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Some restraint may be needed before digging in

“Under my window, a clean rasping sound

When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:

My father, digging. I look down ”

Seamus Heaney, “Digging,” in “Death of a Naturalist,” 1966

Seamus Heaney (1939-2013) was an Irish poet who won a Nobel Prize for his rhythmical portrayals of life in rural Ireland where he grew up. In the beginning of this autobiographical poem, Heaney watches his father digging in the flowerbeds and remembers him as a younger man digging potatoes on the family farm: “By God, the old man could handle a spade. Just like his old man.”

Over the years of gardening, I’ve learned there are, indeed, more and less effective ways of handling a spade. And there are different kinds of digging tools that are more and less effective for accomplishing particular tasks.

However, before I get started on garden spades and spade handling, I want to caution against taking a spade to garden soil too soon. We’ve had higher than average rainfall lately, so soils with a lot of clay content may need a little extra time to dry out. Working wet soil causes loss of air pockets in the soil’s structure and results in compacted earth and hard-as-cement clods — not good soil for growing healthy plants!

The best way to test your garden soil is by scooping up a handful from the top few inches and squeezing it in your fist. If the soil crumbles apart when you open your fist, then it’s ready for the spade. If the soil stays in a wet clump in your hand, then it needs to dry out more before it is worked. (If you’ve already tilled wet soil, apply a thick layer of mulch on top to reduce ill effects.)

Even with all of our recent rain, the soil in my raised beds and plant berms are sufficiently dry beneath the top few inches, except for some borders in shadier spots. Faster drainage is one important benefit of amending high-clay soil with compost.

If the soil is safe to dig in, there are three kinds of digging tools that may be helpful: a trowel, a shovel and a spade. I use my hand trowel for most of my planting because it’s the perfect size for handling seedlings and small plants and for digging in between plants in the garden bed. It’s also good for digging out shallower weeds by their roots.

I like stainless steel trowels with a pointed tip, a good-sized scoop surface and a handle with a grip. I should probably wear my trowels on a lanyard around my neck because I lose them everywhere.

Shovels and spades are both long-handled digging tools. I like those with a U-shaped handle that reaches about waist high, so I can lean into it when I dig. Shovels have a pointed scooping tip, and spades have a flatter scoop and a straight edge.

I use my shovel to dig holes for shrubs and trees. I use a transplanting spade with a long, slender blade and rounded tip to divide and transplant deep-rooted plants and bulbs. Border spades have a smaller, flat blade and a straight tip useful for keeping border edges even.

In addition to using the right digging tool, I’ve learned a few digging techniques that make the work easier on my body. As with everything else about good gardening, good digging requires me to be more mindful about the process, rather than focusing only on getting the job done quickly.

First, I wear garden gloves so I don’t get blisters, and I wear shoes with hard soles so I can place an adequate amount of pressure on top of the shovel/spade blade. Next, I take a second to position the blade where I want it to be and align my hips parallel to the handle so I’m not leaning forward too far. I use my back leg to stabilize my posture so I don’t hunch over, and I anchor the top of the blade against the heel of my shoe.

Then, firmly grasping the handle (this is where the U-shaped design is so handy), I lean forward in a straight line, shifting my weight to the front leg and foot pressing down on the blade. Even though I’m impatient, I try to lift up just enough dirt to fill the blade without overflowing by shifting my weight again to the back leg and bending at my hips and knees, rather than my back. If my back hurts after digging, I know I’ve done it wrong.

I’ve learned to swing my entire body around to place the dirt where I want it to be, rather than using just my arms. It’s also helpful to periodically switch which legs are positioned front and back for digging so both sides of my body get a workout.

I always feel exhilarated after digging in the garden. I’m tired, but my senses have been excited by the smell and feel of the upturned earth and the vision of plants growing where there was only bare ground before. Seamus Heaney was right — rhythmical digging is poetic.

Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer. Email her at Rnowak39@gmail.com or visit her blog at http://blogs.esouthernoregon.com/theliterarygardener/.