it is far easier simply to remember to take a tool indoors when you are finished with it. Tool handles that are not exposed to the elements don’t deteriorate. The natural oils from human skin are sufficient to replenish the wood, and a tool that is indoors is not rusting, being driven over, or getting misplaced.

As eager as gardeners may be to turn under a cover crop in the spring, it is important to wait until the soil has dried out enough to be safely worked. Stirring the soil when it is saturated will ruin its natural texture, producing a “puddled” mud more suited to brickmaking than raising plants. Wait until a squeezed handful of soil breaks apart easily when poked, and then you can get out your tools and dig into the new season.

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