Shovel: A Garden Must-Have

The shovel is one of the most useful, and perhaps most used, gardening tools.
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Garden Fashion

Garden Fashion

Today's shovels are made with a variety of materials and come in many colors.

Generally speaking, there are two types of shovels: the round point and the square point. Paul James suggests owning one of each because they are designed to perform different tasks. The round point tends to cut through soil better and faster, so it's used more for conventional tasks like digging up beds, preparing planting holes and turning compost. The square-point shovel is great for scraping and lifting sod or soil, finishing border edges and even light-duty scooping. But there's far more to shovels than meets the eye, especially in terms of their construction.

At first glance, these two shovels may look a lot alike, but look closely at the blades. The shovel with a stamped steel blade, often referred to as an open-backed blade, costs around $20. It is fine for light-duty digging, but it won't hold up well or long under a lot of pressure. Incidentally, the hollow point where the steel is pinched together is called the frog. A shovel forged from a single sheet of steel makes it considerably stronger and twice as expensive. Because it's forged, there's no need for a frog.

How the blade attaches to the handle varies from shovel to shovel. The section connecting the blade to the handle is referred to as the tang.

  • On an inexpensive shovel, the handle is forced into a portion of steel rolled to create a tang.
  • Mid-priced shovels typically have a longer tang for greater strength, and the handle is bolted to it or secured with a ring.
  • The best shovels have the longest tang of all, which may extend halfway up the handle and is then custom-fitted, bolted and or sealed to the tang.

For a long time, most shovel handles were — and continue to be — made from wood, specifically ash because of its strength and flexibility. Hickory is used as an alternative to ash. Fiberglass handles have all the flexibility of wood but are much stronger and more weather resistant. "Most of my shovels and gardening tools have wooden handles," says James, "but I must admit that I'm getting more and more attached to fiberglass handles, especially now that they come in designer colors."

Shovels are available in all handle lengths with different types of grips, blades and blade sizes. James' favorite shovel is a tree-digging spade because it's rugged, heavy duty and made for serious shoveling.

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