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Evolution of garden tools

By Felder Rushing

Rain or shine, a small statue of a hooded man stands sentinel over my garden, reminding me of the billions of gardeners who have shared vegetables, herbs, and flowers with others.

Though I’m not Catholic, I cherish my iconic St. Fiacre, patron saint of gardeners and florists, as an accent in my garden which portrays him, fittingly, holding a sheaf of flowers over one shoulder and a spade in his other hand.

When Fiacre, an Irish priest who settled in France in the 7th century, was granted as much land for his garden as he could plow in one day, he used his wile and the simplest tool of all, his walking staff, to get the most by digging a trench all the way around a huge area.

And though this simple act of digging in the dirt has changed very little in the ensuing 1500 years, the tools we take for granted have. Especially in the past century, when in the early 1900s a man named Frederick Taylor, a pioneer in the study of time and motion management, took a simple shovel and created several, er, ground-breaking variations which dramatically improved workers’ efficiency and production, and saved their aching backs. 

Until then most shovels were simple one-size-fits-all broad wooden or metal blades attached to medium-length handles, similar to what Chinese workers had been using for over 3,000 years.

But Taylor designed specialized shovels to fit various digging and scooping jobs, and proved that workers with custom shovels got nearly four times as much accomplished in the same time, with less effort. For example, while the old large shovel blade could move more material in a single stroke, it wore men out; his smaller blade was easier and faster to use.

He showed how flat tipped-blades are best for scooping or moving loose materials like dirt piles, gravel, and snow; pointed tips work best for cutting into compacted or rocky soils; and curved tips dig better into softer soil. Taylor’s innovative bent shafts quickly became the shovel’s first ergonomic design. Not stopping there, he added a strong collar shaft to the blade for replaceable handles to fit into, and rolled the shoulder of the blade as a kick plate for putting your foot on for added power.

And now savvy gardeners accept the need for more than one shovel; to dig new ground, cut roots, or edge beds we use a sharp, flat spade with a straight handle, but to scoop and move loose material we grab one with a wider cupped blade, square edge and curved handle.

A lot has changed since Fiacre dug his garden with a stick. Now our best tools make us, the moving parts, more efficient…with fewer aches.