Twenty years ago I bought a Bulldog steel spade, partly because it came with a 15 year guarantee and it’s still going strong despite being left outside in the rain rather a lot. It’s a bad habit I know and I do always feel guilty though, I’ve recently been reassured by the news that the odd soaking helps keep the handle tight in its metal shaft – which just goes to show what a waste of time feeling guilty is.
I’ve used that spade for everything from digging, mixing concrete, to lifting trees. I even once used the blade to fry an egg over a bonfire. Now I have a new one and running my hands over the pristine paintwork and shiny handle I feel that same tingle of excitement I used to get as a boy about a new bike. Here is something fit for purpose that’ll last for years but – for now at least – still has its show-room gleam.
It’s a heavy spade with a long handle which, for me – I’m six foot tall in my steel toecaps – is perfect. Choosing tools that fit your frame is really important as it saves your back and makes a big difference to how quickly you can dig. I hadn’t given much thought to the art of single and double digging since I was an apprentice but now I’ve got a nursery and an apprentice of my own I’ve been passing on the things I’ve picked up.
Most gardeners understand the principle of double digging: excavate a trench of soil at one of the plot and pile it at the other, fork the bottom with compost or manure and then turn the soil from the next trench into the first. My tips for success on a heavy clay soil is to chop the soil into spade–sized chunks and standing sideways to the trench, turn – rather than lift these heavy sods into it with flick of the wrist. On lighter sands it’s infinitely easier to work from the back of the trench, cutting larger 40cm chunks and flipping them over by levering down on the handle of spade.
Whatever your soil type, digging is the garden equivalent of ploughing, turning the soil upside down and so burying weeds and bringing fresh earth to the surface. It takes practice to do well – a trick I learnt was never to touch the soil with my hands to reduce the amount of back- bending and to speed up familiarity with the tools. It also pays to take your time as it’s better to work neatly and methodically than rush and potentially put your back out.
One other thing I’ve learnt in the twenty-plus years since I completed my own apprenticeship is don’t worry if occasionally you leave your spade out in the rain but do always keep the blade nice and clean. You never know when you might want to fry an egg.