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Wanted: An heir for a beloved gardening tool


I own very few things that anyone will be interested in when I go to the great garden in the sky, but there is one possession that is so dear to me that I’ll have to find just the right person to bequeath it to.

I don’t expect that the lucky person who inherits it will be all that excited to find out that they’ve become the proud owner of a garden tool instead of some fancy jewelry that might actually be worth enough to bother selling. 

The object of my affection is a garden spade. But this is no ordinary spade; it is the tool that changed everything about gardening for me. 

For more than a decade I dug holes with a shovel with the idea that moving more soil per scoop was better. By the end of the day, I’d have enough aching body parts to consider adding a bottle of ibuprofen to my gardener’s tool kit. 

It’s no longer shiny and new (although it was for a brief moment this winter when I clean my tools), but that might make it even better.

When I started watching British gardening television shows, I noticed that Brits, who presumably come out of the womb and go directly to the garden, never use shovels. Instead they use flatter, ever-so-slightly rounded spades for planting, dividing perennials and general garden work where there is more digging than scooping to be done. When I went in search of my own spade, I could have picked up a perfectly functional one at a local hardware store, but then I discovered one that is equal parts function and art. 

Made by Sneeboer & Zn, a Dutch company that hand forges tools, my spade is a small version with a sharp stainless steel blade and a gorgeous, smooth, white ash T-handle. I chose the “Ladies” version mostly for its shorter handle, which offers a better angle of attack for shorter gardeners. It also has a slightly smaller head than the regular spade, which worried me initially because up until this point in my gardening career I moved dirt by the shovelful.

I needn’t have worried. With the sharp blade positioned at a far better angle, digging a hole is faster and easier than ever. I sharpen it about once a year, but the steel holds an edge so well that dividing congested plants is swift work. 

All that hand-crafted goodness comes at a price — $142 to be exact, and I can tell you that having used a $25 shovel it seemed absurd to spend that kind of money on a garden tool. 

Sneeboer spadeI’ve not regretted spending that money once and I learned the value of buying quality tools. Barring theft or fire, it will be the last spade I buy, and I expect to be gardening for another 40 or so years. Even at that, I know it will outlast me. 

It’s my sincere hope that it doesn’t end up going for pennies in some estate sale, purchased by a person who buys it for vintage wall decor.

No, my trusty spade deserves a second owner who appreciates its beauty and brawn and puts it to good work. But that person will have to wait a bit. My spade and I have a few more decades together.

This post originally ran in the “The Impatient Gardener” column in the Ozaukee Press.

If you are interested in hearing more about some of my favorite tools, you can check out this video:


14 Responses

  1. A person who thinks like me and follows that wise old saying “Buy it right or buy it twice”. I’ve been trying desperately to purchase a couple of garden rakes from Sneeboer, but to no success so far. I bought one rake from a box store and it only laster hours after the head pulled loose from the wood, very cheaply made in my opinion. I will wait till next spring if it takes that long to find me a rake to my likings and so far Sneeboer is the only ones I have found to satisfy this lust for quality in what should be a simple rake. I love your site here! Mark

  2. I, too, was not left without a pleasant impression of Smith and Hawken, it was pleasant to work with them, some models were made more curved to make it easier to dig, and the most important thing is that in reality it is convenient for her to dig and your body is not so tired. I have several shovels, as well as several garden tools from this company and I am very pleased that I made the right choice and really enjoy working in the garden, and not the other way round I get tired even more physically! Have a nice day, thanks for the article!

  3. My Kent & Stowe spade does the job for digging on my allotment. Don’t know if you have them in the States.
    Nice to read your article !

  4. I bought a number of tool including a matched spade and fork from the original Smith and Hawken when they sold English Bulldog tools. Still going strong 30 years later. You definitely get what you pay for. I also have a smaller scale shovel that I use for easy jobs. But the spade comes out for real work. I notice the Brits on TV never wear gloves when working in the garden. I usually do. I keep wanting them to talk about the pros and cons of work gloves. Have you seen the viewer videos people are sending in to Gardener’s World. I’ve only seen a few and they were wildly interesting and creative.

  5. I loved this post about your favorite tool and sharing your transformation once you got the correct tool in hand.. I too have a wonderful piece of gardening equipment that I’m very attached to and still using. I picked it up at a vintage tools and garden boutique in Madison back in the 90’s. . This lovely 1930’s hand tool with long claws digs up weeds like nobodies business and on the flip side is a metal V shaped piece that helps edge your garden beds with perfection. Your so right in saying the right tool can transform your gardening experience from drudgery to joy.

  6. I bought a spade a couple of years ago, inspite of, or maybe because of, all the comments from husband and sales guy at the garden center, “are you sure you want one like that? Do you know what you are doing?’ Well, Yes, I do know what I am doing, I’ve been doing it for years, with a shovel that doesn’t work well and hurts my knees. I also watch a ton of English Gardening videos and noticed their spades. I didn’t pay a lot for an English import, but the shape really does work well.

  7. Vintage wall decor – aargh! Anything but that!
    If there’s one thing that bugs me about the vintage trend it’s that. I read a book about interior design which suggested a vintage-style kitchen should have a section of bench space set aside for putting a bunch of vintage kitchen gear. Not to use, just to…be there. Which seems wildly un-vintage to me. Surely the point of vintage is to add a flavour of the past and the way people lived, not to just add piles of old things to an otherwise fully modern space.
    I mean, you wouldn’t call a garden vintage if it was all modern design and the latest hybrids, with a few old trowels artistically arranged on the grass, would you?

  8. Okay you’ve convinced me that I should no longer be satisfied using my husband’s shovel in the garden! I’m buying a fancy, expensive spade as soon as I get back to a weekly paycheck. And don’t I need that heart shaped trowel also?

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