In the garden with Felder: Calling a spade a spade

August 11, 2018 10:05:30 PM

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Call me hard core, but these old muscles appreciate the differences between my shovel and spade. I just special-ordered a new handmade wooden handle for my great-grandmother's heirloom garden spade. No amount of duct tape was keeping the much-used, cracked one together. 

 

While replacing the broken one, I pondered insights passed on to me by longtime friend Roger Swain, the red-suspendered last host of the "Victory Garden" program, on the subtle design features of modern digging implements.  

 

Yeah, that's what old hands-on horticulturists natter about behind the scenes. But it may be interesting to you, too.  

 

For eons there was little difference stylistically between our using Neolithic animal bones or equally one-size-fits-all Iron Age metal tools. But then 1890s engineer and business theorist Frederick Winslow Taylor applied ergonomic science to save money through improved worker efficiency, creating innovative adjustments in size and shape of digging tool blades and handles for different types of work.  

 

Where blades of true spades are typically flat and wide with squared-edge cutting tips for more efficient digging, cutting roots and edging, most shovel heads are scooped like spoons for holding more stuff without it sliding off the sides. They're often rounded and pointed for easier biting into loose materials. 

 

Most blades now have a straight, reinforced shoulder called the step which helps your feet do some of the hard labor, reducing back and shoulder stress and ensuring the foot stays on the top end rather than slipping off and cutting your ankle on the way down.  

 

First chance you get, look closely at the business end of your digging tool. It'll have two subtle but important features at the top of the blade called the collar. More than just a stronger connection to the handle, the collar can angle slightly upward from the blade; this "lift" helps keep your load more level with the ground rather than sliding off the end. And its long neck probably has a slight curve, called the crank, which when you are digging makes the handle lean slightly forward, helping you pull back farther with less stress on your back. 

 

Nowadays we unconsciously take for granted how digging with a longer handle gives extra leverage, while scooping and moving stuff is easier with a shorter handle and a good grip. Yet choosing the right one, with or without a D or T shaped grip, can help prevent throwing your whole body out of whack.  

 

Who knew all this, right? But picking up the best one for the job is like setting down the potato salad spoon before grabbing a cake serving knife before slicing dessert; both are better than just using fingers, but each has its place. 

 

As I get older I'm preferring tools with smaller, lighter blades, which are less efficient but easier to work without raising my heart rate. But I still use both a shovel and a spade for different jobs. When I have to move loose stuff I grab my long-handled shovel with its deep scoop and slight lift; for digging dirt or edging I use my great-grandmother's better-balanced, small but still-serviceable "border" spade with its short handle and D grip.  

 

Either one, it only takes a couple of minutes with a flat file to sharpen the edge for a smoother, easier job. The sharp edge, coupled with the Victorian innovations of scoop, crank and lift, mean it's no longer a fact of life that I have to wake up sore the next day.  

 

My great-grandmother's still-used antique spade is a modern muscle saver. With its new handle protected by regular linseed oiling it should last another century. 

 

Felder Rushing is a Mississippi author, columnist, and host of the "Gestalt Gardener" on MPB Think Radio. Email gardening questions to [email protected]