Good Shovels Make Good Gardens — Digging Deep for Fitness


garden tool set

Brook & Hunter stainless steel garden tools fine enough for Christmas gifts -- prices in carousel below.

This summer, instead of the running program I’d planned to do, I shifted to building a mound garden with a round point shovel. Four or five days a week I spent an hour or two at manual labor instead of physical training, thinking I’d have to sacrifice distance running in order to grow my own food. As it turns out, gardening through manual labor helped both pursuits. Although I didn’t run as often, I made better progress at it than when I had more time for running training. Yesterday I ran a half marathon for the first time in several years and it actually went very well, even though my time is way off what I did in the 70’s. Apparently shoveling often and running a long run once or twice a month suits me.

To my surprise, manual labor simulation has recently become popular in many urban gyms. A few decades ago in the foundry where I shoveled sand into molds and busted up ingots with a sledgehammer, we’d joke about telling people it was a health spa and charging them to do the work. People now pay for the privilege of swinging a sledgehammer at an old tire, under a trainer’s supervision. From what I’ve seen of that, neither coach nor participant know much about sledgehammers. From the point of view of someone who has swung a sledge professionally, they’re going about it all wrong, concentrating on force rather than control, and not even doing the forceful part right. Manual labor isn’t easy and takes much more than brute strength, although brute strength does help. Any form of manual art takes practice, attention and refined skills.

You don’t have to be expert with a shovel to break up the layers of deep earth that tillers never reach, but if you know the fundamentals the work goes much easier. In some places the shovel is the wrong tool for this — if your garden spot is rocky hard clay, like the spot I grew vegetables on in the Ozarks, you need a good pick to break the ground and a shovel to rearrange it. The deep clay here in Indiana cuts easily with a round point shovel and you seldom find anything worse than a pebble in it. Once you break through the sod and the tree roots, something that requires an axe or mattock now and then, you can dig as deep as you want to go. I’m tempted to dig a root cellar sometime, just for the fun of it.  Hand tools might be slower at some things, but they don’t fill the air with exhaust and noise and they don’t limit your ideas. With power tools you’re constantly faced with not being able to do something outside the scope of the tool. With hand tools there’s almost always a way.

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I suppose the garden might be at the stage where a true garden spade with a rectangular blade might work well for turning and chopping the topsoil, but I probably will stay with my favorite tool, the long-handled round point, instead. You can get all sorts of garden shovels, and most of them aren’t worth much even if they are priced high, made by companies that know their customers don’t actually use them more than once. The best shovels for real work are the old designs with carbon steel blades and wooden handles. Anything with a hollow fiberglass handle or a plastic grip seldom lasts long if used for hard jobs. When I worked at Sears where all the fiberglass-handled yard tools were guaranteed, people brought back broken fiberglass-handled shovels by the cart-load and we handed out new ones at no charge. When they stopped bringing them back broken, you knew they went to a hardware store and bought a good shovel with a wooden handle. You seldom break those.

ridgid long handle shovel

My personal favorite for gardening and tunneling to China, the Ridgid 52300 Round Point.

Some modern shovel designs do hold up pretty well but don’t offer the comfort of the traditional tools. The Fiskars shovel features a one-piece build, the blade and handle both of strong steel and the handle softened a little bit with a rubberized grip. The Bully Tools shovel uses fiberglass with a wood core, an idea that should hold up much better than the  “unbreakable” hollow fiberglass that folds like a soda straw. The true advantage might be in weather resistance, because you could leave either of those tools in the garden overnight and not loosen the handle up. Wooden handles swell and shrink with changes in moisture, so a good soaking with dew can cause definite problems. Store the old wood-handled tools in a shed out of the weather and they’ll last for decades, though. Quirky as they may be, wooden handles always feel better to me, with the right amount of shock absorbance and a surface that wears slick and smooth with use. Metal handles deliver all the shock to your hands, and both metal and fiberglass tear blisters like crazy.

If you want a set of garden tools for display as well as work, you can now buy full-sized working tools in stainless steel, made by companies such as Brook & Hunter or Spear & Jackson. That seems partly like a good functional idea to me, since the stainless steel won’t rust and cake up with dirt as easily as a carbon steel shovel. If you take care of your tools and clean them after use, you won’t have that problem even with carbon steel. A dirty shovel weighs much more than it ought to weigh and won’t cut cleanly through soil. Clean tools that shed dirt make the job much easier, so taking care of your equipment pays off. The real draw about stainless steel tools is the appearance, not the performance. If you like tools, these are good enough for the wall. You might not want to get them dirty.

Spear & Jackson makes traditional T-handle Irish spades of ash and carbon steel. If you plan to do a lot of work by hand, you can trust the spade that evolved to fit the hand labor of the Irish farmer. Any faults were designed out ages ago. I like Spear & Jackson’s newest model, the E-spade, much less. Made with a steel stirrup welded to the blade to allow center foot pressure, the spade prevents the heel stomp that I depend upon to drive a blade through roots and sod. To me it’s a pretty shovel and interesting, but in most ways an accident waiting to happen.

If all you want is exercise, Rheinhard Engels recommends the Shovelglove, the air version of manual labor. Mr. Engels developed the Shovelglove by wrapping a sledgehammer’s working end in an old sweater and simply going through the motions of hard work. This does make me laugh, but I see some sense in his idea. I think personally I’ll stick with the mound gardening. Air vegetables don’t have much flavor.

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