Favourite tool


Tool: The Ace

of Spades

Stephanie Donaldson celebrates a constant companion

For nearly 40 years, my spade has been my constant companion in the garden. Together we have tackled everything from heavy clay soil that would only ever yield to our labours for a few weeks each spring and autumn, to a fertile and loamy walled garden where my predecessors had been turning the ground for a hundred years, a steep, couch grass-infested allotment that nearly broke us both, and thankfully (now that we are starting to show our age) a light sandy soil that offers little resistance to cultivation.

My spade has shaped my gardens, and rather wonderfully it, too, has been shaped by the work we have done together.

The once straight edge now curves gently from left to right, revealing that it is always my right foot that pushes down

on the blade, gradually wearing away the steel into a sinuous and knife-sharp cutting edge. We work well together, my spade and I.

It was a birthday gift from my first husband. Hidden beneath many layers of paper there lay a gleaming Spear & Jackson stainless steel spade. It was a very generous gift at a time before imports from the East debased most garden tools to cheap disposable objects. In terms of functionality, durability and frequency of use, it is the best gift I have ever received. Our relationship has lasted far longer than the marriage.

I am not a professional gardener, but my enduring partnership with my cherished spade is not uncommon among those who are, and historically it was the norm. Garden tools were hand-forged by the local blacksmith and it was presumed that they would last a lifetime – or longer. It was not unusual for spades to be passed from father to son. Over decades of use, these tools became smoother and sharper and were shaped by the digging habits of their owners, just as has happened with my own spade. In an era before stainless steel, the spade was brushed down and then scrupulously cleaned with an oily rag after each use to keep it cutting cleanly through the soil. Should the blade be damaged, the blacksmith would carry out the necessary repairs, but such problems were rare because the spade was regarded as a valuable tool that would only ever be used for its intended purpose – digging the soil. The ash handle was also cleaned and oiled, and over time wore smooth with use. Eventually, it would splinter or crack and would be replaced, ensuring that the spade continued its long and productive life.

I cannot claim to have treated my spade with the care shown by those earlier gardeners. The stainless steel blade allows me to put it away without brushing or oiling it and it will still cut through my light sandy soil without punishing me for my neglect. But I have had the handle replaced when it broke, and although it does not have the inherent aesthetic beauty of a vintage spade, it will be my favoured companion for as long as I continue to dig my garden.   

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