We've come a long way since we were digging with our hands way back when, to the gardening spade that we use today. Only the quality of the materials has changed since the Chinese had a bronze spade that closely resembled today's spade around 1100 BC.
The best gardening spades are typically made of carbon or stainless steel with the head and handle socket that are hand forged (not stamped) from a single piece of thick metal. Socket handle connections are very strong, but if you want the ultimate in strength, a strapped handle connection are considered to be the strongest available. Also, with the larger spades, look for one that has treads or shoe protectors on the top of the blade...your feet will thank you.
Ash hardwood handles have been the standard for hundreds of years, not only for their durability, but the ability to absorb shock and vibration. Long straight handles are available and are easier on the back, but the shorter traditional "YD" and "T" handles are still the most popular. fiberglass handles are stronger, but absorb less shock and are harder to fit into the socket should it break and need to be replaced. Most of today's better tool makers use hardwood from FSC Certified forests.
With all that said, let's have a closer look at some of the more popular gardening spades and how each type might help you with your gardening needs.
Click on the image for an expanded viewGarden Spade (English) The garden spade is the earth mover of the spades. With a head typically around 8 inches wide and 10 to 12 inches long, it's great for double digging, spading up the ground, preparing beds and with its semi-flat blade, a good edging tool. The garden spade is available with a long straight handle, "T" handle and the "YD" handle that is usually available in 28-inch and a 32-inch handle lengths. (most people will find the longer 32-inch handle more comfortable)
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Irish Spade The Irish garden spade is built with the same strength as the garden spade, but has a narrower, tapered blade. Because of its blade size, the Irish spade makes a great general purpose spade. You'll find the Irish spade great for shrub planting, digging in rocky soils, double digging, soil amending, ditch digging and many more gardening chores.
Click on the image for an expanded viewTransplanting Spade With a long narrow blade, the transplanting spade reaches deep into the soil to leverage out those deep rooted plantings. Also a good for ditch digging and shrub planting.
Click on the image for an expanded viewRabbiting Spade Originally used by farmers to destroy rabbit warrens, the Rabbiting spade makes for a great planting, transplanting and bulb digging tool. With its deep dished and pointed blade, you can easily create deep round holes.
Click on the image for an expanded viewShrubbery Spade With its extra small blade, the shrubbery spade is just the size those who want a smaller lightweight spade. Great for digging and planting in those confined areas. Despite its small size, a good one will last a lifetime.
Click on the image for an expanded viewBorder Spade For the smaller person or someone who doesn't need the large size of the garden spade, the border spade is just the right size. Made with the same toughness of the larger spades, the border spade is great for working in beds, tight spaces and planting smaller shrubs. (Perfect for those 1 gallon-size plants)
As always, buy the best quality tools that you can afford and you'll have a tool that will work as hard as you.