When researching digging shovels for last week’s column, I discovered that selecting and using this simple utilitarian tool correctly is more complicated than I imagined. Here are just some of the things I learned.
Shovel lift: A shovel’s lift is very important. The lift is the angle formed between the handle and the ground when you place the blade flat on the ground. Low-lift shovels are best for vertical digging, such as digging up garden plants.
High-lift shovels work well for jobs involving lifting and moving soil out of holes, or for loading soil or other materials. This is because the higher angle allows the user to bend less when lifting materials, causing less strain on their back. Shovels with high lift also frequently have a more curved or cupped-up blade for making it easier to move materials.
Using a shovel: I have to admit that even though I am a lifelong gardener, I never learned how to use a straight handled shovel correctly. A critical part is picking a shovel with the correct lift for your size and frame.
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Select a shovel so that your arms are fully extended when the blade is straight up and down, when situated close to your feet. When you put your foot on the blade to push it into the soil, it should slice vertically into the soil, not at an angle. Then lower the handle to waist height and move your left hand down the handle while bending your knees. This allows you to lift using your knees instead of your back. After lifting the soil, you then simply rotate and dump it next to you, instead of lifting with your back and tossing it out of the hole. Take small slices of soil, rather than large ones that make the load heavier and leads to clods that will need breaking apart. To see this demonstrated, go to bit.ly/use_shovel.
Stamped, forged, stainless steel blades: Shovel blades are formed in different ways with types of materials. Your lower cost shovels tend to have weaker steel blades that are stamped out of metal. Shovel blades made from forged steel are typically thicker, stronger and heavier. The blade tends to stay sharper longer, and the shank that attaches the blade to the handle is sturdier. Stainless steel blades do not rust and are smoother, making it easier to cut into the soil, but they are usually not as strong as carbon steel blades.
Shovel blade points: Digging shovels generally have a rounded point. Shovels with square points are more useful for moving gravel, soil, mulch and compost from hard surfaces.
Closed and open backs: Better shovels have a closed back. Closed-back shovels have a plate welded to the back of the blade that provides additional strength and prevents soil from accumulating in the handle socket. Less expensive open-backed shovels do not have this covering.
Blade step: One thing I do know to look for on shovels is the step on the top of the blade where you situate your foot to push the blade in the soil. I find digging much easier and safer when a shovel’s step is generous with a raised tread.
There is so much more I could write about shovels, especially their handles, but I will let you research that on your own. Before buying a shovel, see if you like its feel and decide if it will work well for regular digging tasks. Even the most expensive shovel is not worth the investment because it is not a good fit.
Marianne C. Ophardt is a retired horticulturist for Washington State University Benton County Extension.