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A spade being used to shift earth

The beginner's guide to garden spades, shovels, and forks

Spades, shovels, and forks are three of the most useful tools to have in your garden shed.

They are key for digging and preparing land for planting, which is known as "cultivating". On top of this, they can also help with a panoply of other jobs, including stripping grass, chopping up organic matter, and edging borders.

However, if you’re new to horticulture – the fancy word for gardening – it may not be obvious what separates the three. Indeed, the average person in the street probably couldn’t tell you the difference between a spade and a shovel. They may even become obstinate when you, after reading this article, explain and ultimately insist that they’re separate tools.

We’re getting ahead of ourselves.

To help you understand exactly how each tool is unique, as well as when and how to use them, we’ve prepared the following guide.

This guide has been written to be read from start to finish by a total beginner. So, if you’re already green-fingered and want to jump to a specific topic, click on whatever topic you’re looking for in the hyperlinked contents section below.

Contents

Garden spades, shovels, and forks at a glance

Garden spades, shovels, and forks are designed to do different (if sometimes similar) jobs:

  • A garden spade is made primarily for digging.
  • A shovel is perfect for moving material like soil, gravel, or sand around.
  • A fork will make breaking up clumps of material into smaller pieces so they're more easily spread.

Spades in more depth – they’re a little more complicated than you might think!

Typically, a spade has a short handle that is about four feet long and a flat, rectangular blade.

Since spades have sharp edges and shovels have rounded edges, you can use a spade more precisely than a shovel, giving you more control over where your blade goes.

Garden spades are used for light cultivation rather than earth moving. Cutting sod, reshaping beds, and creating deeper planting holes are all made easier by the blade's shape.

The handle's length makes it simple to use while knelt on the ground, and it also eases the strain on your back when lifting.

To make things a little bit more complicated, there are a few different types of spades to choose from.

Standard garden spade

A standard garden spade is best used to prepare beds and move a small amount of soil. The blades on these are rectangular. They work well for most tasks and make good all-purpose gardening tools.

Digging spade

These have wider blades than regular spades, otherwise they are identical. The wider blade is more efficient at moving earth and is useful for edging. Compared to standard spades, digging spades frequently have a more rounded cutting edge.

Transplanting spade

The narrow, elongated blade of a transplanting spade makes it simple to remove plant roots. The deep blade is also perfect for digging out established roots when moving plants.

Pointed spade

Instead of a flat cutting edge, these have a pointed one. Strong roots, rocky or clay soil, and other obstructions can be cut through more easily by the pointed end.

Border spade

A border spade maintains neat edges around beds and makes holes that are perfect for smaller plants. Although they are smaller and lighter, they resemble a standard or digging spade.

They are somewhat similar to edging irons.

Edging irons: The border spade’s cousin

Edging irons are also known as edging knives, edgers, edging tools, or garden edgers.

They are an essential part of any gardener’s toolkit. These curved tools are designed to create a nice edge along garden beds and paths. They can be used for digging out soil as well as cutting into hard, compacted earth. Edging irons come in different shapes and sizes, but they all have a long handle with an end that has been sharpened to cut into the ground easily.

Shovels in more depth – yes, they are different to spades!

The names spade and shovel are often used interchangeably, even in shops, so it’s no wonder people get confused!

Spades and shovels are similar, but there are some key differences that make each useful in different situations.

To put it simply, shovels move stuff and spades dig. If you want to dig a hole, choose a spade. If you need to move a pile of loose material, choose a shovel.

You may also notice that a spade tends to be straighter than a shovel from handle to blade tip. Whereas the shovel blade is usually angled forward, the spade blade is not.

A shovel typically has a long, straight handle that allows you to get plenty of leverage when digging deep holes. In contrast, a shorter shaft works best with a spade and comes in handy when working in tight spaces, such as a flowerbed. Many spades have a “T” or “DY” handle to give you more options for holding it.

While you can manage with only a shovel or a spade, your gardening will be more efficient and enjoyable if you have both.

A man digging into the soil with a spade

Garden forks in more depth

A garden fork can loosen and turn over soil in a manner similar to a spade. It can rake out stones and weeds and break up clods thanks to its tines (the technical term for its prongs), which also make it easier to push into the ground.

The powerful tines can cut through tough soils that a spade might struggle with. Or, before using a spade, the area can be prepared with the digging fork. In either case, using a digging fork will ease the strain on your body.

A garden fork being plunged into a vegetable patch

Materials available

Spades, shovels, and forks commonly have metal heads. Though, their handles come in three main options.

Fibreglass

Fibreglass tools the least expensive option. They are lightweight, which makes them easier to use – although this also makes them less durable and not as well suited for more heavy-duty tasks.

They do not conduct heat very well so they are not good for working in hot weather.

They can also splinter in a nasty way if not preoperly cared for or used.

Metal

Metal options have a longer life span than fibreglass tools - but they can be heavier and more expensive.

They also conduct heat better than fibreglass tools, so they might be a little tricky to use when working in particularly hot weather!

Wood

Wood is a great midpoint between the two previous options.

As well as being sturdier than fiberglass, it is more easy to replace and care for (we'd recommend treating it with linseed oil once a year).

However, wood is still cheaper and easier to manoeuvre than metal.

Top tips on how to use garden spades, shovels, and forks

Here are some top tips on how to use garden spades, shovels, and forks:

  • When you're moving soil, the blade should be positioned horizontally and parallel to the ground so you don't strain your arm or wrist by having to lift more material than necessary.
  • When digging into hard soil or clay, it's best to use your foot as leverage by kicking away from yourself rather than leaning down against gravity (which is what would happen if you were standing up). Once you've broken through that layer of dirt, move one foot forward so that both feet are now firmly planted in place as leverage for pushing deeper into whatever lies beneath it — and repeat!
  • When digging in rocky soil, be sure to wear gloves so that your hands aren't cut by sharp rocks and debris.
  • When digging holes, be sure to measure the depth and width of what you're doing so that it's uniform all around. When moving dirt around, use a wheelbarrow or cart to carry it from one place to another.
  • Make it a habit to always clean your tools after using them. It can be as easy as hosing down your shovels or using a clean rag to wipe the sap from your pruners. These quick tasks will keep your tools in top condition and ensure that they are prepared for use the following time.
A garden spade leaning against a shed

Conclusion

So there you have it – the beginner's guide to garden spades, shovels, and forks.

If you're just starting out in the world of gardening, these tools should be in your shed.

Just remember that they're not interchangeable: a garden spade is made primarily for digging, a shovel is perfect for moving material like soil, gravel, or sand around, and a fork will make breaking up clumps of material so it’s more easily spread.

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