Sure, it seems like the easiest thing in the world. Summer’s here, you have a bunch of holes to dig for a fence or some new shrubs, so you grab a shovel and head for the yard. But hang on a second. Even with something as simple as digging a hole, there are a few tricks of the trade worth knowing about — and why make a hard physical job even harder than it needs to be?
The right tools
First of all, gather the right tools. Holes, obviously, require shovels. But what kind? For just about any type of hole-digging project you’ll encounter, from landscaping to construction, there are three tools you need to have, along with a couple of optional additions. And by the way, after you buy them, keep them clean and store them inside out of the weather, and they’ll last you a lifetime.
- Round-point shovel: Skip the bargain bin, wooden-handle version. Instead, invest in a good one with a steel or fiberglass handle and a sharp blade. There are different handle lengths — longer ones give you a little more leverage, but may feel awkward. The trade-off isn’t worth it, so go with what feels most comfortable.
- Garden spade: These go by different names and come in different configurations, but what they have in common is a blade that’s relatively narrow and straight. Some are completely straight across the bottom edge, and some are convexly curved. They’re designed for cutting through sod and small roots, and for loosening hard soil. Their smaller blade size gets them into areas where your regular shovel won’t reach.
- Post-hole digger: Also called a clam-shell digger, this tool has two handles and two curved, sharpened metal digging blades that are connected with a long bolt so they pivot. It’s used for digging relatively narrow, deep holes for posts, as well as for planting smaller plants. They all work the same, so your best bet is to go with something that’s light and easy to use.
- Trenching shovel: Here’s one of your optional tools. A trenching shovel looks a lot like a standard round-point shovel, but the blade is much narrower, typically only about 4 inches wide. It’s used primarily for digging narrow trenches for running wires or sprinkler pipes, but it’s also great for cleaning out holes and areas that are too confined for a larger shovel.
- Digging bar: If you have to work in hard or rocky soil, then you’ll probably also appreciate having a digging bar. Digging bars come in lots of different configurations, but basically it’s just a long, heavy steel bar with an angled end for breaking up soil and picking out rocks. It can also be used for leverage for other tasks, such as moving heavy landscaping rocks. Some types have a flat knob on the other end that you can use for tamping.
"Call Before You Dig"
The first thing you need to do before you start digging those holes is to call 811. This is the new, federally mandated national "Call Before You Dig" number, which was created to help protect you from unintentionally hitting underground utility lines. Simply call 811, and within 48 hours they’ll have the utility lines on your property marked for you, at no cost. If you don’t use the service and you damage something you don’t know is down there, not only is it very dangerous, you could be on the hook for some very expensive repairs!
Start by carefully laying out where your holes will go. If you want your posts or plants in a row, don’t trust your eye — use a string. Measure the proper locations of the hole centers, and mark them with wooden stakes.
Use your spade to cut out the sod if necessary. Set the sod aside on a tarp, and keep it moist. You can then cut it to size as needed and put it back into the lawn later, where it will quickly re-root. If you have hard soil, break it up with the spade as well.
For small, deep holes, such as those for posts, use your post-hole digger. Grasp one handle in each hand, lift the tool above the dirt, and drive it straight down. Pull the handles away from each other, which will cause the blades to pivot inward. That removes and traps the dirt. Hold the handles in that position so you don’t lose the dirt, and lift it out of the hole. Move the handles back together to open the blades and dump the dirt. Repeat the process until you’ve reached the desired depth. Dump the dirt on a tarp, or on a sheet of plywood. It keeps it out of the grass, and makes it a lot easier to shovel back into the hole later.
If you have to leave the holes unattended, cover them with scraps of plywood. That keeps dirt from falling back in, and also prevents someone from getting hurt. If rain is coming, cover your dirt pile as well, to prevent all that soil from washing away.