Using Shovels and Trowels
in the Garden

Dig It

One of the earliest tools that prehistoric humanoids used was apparently a sharpened stick for digging. Even before Homo sapiens began fiddling around with the plant world and growing crops near the cave, instead of having to go off on long journeys to forage and collect their food, they and their earlier relatives were using sticks to unearth edible tubers and roots. Modern versions of the sharpened stick are still useful. Nursery owners and others have perfected the dibble by making its handle more ergonomic and sometimes even giving it a durable metal point, and it is an invaluable tool for making holes in the soil to plant seeds, small plants, or bulbs.

If you needed to make a larger hole, a wider tool was of course more useful. Early diggers shaped and sharpened tree branches to increase their utility and learned to use shells alone or attached to a handle. Wooden shovels or spades that resemble present day versions were in use during the Bronze Age. The greatest advances came when forged steel became more available, though, and the modern shovel was born. The invention didn’t stop there, and today the variety of shapes and sizes of shovels has never been greater.

Indispensable for general digging is the round point shovel. This version has a concave blade that is rounded at the bottom in a simple curve, or more commonly, curving broadly and ending in a point. The top of the blade is often bent or reinforced to provide good purchase for the foot. In friable soil, it can scoop out a hole that is just under one foot in depth and about nine inches wide. The long handles are typically lathe-turned hardwood, but newer versions feature strong and durable fiberglass and bring the total length of the shovel to about five feet. The best shovels for digging will have hardened steel blades ground to a sharp cutting edge similar to kitchen knives.

Let’s face it, digging holes is hard work, but specialty shovels abound to facilitate any project. If you don’t need to dig a hole a full nine inches wide, there is a narrow version of the round point shovel, called a trenching shovel, with a blade half that wide. It is perfect for digging trenches for electrical or plumbing lines. It is also perfect for repairing the same lines without disturbing the surrounding landscape unduly.

Sometimes the concave blade of a regular shovel just doesn’t do the job. Flat-bladed shovels are also common and very useful for a variety of jobs. They are the same general size as a round point shovel, but with a flat blade that has a squared-off bottom. At the handle end of the blade, a slight upturn creates more carrying capacity and one of the logical uses for this type of shovel is scooping up sand, soil, or other materials from a flat surface. It also gives a good vertical cut to holes in the ground; useful when setting fence posts or other hardscape elements like bender board or other borders.

Another class of digging implements has shorter handles that end in a perpendicular grip. Flat-bladed or with rounded points, spades are sometimes easier to use for shorter people. The hand grip is also easier for some folks, but, in general, a long-handled shovel will do all the same jobs and be easier on the back. Spading forks are also used by some gardeners. Instead of a flat or concave blade, they have four or five flat tines. They are especially useful for loosening and aerating the soil. Again, long-handled versions that provide more leverage can be found.

Another short-handled version has an oversized blade. This one resembles a flat-bladed shovel, except that the blade is about 19 inches long, 15 inches wide and is proportionately deeper. The blade is usually made of lightweight aluminum and is for moving large amounts of lightweight materials. Use it to scoop dry leaves, straw, or other organic materials into the compost heap. If you use pumice or perlite in large quantities to make your own soil mix, this is the scooper for you.

And then there are the smaller versions of these tools. The classic is the trowel. Plasterers and bricklayers have their own kinds of trowels (that might have uses in the garden), but the gardening version is a hand tool with a steel or aluminum blade. The blade is concave, but more narrowly rounded than a round point shovel. Its uses are myriad: planting small plants or bulbs, mixing in small amounts of soil amendments, prying up those stubborn weeds, scooping fertilizer out of bags, and so on.

Miniature spading forks make working the soil on a small scale a breeze. These have several flat tines and a handle, sized just for your hand, in line with the fork. Another version of this cultivator has tines that are bent 90 degrees off the plane of the handle (a long-handled version of this is one of my favorite tools to prepare seed beds). Use either one to scratch up the soil before broadcasting fertilizer or seed in small areas or loosening soil around weeds before pulling them. You’ll find other uses, too.

One last hand tool that has its roots in the shovel tradition is the bulb planter. Despite its name, it is also useful for removing small plugs of soil to plant seedling plants or to drop pelletized fertilizer into the root zone of potted plants such as water lilies, too. This tool is a tapered cylinder of steel attached to a hand grip. Bulb planters are typically about 4 inches in diameter and tapered so that once you push the tool into the soil and give it a twist, the plug of soil will remain in the tube as you pull it back up. Inexpensive versions have a serrated cutting edge, while others are made of hardened steel and have a ground cutting edge like good quality shovels.

Virginia Hayes, curator of Ganna Walska Lotusland, will answer your gardening questions. Address them to Gardens, The Independent, 122 W. Figueroa St., S.B., CA 93101. Send email to


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