Twenty five years ago I was seduced by the idea that it is possible to have Better Sight Without Glasses and Better Gardens Without Digging. I’m still wearing glasses and still digging. The truth is I like digging. Apart from the practical necessity of digging holes to plant, one of the pleasures of gardening is sinking a spade into the soil, turning it over and rhythmically repeating the exercise until you have a clean fresh bed and satisfying aches. Back ache perhaps; back pain no. A good spade, properly used should provide all the satisfaction of digging with no pain.
The primary consideration in avoiding dangerous digging is the length of the spade’s shaft. For most people the typical handle length of 70 – 72cm is adequate, but if you are over 1.7m tall you need a spade with a longer one. The trick is not to have to bend as you push the spade into the soil, then to bend your knees and use the leverage of the handle to turn the soil. Keep your back straight all the time and you will end up with great thighs and biceps, not a bad back.
If you have heavy soil you can lighten the load by using a border spade. These have smaller blades and therefore carry less weight. They used to be known quaintly as ‘ladies’ spades’ or ‘youths’ spades’.
The best blades are made of stainless steel. They slip into even heavy clay soils much more easily than the more common carbon steel blades and can be wiped clean. Carbon steel spades should be regularly sharpened and cleaned after using to prevent the blade rusting. Gardening apprentices were always taught to clean their spade by pushing them into a large bucket of oil and sharp sand. Top of the range professional spades have a flattened tread at the top of the blade to make pushing the spade into the soil easier.
A wooden shaft, usually ash, is more comfortable to use in cold weather but will inevitably break one day. If you don’t want the bother of burning off the old handle to replace it choose a spade with a metal or plastic handle. The most common type is ‘D’ shaped but if you garden wearing gloves to avoid blisters or have large hands they can be uncomfortable, so opt for a ‘T’ shaped handle. Keep your hands clean and free from soil when digging to reduce the friction that is one of the causes of blisters.
In most of the rest of Europe gardeners use a long-handled pointed shovel in place of a spade. When I first started gardening in France I was very sniffy about the unsophisticated shovel and stuck firmly to my spade. When I eventually went native and started using one I was very impressed by the shovel’s ease of use and efficiency. The pointed end slips into the soil easily and the very long handle provides lots of leverage. They are difficult to find in Britain, but if you ever have the opportunity, do try one and feel the difference.