Digging is tough work, but it's easier with the right kind of shovel.

The Best Shovel for Digging a Trench

by Brian Barth

You're undoubtedly familiar with the most basic landscaping and gardening tools -- rake, hoe, pitchfork, shovel -- and perhaps many others. But there's actually a whole world of more specialized tools out there. Under the category of shovel, for example, there quite a few variations on the general theme, such as the flat-tipped "transfer shovel" and the oversized snow shovel. If you need to dig a trench, there's a shovel just for that. You can choose among several specialized shovels that could be the best for the job, depending on the trench you need to dig.

Trenching Shovels

Trenching shovels have a narrow blade, usually about 3 or 4 inches wide, and either a pointed or rounded tip. By name, they sound like the perfect tool for trenching, which is the intention behind the narrow width. But in reality, it's hard to apply much force to them with your foot for digging into hard ground -- the top of the blade is a little too narrow to fit your foot on. They work very well, however, for trenching in soil that's already loose.


A spade is a slightly wider than a trenching shovel and the blade is usually much longer. The blade is also straight in regard to the handle, while the blade on a trenching shovel is at an angle to the bottom of the handle. These features make a spade better for digging trenches in most situations than the so-called trenching shovel. It's wide enough for your foot to get a grip on, and the straight blade means all the downward force you give it is directed into digging through hard soil and roots.

Digging Shovel

This is what most people picture when they say the word shovel. The blade is usually about 8 inches wide -- plenty of room to get your foot on there -- and It has a pointed tip, which is invaluable in tough digging situations. The drawback of a pointed digging shovel is it doesn't help you dig a narrow trench, which is often the point when you're laying irrigation pipe, for example. However, if you need to dig a wide trench anyway, skip the trenching tool and spade and head straight for a basic digging shovel.

Digging Tips

Keep a few things in mind when digging a trench, for safety and the sake of your back. Before starting any trenching project, you must call 811 to have the utility lines marked in your yard -- you don't want to hit a buried gas or water line. Also, invest in a good pair of work gloves when you buy your shovel. Harmful pathogens may be present in the soil, so it's best to protect yourself. Take a slow, steady pace from the beginning when you start digging your trench. It's really hard work, and you might as well be patient and find a rhythm that works for your body. Remember to bend your knees each time you lift a shovel of soil -- this reduces the strain on your back.

About the Author

Brian Barth works in the fields of landscape architecture and urban planning and is co-founder of Urban Agriculture, Inc., an Atlanta-based design firm where he is head environmental consultant. He holds a Master's Degree in Environmental Planning and Design from the University of Georgia. His blog, Food for Thought, explores the themes of land use, urban agriculture, and environmental literacy.

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