Spade vs Shovel – Which Is Best for Trenching, Gardens, Dirt, and Snow?

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Spade vs shovel. Hmmm. What are the differences and similarities between these two hand tools? And which digging device is best for tasks around your homestead, farm, and garden?

Many homesteaders use their names interchangeably, but spades and shovels are two individual tools, each with distinctive pros and cons.

So – which should you use? A spade or a shovel? Here’s what we would recommend – and why.

A rusty and weathered spade piercing into some soil.

(Choosing the wrong digging tool for the job can cause unnecessary energy expenditure, frustration, and backaches. Nobody wants that!)

Are you ready to dig in and learn the distinctions?

Let’s do this!

Spade vs Shovel – Quick Overview

wheelbarrow loaded with compost soil alongside shovels and rake
Rather than argue about shovels vs spades, we’d encourage you to use both! All gardeners can use round-pointed shovels when digging. The round edge helps to increase the pounds per square inch when piercing into hard soil. And straight edge spades are unmatched for garden edging, precise digging, trenching, and other heavy-duty jobs that require accuracy and an elegant mechanical advantage.

The primary differences between these gardening tools are blade construction – and how they get used around the garden, farm, or ranch.

Overall, the garden shovel blade will be curved and pointed, and the spade blade will be relatively straight and flat. Shovels have wider blades. And spade blades are not as concave.

While spades and garden shovels can work for similar purposes, they are each designed for predefined purposes.

Now that we understand the primary spade vs shovel differences – let’s dive into why you use a spade instead of a shovel.

We’re about to get our hands dirty. Tremendously dirty.

Feel the excitement!

We Use Spades for Digging

small spade shovel resting in fresh garden soil
Can’t decide which is better? A shovel vs a spade? Consider the blade and handle when choosing. Large shovel blades are usually better for lifting lighter materials. For example – snow shovels have massive blades that are perfect for removing a thin layer of snow. (Heavy wet snow is a different story. And our worst nightmare!) Also – notice that the short spade shovel in the photo above has a D-handle. D-handles offer added comfort and flexibility – and allow you to dig and move dirt without bending your wrist or hands that much. Longer shovels can give you more leverage. But they’re also heavier and can be cumbersome if you’re shoveling in a confined space. (We usually prefer shorter shovels because they’re easier to wield and tire you out less.)

A spade is the best choice when you face a precise gardening task, especially if you have to slice through rough turf and tough soil. A straight, narrow blade is best for this type of purpose. That’s why most spade blades are relatively flat. They have practically no concavity.

Spade blades typically project straight off of the handle shaft with no curvature. Some spades have long handles, and others have short handles. Mini spades have heavy-duty D-shaped handles, which are effective for enhancing your grip and power.

Some spades have a foot ledge on top that allows you to apply extra downward force to cut through tough roots and other obstacles. Spades are excellent when you need to edge, dig precisely, cut through roots or tough turf, or turn the soil.

And a sharp-bladed spade, especially one with a serrated edge, is an excellent choice for skimming turf, soil, and other materials to create a smooth top surface. Spades are also perfect for chipping ice off your sidewalks and driveways when it’s too hard for your snow shovel to break through.

Types of Spades

gardener using shovel to dig hole in the vegetable garden
Here you see a short-handed garden spade perfect for moving and smoothing garden soil within our raised garden bed. We love short spades for light digging or spading jobs that only take a few minutes. A heavier garden shovel would also work, but why tire yourself out when a much lighter and smaller instrument will suffice? Save your energy for later. You’ll need it!

There are various spade types to choose from – no matter your budget or task. Consider drain, garden, and root spades.

Let’s zoom in on each of them!

Drain Spades

Drain spades are thin-bladed and narrow garden tools that work well for digging accurate, small holes, even in tough ground. This type of spade is also sometimes called a bullet shovel.

Drain spades are superb for digging trenches, like drainage lines, as long as you don’t need them to be more than a couple of feet deep or more than approximately 8 inches wide.

Because they’re small, they are outstanding for digging precise holes for shrub or flower transplantation. Drain spades are also excellent choices for unearthing straight rows for vegetable planting.

Garden Spades

Garden spade blades are more sizeable with more concavity than most other spades. They are available in many styles – some with curved spade blades and shorter shafts. And others have rounded spade blades with long shovel handles.

There are several variations, making it difficult, sometimes, to differentiate a garden spade from a different type of spade. There are narrow, wide, rectangular, and pointed garden spades. Just choose the best one for your unique needs. I like mine with a sharp edge!

Root Spades

A root shovel typically features a shorter handle and a tapered straight-edge blade with a notch cut from the center in an inverted V-shape. This notch straddles roots and cuts down through them on both sides, making an often-tough job much less grueling.

If you wish to go top-of-the-line, look for a root spade with serrated blade edges. They slice through thick, tough roots easily. And their grated edges grab into the root chunks, making it simple to twist and yank them out of the dirt.

Root spades are also excellent for cutting through incredibly tough root balls on invasive plants like some tall grasses. I have bent the tip of my spade shovel when cutting through these. I feel like a mini bulldozer when I use a root spade to cut in a garden bed!

Watch your toes!

Read More!

We Use Shovels to Load & Relocate

farmer digging with a shovel on a cloudy autumn day
We have tons of experience using and testing spades vs shovels. All gardeners need a few on hand. We order a few yards of fresh garden soil (compost mix) for our garden beds every few years. We manually load the garden soil into the wheelbarrow (several times) and then into the raised garden beds using spades or shovels. It’s a lot of work! One of our gardening secrets is that sometimes, you never know if a narrow spade blade or a thick and heavy shovel will work better until you begin working the soil. And sometimes, after working for a few hours, we switch digging utensils halfway through the job to see if it makes our back hurt less. Sometimes, a shovel change is as good as a rest! (And switching from a heavy shovel to a light spade can sometimes make the digging job less exhausting – and tedious!)

Unlike spades, shovels are perfect for relocating material from one location to another. They feature curved, wide blades that lift and hold a significant volume of compost, garden dirt, gravel, rocks, sand, snow, and other materials.

Shovel blades curve off of the tips of their shafts. This curvature positions the blade tip forward, which, in turn, enhances its capacity for sliding under mounds of material. This mound sliding is (usually) more troublesome to perform with a spade.

Plus, shovels are excellent for digging, as long as high precision is not your priority. The curved blade scoop is perfect for digging wide, not precise, holes. The shovel is the best bet when you want to move a lot of material in one motion.

Most shovels have long handles for increased leverage, and their blades may be flat, pointed, round, or serrated.

Let’s take a closer look at the different types of shovels now.

PS – We hope you are having a blast learning about the art and science of spade vs shovel so far! (Gardening geeks unite! Alright.)

Types of Shovels

digging in the backyard garden using a spade shovel
We love using round-point shovels when we plant evergreens, shrubs, small fruit trees, or garden vegetables. Round-point shovels are especially helpful when planting a tree that requires a transplant hole of at least two or three feet deep. Sometimes, a light spade doesn’t offer enough leverage to dig a large, deep hole. However, a narrow spade is far superior for digging light holes with rocky soil or roots. But even if you use a spade to dig or at least break up the hard garden soil, it’s also handy to have a garden shovel to scoop out the extra dirt.

I consider my long-handled shovel one of my essential tools. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves – there are two shovel types to consider today. Let’s start with digging shovels and scooping shovels. 

Let’s not waste time. We have digging to do!

Digging Shovels

Digging shovels are probably the most recognizable for most gardeners. They’re wide, scooping blades curved forward, projecting them out from each side of the front of the handle. The top of the digging shovel blade features a foot pad on each side, which allows you to add pressure for cutting through tough turf or other obstacles. Or just achieving a deeper cut.

You can use this type of shovel for many different tasks – like transplanting trees, digging out the roots of large weeds, jabbing through shrub roots, prying up rocks, and digging deep holes. The digging shovel is one of the most versatile gardening tools in existence!

Scooping Shovels

Scooping shovels are commonly called transfer shovels, and they’re used to move large amounts of loose materials, like loose garden soil and snow. They’re also great for diverse farming purposes, like loading or relocating compost piles or manure. These shovels resemble dustpans, with their edges projecting upwards to form a short but wide U-shape, which enables higher load stacking and holding it in place.

Spade vs Shovel – Which Is Best for You?

using a spade shovel for backyard garden work cultivating and moving dirt
We read an excellent digging tutorial from the Iowa State University Extension called Digging Smart. One of their most noteworthy tips was to shovel horizontally rather than vertically – and push the shovel or spade into the dirt, mulch, or compost pile. You then lift with your legs – not your back. And also – pace yourself! We read there are over 11,500 snow-related shoveling injuries per year. And that number doesn’t include other shoveling injuries! So – take your time, use good form, and take a breather every few minutes! (Don’t hurt or over-exert yourself!)

OK, now we know the differences between spades and shovels and their advantages. So, which one is best for you? Of course, that depends on the task you are doing.

You can usually accomplish your goals with either a spade or a shovel, depending on which one you have available. Remember, you typically dig with a spade. And then relocate or scoop with a shovel.

I’m not a fan of a fiberglass handle. I prefer wooden-handled spades and shovels because wood absorbs shock better than fiberglass or metal. It makes a difference after a long day of digging! Plus, fiberglass bends and warps over time. I’ll take a wooden handle shovel shaft every time.

I prefer carbon steel blades on my spades and shovels relative to iron or other materials. When I grab a shovel, I’m ready to do back-breaking work. I need the most durable material available. And I like a sharp blade with a beveled edge!

My advice is that, regardless of the type of tool you’re buying, it’s always better to purchase a high-quality tool designed to last for years of use and, in my case, often, significant abuse.

Thank you for reading today about spade vs

shovelI dug it, and I hope you did too!

(We invite you to comment below if you have stories about your favorite garden shovel. Or if you have spade vs shovel questions. We love hearing from you!)

Thanks again for reading.

Have a great day!

removing snow from the walkway with a snow shovel
Shoveling heavy wet snow in the winter is the worst. But it’s easier if you have a thick-handled shovel with an oversized (yet light) plastic blade. Snow removal is another shovel vs spade occurrence where shovels win hands down. We’ve seen far too many accidents from people shoveling snow – the least you can do is use the right tool. And we’ve also read you should keep the shovel close to your body when shoveling snow. One mistake many homesteaders make is they hold the shovel too far away from their bodies – making it much harder to move the heavy snow. (And much more likely to strain your back. Or your body!)

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  1. I guess I’m just totally ignorant: I STILL don’t get the difference after reading THREE post about the difference. To me, ALL photos in all three post look like what I have always known and called shovels.
    Spades, to me are those small implements that dig holes for plants. They are not longer than about 8 -10 inches and are held in one hand.
    Still confused

    1. Hi there, Carol! Thanks for reaching out! Essentially, a spade looks like a rectangle. A shovel has an arrow-shaped point at the tip. Also, we use spades and shovels differently. A spade is like a knife that cuts into the soil, while a shovel is more like a scoop or spoon that helps us move dirt or other stuff (like snow or mulch). I really hope that helps you! I will admit it is pretty confusing, and it took a lot of research for us to find a decent answer to this question. Thank you for your comment, and I hope you have a wonderful day!

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