Garden Tidbits - Expert Advice for the Garden

Gettin’ a Handle on Lower-Back Pain

In England, where those short, annoying D-handled tools are made, they call a spade a spade, and a shovel a shovel. Americans tend to call everything a shovel. Spades are used for digging, but are more traditionally thought of as tools for slicing through and lifting sod, edging lawns and beds, skimming weeds and opening straight-sided holes or trenches. Nothing mandates a short handle on a spade—some, such as the Irish Garden Spade, do indeed have long handles.        

Shovels are more accurately defined as the tool one uses to load and unload sand, gravel, soil or mulch from a wheelbarrow or to move a pile from one spot to another, but are most commonly used for digging. Shovels can have a round point or a flat blade. And, while most shovels have long handles, they are made with short D-handles as well. In the U.S., we tend to call spades and shovels alike by the name of shovel, and to use them both for much the same kind of digging tasks.        

Twenty-one years ago, when I started landscaping, I bought cheap long-handled shovels at the local flea-market. Then in 1979, I moved to the Farallones Institute Rural Center, an appropriate-technology community where bio-dynamic intensive gardening was practiced with a fervor akin to religious ecstasy. There, swept away by the enthusiasm for short D-handled spades shown by disciples of Alan Chadwick (the high priest of intensive raised-bed gardening) I finally shelled out the money for what many considered to be the Cartier of digging implements.        

But in spite of the praise by my gardener friends and the enthusiasm of mail-order catalogs like Smith & Hawken (with—at least early on—Paul Hawken’s eloquent, even romantic, praise of these heavy, hand-made, forged tools), I kept returning to my trusted long-handled shovel for most tasks.           

Finally, I ran across some research on tool ergonomics which confirmed what my body had already whispered—light, long-handled shovels are best for most garden tasks. At best, D-handled spades are only suited for working literally “in the trenches.”        

Ergonomics is the science of adapting tools and physical working conditions to suit the worker, and often involves redesigning tools to better fit the human body. Much of ergonomics consists of rethinking what sometimes turn out to be arbitrary designs of common everyday tools. 


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The study which confirmed my body’s psychic hints was called “The ergonomics of shoveling and shovel design—an experimental study” (Ergonomics, 1986, Vol. 29, No. 1, 19-30) by Andris Freivalds of the Department of Industrial and Management Systems Engineering at Pennsylvania State University. In a study of digging, using sand to simulate cultivating a garden plot, the short, D-handled shovel, with a pointed blade, “was universally ranked lowest for every dependent measure used [perceived exertion of shoulder and arms, low back, and the overall shovel], due to its short handle requiring a stooped posture.” Perhaps most important to the health of the gardener, Freivalds found “low-back compression forces [with the short-handled shovel] were higher than for most other shovels.” 

With the long-handled shovels, the single most important criterion for ease of use was weight. The lighter the shovel, the easier the task of digging. One study cited by Freivalds found “shovels weighing less than 29% of shovel load to be 20% more efficient” and the researcher recommended a shovel-weight of between 3.3 and 3.96 pounds.

Unfortunately, most of the English-forged spades weigh 4.5 to as much as 6 pounds. Another researcher found long-handled shovels increased productivity 25% over short-handled shovels. 

While short D-handled spades forged in ancient English foundries may be, Paul Hawken’s words, “dense with durability and intelligence,” they are sure as hell tougher on the body. So, I’ll continue to use my light-weight, long-handled, round-pointed, hollow-backed shovel for most garden tasks.        

There is one task, by the way, where the short-handled shovel was rated better, by 10%, than a long-handled shovel—in the confined workspace of a coal-mine. So, if you’ve got a coal-mine to excavate, the short-handled shovel or spade may just be the tool for you!

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