The word "spade" appears in our language with many different meanings. There is the spade that appears as a suit in a deck of cards. When referring to something very plainly and frankly, you might say, "Let's call a spade a spade." Or informally, to imply plenty of something, it would be: you need it in spades. In the tool industry a particular type of bit is called a spade bit. Lastly, there is a spade or spade shovel, traced back in time through Italian history, in Latin (spatha), Greek and Old Middle English. This common garden tool is what is most familiar to us.
Gardeners use a spade for digging. It is designed for the specific task of lifting up and removing dirt. This would be the tool of choice for digging a planting hole, a trench or a ditch. The blade or digging end, made of metal, is sharp. The upper edge is dull, and is where the digger can place his foot to help force the sharp end into the ground. Besides the basic hole digging, the spade is handy for slicing off sod in preparation for using an area for planting. It works well for loosening soil and breaking up any clumps of dirt. Because the edge is sharp, it's handy for edging walkways and driveways. The spade also works well for scooping up quantities of dirt to place in a container such as a pail or wheelbarrow.
Until metalwork came into its own, early spades were made entirely of wood, making them inefficient for the arduous task of breaking up soil. With the forging of metal, spades were able to be made with sharp tips. There are a variety of spades each designed for a particular function. Despite the variety of tasks they can accomplish, they are constructed similarly. The blade will have a sharp, pointed end, with a straight wooden handle. The handle will end either in a T-shape or a D-shape.
The transplanting spade has a long, narrow blade for digging a single hole to aid in transplanting plants. A round point ditch spade works best for digging and clearing drainage. Nursery spades are used for transplanting trees and shrubbery. Inch markings are often etched on the blade of a garden spade as an aid in finding the correct depth for plantings and is the most common Similar to a garden spade, but with a thinner head (blade) is the Irish spade. For precision a sharpshooter spade would be used.
Selecting a Spade
Primary concern for a spade that is going to be used frequently is the length of the handle. Spades can be found with either a short or long handle.
Be sure when gripping the handle that it is comfortable. Without a good grip it is possible to slip and cause injury.
The upper most part of the handle, either T- or D-shaped should be large enough to fit all your fingers with room left over.
Rust proof blades will last longer and require less upkeep.
To lessen hand fatigue, look for a handle that is encased in a rubber sleeve.
How to use
The handle is grasped in two areas. One hand is on the top while the other is farther down the handle or stem. The sharp end of the blade is pointed downward, away from the toes. If the soil is hard and difficult to slice into, stand with one foot firmly on the ground while placing the other foot on the top edge of the blade and exert pressure as you push with your arms. Push forward and upward as the blades penetrates the ground.
Always wear sturdy footwear when working with a spade. A thick sole will prevent injury to the bottom of the foot if you place it on top of the blade to help in pushing the blade into the soil. In addition, you will be protecting your toes if the spade should slip. To help prevent blisters it is advisable to wear garden gloves made of cloth. Safety glasses will protect your eyes from any debris that might snap upward as you force the blade through the turf.