Gardening Articles: Edibles :: Vegetables

The Inside Scoop on Shovels

by David Lyon


Shovels (left) and spades are both useful garden tools

The shovel is perhaps the best multiuse tool in our garden sheds. Dig a trench, turn over some sod for a new garden patch, make cement, move a pile of manure, compost, gravel or sand--nothing is so essential in these basic tasks as a well-worn shovel. It's so familiar that hardly anyone thinks about how it works. But let's take a closer look.

To American gardeners, a shovel means a round-point, cupped, steel blade attached to a four-foot handle. The tool evolved into its present form for railroad construction in the mid-19th century.

European gardeners hardly recognize such a tool--their traditional digging implement is a short-handled spade with a nearly flat blade.

Both tools have solid garden roles, but each is designed for different tasks. The straight edge of a spade is for cutting. It can't be beat for lines that are true and smooth-sided trenches. (The word is related to the Greek word for sword.) With its short handle, a spade is well suited for work in confined spaces--down near the ground or among plants. A shovel is shaped to lift and toss earth or gravel. (It's a linguistic cousin of "scoop.") The long handle lets you work standing erect and increases the reach of your throw. Many Americans, however, use the word "shovel" indiscriminately to mean either a shovel or a spade.

How a Shovel Works

The shovel consists of three tools in one: a handle (lever) and a cutting blade (inclined plane) formed on the leading edge of a scoop. The blade cuts into the soil by concentrating muscle power or weight onto the sharp point. The handle provides leverage for lifting or prying the soil. The fulcrum for the lever action is the surface of the soil when the blade is inserted for digging. When you dig, you first cut and then pry. The longer the handle, the greater the leverage.

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