Articles by Bob Denman
The Right Shovel
A spade, we are told, is a spade, and not to be confused with a shovel.
The common garden spade, as it evolved in Europe and particularly in England, has a blade that is a rectangle.
The digging shovel so ubiquitous here in the U.S.A. has a blade shaped exactly like a spade. (Just compare your shovel, head up, to any deck of cards.)
Shapes aside, the primary difference between a spade and a shovel is its intended use.
The garden spade, with its long flat blade is used to prepare beds to an even depth by loosening and turning soil in place. A round point shove, being wide and deeply dished, is properly used to loosen, lift and deposit dirt elsewhere—into a pile or barrow. It does best digging big holes.
Yes, you can use a shovel for spading or a spade for shoveling, but you sacrifice efficiency.
Not all round point shovels are the same. Knowing a little about their differences can help you select the one that is right for you.
When selecting a shovel, pick one with a size that fits your body, a lift and crank that suits your usual tasks, and one that is well made. (You’re wondering what all this means, right? Read on.)
First, size. Once, round point shovels came in many sizes: 0, 00, 1, 2, 3, 4, and so on. Today only the four smallest – 0 through 2 – are made, of which the No. 2 (with a head of about 9”x12”) is most common. The only No. 4 I have ever seen is in the historical collection at Rancho Los Alamitos in Long Beach. Paul Bunyan must have worked there. The thing is huge!
If you’re small, shy of muscle or working in very close spaces, pick a small headed no. 1 (81/2”x11”), No. 00 (7”x9”) or No. 0 (6”x71/2”). Otherwise, go with a No. 2. (By the way, all head sizes are approximate and vary among manufacturers.)
The standard handle-length on shovels is 48”. If you’re tall, try to get one with a 54” handle. The longer tool will provide more leverage and reduce back strain.
Shovels vary widely in lift, the angle formed between the handle and the ground when the head is placed flat on the ground. Irrigation shovels, like spades, are used for turning and have almost no lift. Fire-fighting shovels, which are very pointed, have a generous 45’degree lift. (They are used for scooping and throwing dirt and for bashing embers.)
Choose a shovel with enough lift for you to comfortably grasp the handle with your arms fully extended while driving the blade vertically in the ground.
Crank refers to the radius of the shovel’s neck as it curves up from the blade to envelop the handle. The crank varies the height of the handle. Two shovels can have the same lift and different cranks. The one with more crank will be more suitable if you have long arms, and vice versa.
Finally, a word about quality. I recommend forged shovels. They can last a lifetime, will hold their sharpened edge, and the heads won’t bend, split or snap. Hollow back shovels, the most common type, are so called because they are fashioned out of a single piece of thin sheet steel. At the neck, where the forged shovel is solid and strong, the hollow back is, well, hollow. And weak. And liable to bend or fracture.
Keep your shovel sharp and free of rust. Keep the handle sanded and oiled. The tool will reward you by being the most efficient earthmover it can be.
Here are Some Tips For Using and Choosing a Broadfork.
If you have a moderately dense soil and beds of moderate width, I would suggest the following:
- If you want to loosen deeply—say, 14 to 16 inches—I would go with a four tine broadfork of corresponding tine length.
- If you are going to loosen shallowly—say, 10 to 14 inches—you might choose a tool with fine tines.
- If you loosen only six to 10 inches, you could use a wider tool with more tines—say, a 30-inch wide fork with 8 tines of appropriate length.
Generally speaking, the wider the tool, the shorter the tines. The deeper you go, the fewer the tines.
When using a broadfork, technique is everything. Dig a foot wide trench across the end of the bed and work backward in two to four-inch spits, driving the tines straight into the earth then pulling back to loosen the spit and pushing forward to deposit it on the far side of the trench, then dragging the fork back another two to four inches, repeat the same process. If you have highly amended sandy loam you can take a four to six-inch spit.
When making your decision, consider—in addition to your soil type and bed width:
- Soil moisture and compaction.
- Season and day lengths (There’s no need to till way deeper than any plant roots will penetrate in a season.)
- Personal size and strength. A four tine broadfork with 16 inch tines weighs in at 25 pounds. A 30-inch wide tool with 12 inch tines can weigh upwards of 40 pounds.
- Presence and size of field rocks and/or roots of trees and shrubs.
It is better to start with a manageable tool and move to a bigger one as your skill develops than it is to start with a behemoth that discourages.