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Before plastic nursery pots, real American gardeners were always big transplanters. Our grandparents and their ancestors off the farm knew how to move plants of all kinds. Transplanting, sowing, grafting, trade and cuttings were the way you got new plants, so these skills were essential to creating a beautiful landscape or a productive garden affordably.
Knowing how to transplant helps you salvage discards pulled from demolition sites to enhance your yard. Dumpster diving can be highly fruitful, too. It becomes a blend of science and field technique that has always made the best gardeners those born to humble means. They did not grow up wealthy, but they grew up rich in these essential plant skills. And these skills translated into incredible gardens.
For digging out plants to divide, pot-up or move elsewhere, no tool is better than a spading fork. Do not confuse this flat-tine spading fork with a hay pitchfork, which has round tines. Spading forks are essential to lift the root crown of large, heavy plants up from the bottom of a deep hole. When plants are too big for one fork, two gardeners each armed with a fork dig in on opposite sides, then simultaneously lift and pop out a difficult specimen.
The spading fork takes muscle, so it's a very personal tool that should fit your body. A spading fork may have a long handle like that of a shovel, which my tall husband prefers. I like average height and a short handle with a "D" grip, ideal for tight spaces.
You can also use a shovel for transplanting, too, but differently. Shovel blades invisibly sever every root encountered no matter the diameter or importance. When moving old woody shrubs with very deep woody roots, you must cut them to move the plant. This is when the clean severance by a sharp edge shovel blade ensures rapid healing and formation of new roots once transplanted.
The spading fork is vital for perennials and succulents and plants that are in rocky ground or bear soft fleshy roots. The fork can be used to loosen soil all around a perennial so it lifts gently and intact, ready to carry elsewhere to replant or pot.
The spading fork is the primary tool for raised bed gardening to blend soils and turn the ground with compost for renewal. There's little doubt that during the Great Depression every man turned his wife's vegetable patch by hand with a fork. It is renowned for more easily turning over backyard soil to make a new vegetable garden from scratch just like grandpa did. Shovels leave dense clods packed by pressure of the blade that must be broken up.
If there's one tool to make gardens and get yard work done, it's a spading fork. Buy the strongest tines you can find because they take a lot of pressure prying plants out of the root bed. Also pay attention to the handle connection, since weak ones fall apart where the stem of the tines is inserted into the wood handle. American made spading forks are superior to imported ones, except for those manufactured in England where men are very serious about their forks.
The longer you use a spading fork, the more indispensable it becomes. All those special tools you see advertised on TV can be discarded in favor of this one universal gardener's fork. Where weeds are deeply rooted in, use the fork to loosen the soil before you pull them out with the roots. Stick it into dense soil or lawn to open up the drainage. Nothing works better to sift out all the detritus from your raised beds or clean up at the end of the season. Perhaps after you give your husband or dad a great spading fork for Father's Day, be ready show him where you want the new garden next week so he can try it out.
Maureen Gilmer is an author, horticulturist and landscape designer. Learn more at www.MoPlants.com