The difference between a spade and a shovel

Do you need a spade or a shovel for that job? I’ve been confused for the last 40 years about when to use the garden spade or the shovel. It seems to be a common mistake for gardeners. Is it a shovel or a spade? Can you tell me if the tool you’re using to dig holes, shovel dirt and mulch, or clip weeds from your garden is a spade or shovel? Or are they the same?

I didn’t know the difference between these tools, and I recently learned that my tool of choice is a shovel for most digging and maintenance. Yes, I’ve used a shovel to trim sego palm pups from mother plants and dig holes for plantings, and both of these tasks are better suited to a spade. It’s time to re-evaluate my garden tools.

The Purpose of Spades and Shovels

The primary difference between these two standard garden tools is the shape of the trowel. The shovel has a trowel shaped like that card symbol, so you’d think it would be called a spade. But it isn’t. That upside-down heart shape is perfect for moving loose dirt, gravel, grain, or mulch. Shovels perform tasks like moving, lifting, and spreading garden medium.

The spade has a flat edge to assist with cutting and edging. Its sharp edge slices through sod and garden soil, leaving a clean, precise edge behind.

How to pick the perfect shovel [or spade]

Shovels and spades come in various weights and handle lengths. Some shovels are made for specific jobs, like moving snow. Others are specific for digging trenches or have sharper ends for splitting roots.

The spade typically has a “D” shape handle at the top, although you will find shovels with these handles, so that is not a defining characteristic.

A D-handle for garden tools.
Standard D garden tool handles.

Go to the garden center and try them on for size!

The perfect shovel or spade should cost between $20 and $75. Two major factors will assist you in making a final choice: handle height and weight!

The length of the handle gives leverage to every task. An extended handle is wonderful when moving dirt or soil. With less effort and more leverage, you can move more dirt and mulch. But too long a handle can make a shovel cumbersome and more difficult to maneuver.

The average shovel handle is 48 inches long—four feet PLUS the length of the shovel head. (I am only 5 feet 2 inches tall, so I never buy shovels with standard-length handles.) I typically opt for a 30-inch handle, making the entire shovel about 42 inches tall from end to end. Rakes and hoes are a bit longer, but the longest handle on any of my tools generally extends only to my shoulder height.

I prefer a shorter handle when I need to dig bigger holes or edge around exiting bushes. The shorter handle distributes the weight of sand, dirt, or even mud more evenly, and I don’t tire so quickly.

Hold every garden tool in your hands before you pay for it. A heavy or weighted spade will help when digging hard ground, but a heavy shovel will wear you down quickly when adding dirt or compost to flower beds. How heavy is too heavy for day-to-day tasks is a personal choice.

Keeping your Spades and Shovels in Working Condition

As with most tools, shovels and spades must be maintained to extend their useful life. However, these garden tools are easier to care for than most cutting tools. Wooden handles require light sanding to remove potential splinters and oiling or sealing to preserve the wood.

The trowel part of your shovel and spade should be cleaned regularly to prevent moisture from accumulating near the metal. You can further guard that metal trowel from rust by applying a thin coat of vegetable oil to it and allowing it to dry overnight. A better solution is to fill a pail with sand and motor oil and submerge the blade of your tool into the bucket a few times to add the protective oil. Periodically, a shovel or spade’s edge will require light sharpening. The edges are filed on one side only, being careful not to oversharpen the edge. You can use a metal file or a grinder attachment.

This is an excellent guide for the DIY gardener to care for these tools. I take my tools to the local hardware store and have them sharpen the edges for me.

Now you know the difference between a spade and a shovel.

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