City farmer not so sharp on shovel maintenance

March 29, 1997|By ROB KASPER

THIS IS the digging season. The breeze is blowing, the sun is shining, and like a big dog, you feel you just gotta get outside and disturb the soil.

You pull your shovel out of winter storage and start to do some spade work when a little voice -- the Jiminy Cricket of shovel maintenance -- tells you, "you really should sharpen this thing."

Everyone who enjoys getting down and dirty in the garden knows this voice. It is the voice reminding us we can't merely frolic in the mud, that we have tool maintenance respons- ibilities.

It is a voice reminding us that our shovels should be keen and bright, that we should be performing those rituals we have read about in the tomes of tool-maintenance.

Take, for example, the shovel-sharpening passage I found in "Popular Mechanics 101 Quick Home Improve- ment Trips" (Hearst Books, 1992, $12). It painted contrasting pictures of how wise old farmers and harried, unknowing urbanites care for their tools.

"Farmers know the value of sharp tools," the book reads, "but many city folks will bring a garden hoe or shovel and go right to work with them, never thinking to sharpen them first."

Reading the book, I got an image of a wise old farmer who sharpens his tools about as frequently as good ole boys drank Dr. Pepper, the soda of the South. Namely at "ten, two, and four" o'clock each day.

The sharpening procedure sounds simple enough. The wise old farmer either scrapes the edge of the shovel with his trusty old hand-held file, or carries the shovel to his workshop where he puts it to the grindstone. Once he gets in a sharpening mood, however, this wise old farmer can't contain himself. He attacks the hand shears, the garden hoes, mower blades, maybe even a trowel or two.

Having grown up in the Midwest, I knew my share of farmers. But I never came across anybody who resembled this "wise old farmer."

The farmers I knew turned the soil with big rigs pulled behind massive tractors. For insight, they relied on the noontime radio reports telling what the prices of wheat, cattle, hogs, soy beans and corn were doing in the markets in Kansas City and Chicago.

Nonetheless, in my current condition as a harried urbanite with a dull shovel, I accept the notion that I need some rural wisdom, that I need to mend my ways.

Moreover, I figure the shovel deserves some pampering. The other day I recalled some of the good deeds the shovel has done in previous digging seasons. It has uncovered many worms, which in turn were used as bait to catch many sunfish, which in turn often ended up back in the soil, as fertilizer. It has planted uncounted tomatoes and uprooted the prized tubers of the horseradish plant.

It has been snatched from the garden and taken to baseball fields, where it filled in lakes formed by passing thunder- storms. Once it unearthed treasure, of a sort. It found a baseball that had been buried, no doubt by a bored Little Leaguer, in a mound of dirt behind a home plate backstop.

As I picked it up, the feel of the shovel's wooden handle in my hands even reminded me of that time, long ago, when all `D baseball bats were made of wood.

Flooded with these feelings, I made a resolution that this year I am going to take better care of my shovel.

In addition to restoring its cutting edge, I am thinking of giving the shovel a "bath" by sticking it in a 5-gallon pail filled with a mixture of fine sand and a quart or two of old motor oil. Supposedly, moving the shovel up and down a few times in the oil-soaked sand both removes dirt from the blade and leaves an oil coating on the metal that prevents rust.

It is, I am told, an old farmer's trick.

Pub Date: 3/29/97

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