A Shovel To Show Off

THE REAL DIRT

January 17, 1993|By MIKE KLINGAMAN

I really dig my new garden shovel. It came on Christmas morning. I spotted the shovel the second we tumbled downstairs. It was leaning against a wall, its shiny blade reflecting the shimmering tree lights, its wooden handle wrapped in red ribbon like a candy cane.

I need a new garden shovel badly. The blade of the old one is bent and chipped, like that of a cheap snow shovel. And the handle is ready to crack, judging bythe groaning sounds it makes during chores. Although there's a chance that racket could be coming from my old bones.

The new shovel has a rounded steel blade that is curled at the top to make a nice footrest, a luxury not found on the old one.

The new shovel has a strong wooden handle made of ash. At first sight, I marveled at its strength and gripped the wood firmly, right hand over left, like a kid testing his first baseball bat. I checked the urge to swing for the fences, at least until I got outside. I was grateful I didn't have to tramp out to the garden shed to open my gift. The only time my tools are allowed in the house is when they are clean and new.

The old shovel never crossed the threshold. It was well-worn when we first moved in 17 years ago, but its busiest days were yet to come.

That old shovel carved out a vegetable patch, five flower beds and an herb garden. My shovel and I spent countless hours breaking sod, turning soil and letting the land breathe through the earthen pores. We also removed beer cans and other construction debris buried by thoughtless workmen.

Did I mention the rocks? I exhumed thousands of shovelfuls of rocks from the garden, enough to start a small quarry. Rocks are brutal on both ends of a shovel. Every clink dulls the blade; every lift stresses the handle.

Yet my shovel survived.

The handle is speckled with the sweat and blood and grime of 20 years of yard work. I planted 50 trees and 20 shrubs with that shovel. It helped me move endless truckloads of compost from a mushroom farm, sawdust from a lumber mill and manure from a barnyard. That shovel has rubbed up against some pretty famous dung too, from King Tusk, a famous circus elephant, to several winners of the Preakness Stakes.

The old shovel scooped out bushels of spuds from the garden. And it filled buckets of ashes from the wood stove, which are spread on the potato bed to sweeten the soil every spring.

My shovel has managed non-garden chores as well. It filled a child's sandbox, stirred cement and cleared snow. It has solved numerous pet-related problems. How do you keep a dog from digging in the back yard? You don't. You grab a shovel and refill the holes.

The shovel has also cleaned the back yard of doggie deposits, surely my least favorite use of my favorite tool. I've buried three dogs with that shovel. Also a goldfish.

My shovel has more jobs that a Swiss army knife, and it has paid the price. I've treated it shabbily. I never wiped the rusty blade with an oily rag. Never oiled the weathered handle. Never sharpened the blade with a hand file.

Who sharpens a shovel? It's a tool made to move dirt, not dice it. Nonetheless, smart gardeners know how easily a sharp shovel cuts through soil, and how much energy it saves.

My idea of good shovel maintenance is to bang it on the patio once a year, to knock off excess dirt. But the old tool found ways to get even. Sometimes that shovel would sneak out of the shed and just lie in the grass, waiting for me to step on the blade and conk my head on the handle.

That won't happen again. I plan to get off on the right foot with my new shovel. I can't wait to try it out next spring. In fact, I already did. Christmas Day, I ran outside, grabbed a frozen wild mushroom, threw it into the air and swung from the heels. That mushroom splattered into a million pieces.

In baseball, it's called hitting fungoes. I call it hitting fungus.

I'm glad I got that out of my system. However, due to the mushroom incident, the new shovel is banned from the house.

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