How do you know whether to buy a shovel, a spade, a fork, or all three? The decision depends primarily on what kind of garden soil you have (heavy clay is difficult to work; sandy or light soil is easy to work) and what kind of gardening you do (digging trenches, turning over garden soil, scooping up sawdust, or all of these).
Shovels can be used for both digging and lifting, although they are primarily designed for lifting loose soil or other materials. If you’re moving lightweight materials such as sawdust, a wide-scoop shovel is best; if you’re working with concrete, use a strong squarenose shovel. A roundpoint garden shovel is good for digging in average garden soil, and is the best type to buy for general use.
If you aren’t particularly strong, select a small, pointed shovel or narrow spade. That way you won’t have to lift so much soil each time—and when you get tired of digging, you may find that the smaller shovel just fits child-size hands, as well.
Cutting and digging in heavy soil is best accomplished with a spade. The spade is designed not only to cut soil but also (because of its square nose and flat blade) to dig straight-sided, flat-bottomed trenches and to remove a layer of sod.
There are basically two types of forks: garden forks and pitchforks. Garden forks have thick, heavy tines and are used to turn over soil. Pitchforks have lighter, longer tines and are used to move light, loose material.
Select a garden fork rathern than a shovel or spade to dig in gravelly soil or in very good garden soil (soil with lots of organic matter). It penetrates the soil and breaks up clods better than a shovel or spade.
Handles on shovels, spades, and forks come in two types: long and straight, or short with a D-shape grip. When you use tools with long, straight handles, you can dig deeper holes without having to do much bending, and you can throw soil farther, when necessary. Shorter, D-shape tools give you more control and are good for delicate work, such as working around tree roots or dividing perennial plants. They are also good for digging trenches and for working in close quarters, such as in a greenhouse or against the side of a house or tree where your digging is crowded. In addition, they fit well in the trunk of your car for camping trips.
The wood on handles normally comes from ash or hickory, both of which are strong and lightweight. The handles on cheaper tools may be made from Douglas fir, which is not as strong or resilient. Before you buy, have the salesperson check the catalogs and confirm the type of wood used.
The strongest, lightest handles are made of fiberglass. These are excellent to use and last a long time.
A few shovels have handles of rolled (tubular) steel, but these are heavy, expensive, and designed primarily for use in nurseries.
On shovels and pitchforks, the length of the handles generally ranges from 40 to 48 inches. The handles are slightly tapered, for comfort in handling.
Spades and garden forks frequently have D-handles, which range in length from 26 to 30 inches. Some D-handles are made of wood that is wrapped in metal; some are all wood; and some (the cheapest) have a plastic or light metal alloy handle attached to the wood. However, this will not hold up under extensive use.
The best D-handles are manufactured in this way: First the wood is split at the top; then it is steamed to become flexible; and, finally, it is placed in molds to be shaped. Then the wood grip is glued and riveted to the frame. Some heavy-duty models are further reinforced with a wood filler in the Y of the handle.
One variation on the D-handle is the T-head. This style is good for large or small hands that don’t fit comfortably around a D-handle.
Blades and Tines
The blades of shovels and spades can be constructed with open backs or closed backs. The open back is the cheapest and most common. The blade is stamped out of a single sheet of metal, and the back of the socket is left open to be fitted around the handle. This method of construction requires a crimp (the frog) on the face of the blade below the socket to provide additional rigidity. The back of the blade is correspondingly hollow at this point.
The closed back is more expensive and sturdier. It is forged rather than stamped. Its seamless socket fully encloses a fitted handle. The blade is so strong that no reinforcing frog is required. This type of shovel or spade is often made out of high-carbon steel or steel and manganese for greater strength.
The gauge is a measure of the thickness of the metal. The smaller the number, the thicker and more expensive the tool. Although the forged-steel spade is more expensive, if given proper care it can be handed down to your grandchildren.
Because spades are used to pry and lift heavy sod, soil, or rocks, they are made with heavier construction than most shovels. When you buy a spade, select one that has a long socket for additional strength.
As with shovels and spades, in a good-quality fork the tines and socket are forged from a single piece of steel. Cheaper forks use the tang-and-ferrule system, which will not hold up as long as a socket.
The cutting edge of shovels, spades and forks comes in different sizes and shapes, each with its own purposes.
The blade of a shovel can be pointed, rounded, or square. Pointed shovels are primarily for digging. Square-nosed shovels are used for moving loose materials. Rounded blades or round blades with slight points are general-purpose shovels used for both digging and lifting.
A general-purpose garden shovel is about 8 to 9 inches wide. The wider the blade, the more material you can move—but the more strength you will need. If you are among those less physically inclined, choose a shovel with 6-inch-wide blades. These are excellent for digging narrow trenches, such as those for underground sprinkler lines. The blade width varies only slightly in spades.
The cant, or angle of the blade in relation to the handle, depends on the purpose. Because of its straight line, a shovel with little or no cant is excellent for digging holes but not so good for scraping up loose earth (to make the blade lie flat on the ground, you would have to bend over uncomfortably).
A shovel with more cant provides better leverage when you’re prying up heavy earth. However, it is awkward to dig straight down with a high-cant shovel—you have to hold the handle at some distance from you in order to keep the blade perpendicular to the ground.
Most garden forks have four tines, but the heads differ slightly in width and length. The wider and longer the head, the deeper you can dig. But the deeper you dig, the more difficult each shovelful is to lift. So choose the size of your fork with your own strength in mind.
The tines on garden forks also differ slightly according to their purpose. Heavy-duty garden forks, sometimes called English digging forks, have tines with a square cross section that provide increased strength. Select this heavy-duty fork if your soil is rocky or contains much heavy clay. The more commonly-available garden fork has tines with a triangular cross section. It is strong enough for most purposes, but the tines may bend with heavy use.