Monday, November 29, 2010

Ode to the Shovel

There’s an old story about Ben Franklin learning the wisdom of trying to polish a freshly forged shovel to shiny newness.

He questioned why the shovel was brown and ugly.

The blacksmith set him to polishing it to make it more aesthetically pleasing. A few hours later, he understood why the ugly shovel was just fine.

A lot can be said for that sort of wisdom.

It’s sort of like when I approached the forge at the renaissance festival.

“Why do you use an electric blower on your forge?”

The response was quick.

“Come back here lad, I’ve got a hand bellow you can use for the afternoon. Then you’ll not ask again.”

A short time later, I understood why he uses an electric blower and why it’s important to moderate your mead intake.

No tool is more valuable in your garden than a simple spade.

They last for years. Spades are like cars, in a way. Buy a new one and you get to break it in and enjoy that shiny new feel. Find one at a garage or an estate sale and you can take advantage of the depreciation realized when the first owner took it home from the store.

In our region of upstate New York, the going garage or estate sale price for a spade is $4. A high quality replacement at the hardware store is $20 or so.

A digging fork is almost as valuable but can cost $50 or more. Seek the drop forged kind, not the cheap one with welded tongs. A good fork can be had second hand for the price of a shovel because they seem the same aft er few years of use.

At the store, never buy the cheapest tool on the rack. The plastic handle on that shovel is guaranteed to snap five or six years from now. Hence, the $15 shovel will be gone from service and replaced with another $15 shovel while the $25 shovel remains in service.

To quote arts and crafts maven Elbert Hubbard, it’s not how cheap but how good.

A few years ago, fiberglass handles were all the rage in digging tools, with a 10-year warranty. The one I proudly bought snapped this spring. There were none similar at the store when I went back for a replacement. The proprietress gave me one with a wooden handle as a replacement, no questions asked.

As winter sets in, scrub down your favorite digging tools with a wire brush, some sandpaper or soap and water. Use a file to give it a new beveled edge. You can even sharpen the points on your favorite digging fork. Think of it as changing the oil on your car. A cleaner, sharper tool is easier to work with and guaranteed to last longer.

Most importantly, take a moment to think about how simple and effective that shovel is. It’s not all that different from the one Franklin wrote about so very long ago.

(Joe Genco is a contributing writer for Mike the Gardener Enterprises and registered representative with New England Financial. You can e-mail him at

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