The Many Uses of a Garden Spade

Author: Greg Baka

The garden spade is the workhorse of many digging jobs. If your garden plans include any project involving digging, you’ll want to use a good spade. With its sharp, straight blade and low angle you can easily use your weight to push it down into the soil.

Five Uses for a Spade

Below are descriptions and tips for five of the tough jobs a spade is useful for: turning soil, creating edges, removing sod, digging up or dividing plants, and digging holes.

Turning the Soil

One of the most common jobs a spade is best for is turning the soil. When you use a spade this way it is, unsurprisingly, called spading. Some of the top reasons for spading are to bury small weeds, mix in plant matter, compost, and other fertilizers. Spading also loosens and aerates the soil which provides better drainage and increases access for beneficial earth worms. Spading the deeper soil allows a plants roots to penetrate further, helping them find water during dry spells and giving them more access to nutrients throughout the soil.

Soil is usually turned over annually in gardens and other crop fields. If you are adding organic matter or fertilizer, you will want to spread it evenly before you begin spading. The best time to turn over soil is in the Fall or early Winter. This timing gives the new organic matter you have added a full season to become biologically active before Spring planting.

When spading, you will dig either one spade head deep or two heads deep. Only going one spade head deep is called Single Digging, and is the fastest method. Going two spade heads deep is called Double Digging, and it is more difficult. Double digging down into the subsoil is best used for new beds of deep-rooted plants like potatoes, and for perennials like roses.   Image Credit

diagram of double digging steps

Whether you are turning over last year’s garden or adding fresh compost, a garden spade, with its flat, sharp edge and vertical angle is perfect for digging evenly and thoroughly in your garden. For more information, see our Double Digging article by Expert Gardener, Barbara Bamberger Scott.

Creating and Maintaining Edging

clean edge for flower bed, cut with a garden spade

Edging gives a crisp, formal look to your yard or garden. You can add edging anywhere you want to separate two features in your yard or garden: grass from flower beds or patios, for instance. Edging can be created and added anytime the ground is not frozen. Creating edging not only gives your yard that well-maintained look, but functionally it helps to keep grass and weeds from invading garden beds. It is also easier to mow or weed at an edge than to have to cut grass next to trees, fountains, and other landscape features.   Image Credit

At least annually you will want to go around your yard or garden and touch up your edging. You may find it necessary to re-cut the crisp edge line and remove any grass that has encroached onto your landscape feature.

There are at least two types of edging: ground-only and barrier edging. To create a ground-only edge you will mark the edge with spray paint or a garden hose. Facing the garden bed, you will dig your spade into the ground 3-4 inches along the edge you are cutting. Lever the spade back to loosen the dirt. Next you will need to move the dirt out of this V-shaped mini-trench. Some people find it easiest and fastest to kick the flat part of the spade which pushes the dirt up into the bed. Others prefer to lift the soil out and put it in the bed, still others put it into a garden cart and move the soil to another location. Some people will fill this trench with mulch, while others will leave it bare.

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Edging with a Long-handled Garden Spade.

Since a spade is straight and sharp, it is the perfect tool for edging. You can step on the spade to use your body weight to push into the soil. As it is not nearly as tiring, this is preferable to using your arms to press into the ground.

Removing sod

A sharpened garden spade is especially good at cutting through the tough matted roots of sod. With its straight blade it is easy to get underneath the sod to loosen it from the soil so it can be easily removed.

Removing sod means getting rid of grass and its roots. The entire grass and root system is known as sod or turf. A few of the many reasons to remove sod include creating garden beds, removing dead grass, and making space for fire pits or other garden hardscaping features.

You can remove sod at any time. You may find it is easiest a couple days following a good soaking rain. If you remove sod while the ground is too wet, it will be heavier and harder to work with plus you will be working in a muddy mess. If you try to remove sod when it has been weeks since the last rain you may find it very difficult as the ground may be baked solid. If there is no rain in the forecast, you can water the area a day or two prior to removal.

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Removing Sod with a Spade.

To get started, use the spade to cut 6 inches deep into the sod you wish to remove. Cut an 18” square of sod. Then use your spade at just one edge and pry up the sod a few inches. You then push and slide the sharpened spade UNDER the sod to cut under the 18” square so you can to lift it up in one piece.

Transplanting and Dividing Plants

Because a spade is designed to be a digging tool, its construction allows deep penetration, cutting of roots, and some gentle levering to remove plants from the ground. Plan on digging the recommended distance from the base of the plant. You do not want to dig too close to the base because you do not want to cut too much of the roots.

Different plants react differently to being transplanted or divided. For best results, research your plants to determine the best time of year. For a majority of plants early Fall is going to be best. Early Fall gives the roots a chance to grow and become rooted in the new space without the added energy expenditure needed to grow bigger, flower, fruit etc. A general rule says... If it flowers in Spring, transplant in Fall. But if it flowers in Fall, transplant once the blossoms fade.

Dividing Plants:   (usually perennials like Hostas)

Dividing means you will split up the plants from their current location and transplant a portion in a new location. Plants often need to be dug up or divided when they outgrow the space they are planted in. It is important you do this to keep them healthy. Dividing plants this way will leave you with one or more plants you can move to another area or give away to your family and friends.

For plants like Hostas dig 3-5 inches from the base. A sharpened garden spade is especially good at cutting around, and then at an angle underneath the plant to loosen it from the soil so it can be easily removed. You can divide it by simply using the spade to slice the plant in half. Or if the plant is large enough, you can even quarter it.

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Dividing Hostas for Transplanting

Transplanting:   (bushes and small trees)

For bushes and trees, measure out the same distance as the outermost branches. Root systems tend to be the same size as the upper branches.

For very small ones, first cut a circle around the tree or bush. You will want to dig into the ground at a 45- 60-degree angle toward the center of the plant. Then begin prying up slightly, repeating around and around, until the plant is loose. Once it is loose, you should be able to pick it up gently from the ground.

For larger trees, the process requires digging a "moat" round the tree and wrapping the root ball. See the following video for great instructions.

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Transplanting Small Trees

Digging Holes

For small holes, it is usually easiest to make a round hole. Larger ones are often rectangular, like a grave. You would dig a small hole for planting a flower or tuber, a larger one for installing a clothesline pole, or a big one for a backyard pond or a small root cellar. You can dig any time, however a few days after a good rain is often the easiest time. You will find digging can be very difficult if the ground is frozen, too dry, or too wet.

Before you dig it is important to call your local utilities at 811 and have them mark any buried utility lines. To help eliminate mistakes, you can use spray paint to mark the place you are going to dig. If you are digging a hole for a tree be sure it is located away from buildings and overhead wires. You do not want the tree becoming a problem when it is full grown.

No matter what you plan to do with the dirt; putting it back into the hole or using it elsewhere, you will want to proceed in a certain order. Plan on where and how you are going to use the dirt so you can be efficient and not have to move it twice. You may also find a scoop shovel is useful to lift the dirt out of your hole.

  1. Remove the sod as discussed above and set it aside.
  2. Dig up the topsoil. Keep it separate in a garden cart, a bucket, or on a tarp.
  3. Dig up the subsoil

Conclusion

The spade’s design is made for intense and precise digging with the minimum of discomfort and wear on your body. Either a short or a long-handled spade will work well for all your digging jobs in a variety of soil conditions.

A spade's handle-to-blade angle makes it easy to use your body's weight and leg muscles to do the work. This saves your arms from trying to push the spade into and through the ground. No matter what your project, a spade is one of the best tools for digging into the ground and loosening the soil.


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