The Art of Digging and Where we Learn It


IMG_4886Avid gardeners, I bet you love your tools as much as I do, especially the ones for digging. Gloves I buy by the dozen but digging tools I expect to last forever, which of course they don’t.

I recently destroyed my long-handled shovel by treating it like it was a crowbar, expecting it to extract something big and heavy by brute force. The wooden handle punished me for my misuse by splitting in two. I’ve since reminded myself that shovels are for cutting and then lifting, not doing both tasks at the same time. I replaced it with a short-handled spade, which cuts, lifts, and edges, too.

For digging up smaller plants I love thin long-handled shovels like the one here in yellow that’s lasted me a few years.

Down on my knees, where most of my gardening action seems to take place, I rely on Japanese weeding knives, pointy trowels that cut while they’re digging, and cheap steak knives for dividing perennials.

In this recent photo they’re all muddy, except for the fresh-from-UPS weeding knife. It’ll be dirty soon enough.

Oh, and my pickax is great when extra muscle power is called for.  I swing the thing from a kneeling position.

So how do we learn to dig?

I’ve been pondering this question since observing some nongardeners attempting to dig, and realizing that it’s not exactly an innate skill. I noticed their frustration in trying to dig up and replant perennials because they weren’t holding the tools the right way, or were attempting the job with the wrong tool altogether.

Do books and magazines teach the art of digging? I think not. Neither do blogs. It’s something you have to be shown, as my mother must have shown me when I was a kid weeding the family garden. But without a gardening parent, how DO you learn? Maybe by hiring a coach, or becoming a Master Gardener and volunteering alongside experienced gardeners.

Or these days, with the help of Youtube, where I found this video, in which a landscaper declares that “Having the right tool is a big, big deal,” than surprises me by recommending tools I don’t use. Hmm.

Then this guy demonstrates how to dig with a pick and shovel using a method that would KILL MY BACK in no time. Also, he named his video “How Too Use Pick and Shovel propper tool use.” (Double sic!)

This woman likes garden forks for turning soil and demonstrates two styles different styles of cultivators (who knew?).  But she only uses trowels for the flimsiest of jobs –  digging in fluffy potting soil – and says any basic trowel will do. I disagree! (Her video does get right to the point though, something that Type A’s like myself appreciate.) In fact, not a single Youtuber surveyed demonstrated my favorite trowel method for tougher jobs – with the trowel facing the me and being maneuvered toward me.

A few videos later, I’ve reluctantly concluded that maybe I DON’T know the best garden tools for every job. But I manage to do what needs doing, without hurting myself, and that’ll have to suffice.


  1. One other way is to learn great digging skill is to become an archaeologist or volunteer at a site. I grew up gardening with my mother, which in turn helped me at the start of archaeology (‘field school’ is the first time most students use a shovel). Recently, after 10+ years in the field I bought a farm and the skills I learned in arch helped me even more in the fields and garden (not to mention the muscles).
    Holding a shovel to me is like a chef holding their favorite knife- it feels so good!

  2. My favorite subject – the proper use of tools and particularly the trowel. Rarely do I give a workshop to commercial cut flower growers without at some point launching into a rant on the misuse of the trowel, the so-called improved trowel designs being foisted on an uninformed market and the hateful depth markings on almost every trowel commonly available. To begin, I point out the original use of the trowel, which is the planting out of bare root transplants quickly and efficiently. Since the advent of cell packs and plugs, there are few things we still set out bare root, strawberries, sweet potato slips and not much more, so widespread misuse of a trowel is understandable but not to be encouraged. Don’t let your friends get away with it.
    Here’s how a trowel is meant to be used. On your knees, grab the handle with the blade downward, concave surface toward you. Plunge it vertically into loose, well prepared soil up to the hilt (think shower scene in Psycho). Pull the handle toward you creating a wedge shaped space behind the blade for your plant. Insert the plant to the proper depth, remove the trowel and in one smooth motion rotate your wrist so that the butt of the handle is now pointing downward. Without letting go of the plant, firm the soil with the handle butt and your other hand simultaneously. Do this five thousand or so times a day and you get pretty good at it. It’s a perfectly designed tool to be used for that purpose and in that manner. The convoluted sponge rubber covered handles on some new trowels might be useful for some people in some unimaginable bizarre situations. Just don’t use them near me if you don’t want a lecture. As for those “handy” depth markings that most manufacturers include in their designs, they violate one of the principle attributes of a good trowel, a slick, shiny blade that is self cleaning. I’ve got problems with you people.

  3. wow -that qualifies as a guest rant, Joe! (And Susan, I eagerly await your own You Tube video demonstrating trowel use.)

  4. I love my right angle trowel, which is used in a similar manner to what Joe describes above. plus it’s much kinder to my carpal-tunneled aching wrists.

  5. So Joe…..I’m a little afraid to ask, but how do you feel about hori horis? This is my favorite tool, because I am too lazy most of the time to take multiple tools out to the garden with me, and it does so many different things. Plus my husband is always walking off with my trowels and leaving them somewhere they shouldn’t be (he doesn’t dare touch my hori hori).

    • The problem with multi-purpose tools is that, at best, they do many things poorly and possibly one task well. Having never wielded a hori hori, all I can say is that if I come upon you using one in a comfortable and efficient manner, I probably won’t rip it out of your hand and fling it into the nearest water feature (unless it has depth markings etched into the blade).

  6. Reading Graham Stuart Thomas, decades after I became a gardener, he mentioned working as a young boy at a nursery. After a day of digging, exhausted, an old-timer told him to use the heal of his boot, not the arch.


    Who do you think used their arch until that sentence?

    Small tip, 3″ in fact, yet huge difference.

    Garden & Be Well, XOT

    • Shoving with the arch of my foot hurts, but using my heel does not, even if I wear wooden clogs.

      Now, if I only had the energy to attack the wilderness in the small backyard…

  7. Another great trick in use for many years is the use of two digging forks to divide large clumps of perennials. After digging the clump out of the ground and setting it to the side, plunge two digging forks back to back into the center of the clump with their tines in alternating positions. The handles will now be in a narrow vee. By drawing the handles toward each other, you have a very efficient lever action that separates the clump in two without cutting the internal criss-crossed roots. Repeat this with the smaller clumps as many times as necessary. Beware, however, of the position of your fingers as the two handles smack together. I can tell you that it really smarts to use them as bumpers.

  8. I learned digging well when I was thirteen and my folks had a house built in the country. It was cheaper to leave the dirt from the basement there rather than paying the contractors to haul it, so my dad told me if I wanted an allowance, I had to spread it around the property, which was pine woods. I got pretty good at digging, moving wheelbarrows, and flinging the dirt. Didn’t want to dump it all on one plant, normally. It took three years.

    Yes, the heel, not the arch.

    Learn to use both sides if digging any significant amount.

    When flinging, relax. Whether aiming for one spot or to spread it in an arc, do not tense up, and commit the dirt. If you extend and retain the load, you will be overextended and can pull a muscle.

    That short-handled spade pictured above works best for me for moving soil.

    I tell folks to let the wheelbarrow handles hang on loose shoulders and arms as much as possible, but I’m so short I have to shrug my shoulders to keep the supports off the ground. Relax anyway. Sure, the arms tense when you tilt it or stabilize it, but don’t do the lifting with ’em; that’s what the wheel is for.

  9. As a 17 year professional gardener I’ve had a chance to try out many a tool. When it comes to digging my absolute favorites are the D handled steel digging spades by Clarington Forge of the UK (Spear and Jackson run a close second). I bought my first one at the outset of my career and I’m still using it almost daily 17 years later. Light, strong and a pleasure to work with. In terms of digging the angle of the blade to handle (the blade lift) is crucial. Most shovels you get in the box stores are just that shovels for moving materials around. These are not really digging tools. My second favorite spades are made by WW Mfg. or Wolverine brand (there are others too). These all steel spade are heavier but will also last a long time under brutal use. They can be more useful in heavy duty situations, heavy soil, lift boulders etc. AM leonard is a good place for serious tools also the Garden Tool co. Incidentally I did an early apprenticeship with John Jeavons of Ecology Action and he has basically spent a lifetime exploring the finer side of digging. He even has an hour long video on the subject called Dig it. That’s some serious digging.

  10. My heart breaks for you in losing a much loved garden tool. I tend to save them in hopes of inserting a new handle as my tools are a part of me; I can’t just let them go. I do have a 6′ iron bar, a hand me down from my mother, that I’ve used for a multitude of reasons. As for where I learned to dig, I grew up homesteading, does shoveling or mucking stalls count, it should!

  11. Wow. I wish I read this 5 years ago. Atleast 10 shovells have been sent to the graveyard of gardening tools due to my misuse.

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