March 3, 2011

Tools of the Garden Trade-part 4- Shovels

Ah, the lowly shovel. So many people have them in their tool sheds, and probably have just one for all uses.As with so many tools, there is the perfect tool for almost any job, and rarely does one shovel do everything. There are shovels with very long handles and very narrow blades for drainage ditches, and short, stout spades for working in close quarters. Knowing a little about each type can greatly assist in digging  holes or removing plants or cultivating soil. 

Wide array of shovels

cap rock shovels aka root spades

There are numerous features of any shovel to consider when buying one. The handle material will greatly affect the cost and utility of a shovel. Some of the solid core or metal handled shovels can cost $ 60 or more, whereas the hickory handled tools of the local garden center may be $ 20. Extra long handled shovels and spades are used for digging very deep holes, or for root-pruning a tree. These spades are made of a steel that can be sharpened easily and often. Cultivating shovels or forks are made of a harder steel that resist wear when digging through rocky soil. The common point-tip spade is useful for digging holes in softer soil, but works even better when a sharp edge is filed or ground into the cutting edge. Square point shovels are often used as scoops, lifting sod, or edging beds, in addition to digging in very soft soil. Also consider your own size and strength; a 6 foot professional gardener will need a different shovel for a task than a 5 foot occasional gardener would. One item to note: shovels are not pry bars, although they frequently are used as one. The idea is that a sharp shovel blade with a long handle is used to cut roots or dig something up, not to lever it out of the ground under heavy stress. Pry bars are a far heavier steel and are perfect for levering a plant out of the ground once the roots are cut.

For digging in the very rocky coral soil in Miami, we prefer a rock spade with a very heavy solid handle. Locally these are called Pony shovels, cap rock shovels, or root spades depending on the area of town. These shovels can weigh 20 pounds, and are effective in cutting into and through the coral rocks in this area. Some shovels have very short handles, useful for digging underneath bushes and small trees while you work on the ground. One of the most frequent mistakes is that people will stand in one place and stab the ground with a shovel, trying to penetrate the ground. This is a lot of trouble, and causes a lot of stress on your wrists and shoulders. It is far more effective to place the shovel where you want to dig, and step solidly on the shoulder of the blade. Lift the soil out of the hole, and repeat, step by step until you finish the task. It is equally important to bend your knees when lifting soil or plants, and take the lifting strain off your lower back.

Many old-time growers will retire their shovels in the inactive season by wiping the shovel blade and any metal parts with heavy oil, then hanging up the tool for the season. This is an excellent tactic, useful in any climate for almost any digging tool. As with most tools, the right tool for the task + some careful instructions = success and less stress. 

Craig Morell
Pinecrest Gardens   

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