When it comes to shovels and spades, the mystery is knowing which is which. The blade of a shovel has a deep bowl shape with a rounded edge and pointed tip, all the better for breaking up and lifting soil. A spade has a flat blade with a straight blunt edge used for slicing through roots and sliding horizontally under piled earth.
The pointed tip at the business end of a shovel tells us this tool is for serious digging. The point penetrates compacted soil and is just what I need for digging deep holes for fence posts, trees and shrubs. A good shovel has an edge on the shoulders of the blade, on either side of the shaft, about 0.5-centimetres wide, making a flat footrest. If you're digging in heavy clay, these edges let you step down on the shoulder to drive the tip through layers of prehistoric hard stuff without hurting the sole of your foot.
The flat blade of a spade is what I want when moving a pile of earth or sand. The blade slides under material efficiently and cleanly. The blunt edge can be driven vertically downward into root-congested soil, creating a happy snapping sound as roots are freed for easier digging. A blunt spade is also a clever tool for moving sections of healthy lawn. First use the front edge of the spade to shallowly cut through turf grass, outlining strips of sod. Then push the blade horizontally under the strips, which can then be lifted, rolled and transported. A spade is my preferred tool for edging beds and does a much better job than the traditional half-moon edging tool.
Shaft length is crucial to getting the best performance from shovels and spades, and will save your back, too. Spade work is suited to a short-shafted tool, while the long shaft of a shovel reduces bending and relieves stress on arm and back muscles from heavier work.
Spade blades can be sharpened with a mill bastard file or professionally honed at the hardware store for razor-ease movement through soil. But if you're attracted by all that glitters, like my friend Stephen, beware the carriage-trade blades of stainless steel-they won't take a sharp edge.