By Skip Richter
unfortunately a part of gardening. I'd like to tell you
that I don't allow them in my garden but I don't think
you'd buy that one for a minute. The irritating thing is
that we go to such great links to make our desirable
flowers and vegetables survive and grow while weeds just
thrive all on their own. Even when we make an attempt on
their life, they seem to recover and bounce right back.
Someone once said, "If you see a plant growing and
wonder if it is a weed or a flower, pull it up. If it
comes back, it was a weed."
I must confess that
I've had an ongoing lifelong battle against weeds. Weeds
and I, well we have a history. From my childhood years
of having to pull weeds as punishment for misbehaving
(let's just say that we had the most weed free garden in
town.) to hoeing miles of peanut rows in the summers as
a teen to make a few bucks, I've been a weed hit man for
as long as I can recall.
There are just a few
options for managing weeds in the garden. Preventing
them with mulch is a good start and offers several
additional benefits as well as that of deterring weeds.
Herbicides are a second option. Most gardeners don't
bother with the pre-emergence products as they are not
all that simple to apply at correct rates and must be
watered in properly to activate. Plus the trend is away
from chemicals toward a more natural approach to
gardening. This leaves physical control, i.e. hand
hoeing and cultivating.
This article will focus
on the old fashioned approach of hoeing weeds. Forget
your old memories of chompin' up the dirt to weed the
garden. Forget too the blisters, calluses and back aches
of too much time spent stooping over to grub or pull out
weeds. If you've been hacking up dirt with a standard
garden hoe you are in for a pleasant surprise. There are
some old and some new tools that make weeding easier,
faster and more effective.
Get What You Pay
Now I know it's an old adage but in the long
run you really do get what you pay for. Cheap tools
break, fall apart, and often don't work well to begin
with. Not all hoes are made the same. Manufacturers cut
corners in a number of ways. The most common is at the
place where the metal blade joins with the handle. This
point is the spot where the greatest pressure is exerted
and where the tool is most likely to come apart.
Some hoes attach with a shank that extends from the
blade up into the handle. A metal sheath is then wrapped
around the base of the handle. This creates a weak
connection that will come apart in time. Better quality
tools create stronger connections where the blade and
the piece that wraps around the handle is all one piece
of metal. They also allow for easy changing of the
handle should it ever break.
The basic garden hoe
design is the least expensive. As you get into unique
specialty hoes the price goes up considerably. Just
remember that a quality hoe will last a lifetime if
provided good care. Plus all those years of use will be
in easier and more effective weeding work. Anyone who
has purchased pocket knives, pruners or power tools
knows that a quality tool is the best long term
Types of Hoes
Let's take a
look at some of the improvement in hoe design over the
years. First we can divide hoes into two categories,
those that move soil and those that simply remove weeds.
The traditional standard garden hoe is designed to do a
little of both. Despite its popularity it is not the
best hoe for either job. A heavier duty version of the
standard garden hoe is called a Nursery Hoe.
Soil Moving & Shaping
Soil moving hoes have
larger blades. Some hoes may have a blade shape designed
to facilitate a special soil moving function. Examples
of soil moving hoes are the raised bed hoe (with wide
blade for forming and shaping beds) and the potato hoe
(designed for hilling up potatoes).
function of soil moving hoes is for forming trenches.
The Warren hoe has an arrowhead or triangular shaped
design with the point of the arrowhead downward making
it useful for forming small furrows. It also may be used
to tamp down the soil after seeding. The Warren hoe
doubles duty as a weeding hoe for digging beneath a
larger weed to pry up the roots.
The Korean hoe
has a blade that curves inward and ends in a sharp
point. It is also useful for forming a furrow or for
digging beneath a larger weed to remove it roots and
all. The heavy bladed eye hoe, sometimes referred to as
a grub hoe, is also useful for trenching and for
removing larger weeds.
best time to remove a weed is when it is still young.
The older and larger it gets the more effort you'll
spend trying to remove it. While still young weeds can
be easily destroyed (don't you just love the sound of
that word?) with the thin blade of a hoe moving
horizontally just below the soil surface.
disrupts the soil the least and thus eliminates the weed
without bringing new weed seeds to the surface to set
you up for a major invasion in round two. It is also
much easier. The act of chopping down hard, pulling up
soil, lifting the tool, and chopping again is a lot of
work. Your back and hands feel the strain and without
gloves blisters are sure to come.
In addition to
weed control when you slice horizontally just under the
soil surface it cultivates the soil, breaking up the
crusty surface layer. This broken surface acts rather
like a mulch in that it slows evaporation from the lower
parts of the soil while improving aeration and water
infiltration during a light rain.
Hoes that move
horizontally just below the surface can be operated with
little effort and while standing upright. A gardener can
cover a lot of ground in a short time. And if I can side
track here a moment I'd like to offer something else to
consider. Weeding this way is therapy. You spend a
little time outdoors in fairly mindless work in which
you can get a lot of thinking done about whatever is
going on in your life. Then in a short time you look
back over the row or bed you just completed and the
results of your work are immediately evident. There is a
simple kind of satisfaction in a task with such
immediate and dramatic before and after results.
There is a tendency for us gardeners to operate long
handled garden tools using our backs to push or pull as
we lean forward and back. We also tend to stand stooped
over as we work. After a while in doing such work in
such a position your back will really let you know it is
not happy with the arrangement!
Instead, start by
standing up straight with legs apart shoulder width and
knees bent just slightly. I have a couple of good
techniques that work well for me. The first is to grip
the handle with the hand on the same side of your body
as the tool handle at your waist and your other hand in
front of you with both thumbs pointed down toward the
blade end of the handle. Use your arms to push and pull
the hoe or cultivator through the soil.
alternative technique is to place the hand on the tool
handle side of your body up at shoulder height and place
the other hand at about waist height with both thumbs
pointed up toward the end of the handle. The action is
more like sweeping to the side and just in front of you.
It may seem awkward at first but it works well once you
get the hang of it, and it keeps you from stooping.
These techniques only work with hoes designed for
slicing horizontally just below the surface as opposed
to garden, nursery or eye/grubbing type hoes.
Top Choices for Weeding
There are a lot of
specialty hoes on the market designed for working the
soil surface to remove weeds. Each has its advantages
but I've found that most experienced gardeners usually
have one or two favorite designs depending on the job. A
few cut on the push stroke, some on the pull stroke and
others cut on both strokes. Here are a few of the more
common specialty hoes that are designed for controlling
weeds while they are still very small. Should you let
the weeds get ahead of you, then you're back to choppin'
away with a standard type hoe.or using my favorite
technique: Mow, Rototill, and Start Over!
(Also called Stirrup, Scuffle,
Action and Hula Hoe)
This hoe has a stirrup-like
strap of metal sharpened on both edges which pivots
slightly back and forth at the point of attachment. It
is used in a push and pull action rocking back and forth
across the soil.
You can cover a lot of ground
quickly with an oscillating hoe. It is not the precision
weeding tool that some hoes are but it is very efficient
and great for cultivating as you weed.
The unique collinear hoe has a
long, narrow rectangular blade. It is used in a sweeping
motion alongside your body with the handle very upright.
Using a collinear hoe is kinda like shaving your garden
soil to remove the weeds! The sharp thin blades are
usually replaceable and work well on soil that is
reasonably prepared. These types of hoes don't work well
in hard soil with large clods.
The design of these hoes is a curved
arching neck with a fairly narrow blade that has a
curved top and a straight cutting edge. They slice on
the pull stroke only. The sharp pointed edges are great
for getting into tight places to get at weeds. They are
used in a sweeping motion alongside your body with the
handle at a very upright angle to the soil.
This hoe has a wide narrow diamond
shape with sharp edges on all four sides and long narrow
points on the left and right ends of the diamond shape.
It is used with both push and pull action in a sweeping
motion. Some models have an offset "T-handle" (also
called a pistol grip) at the end of the long handle for
using in a motion similar to using a hand saw. The
diamond hoe is sometimes also called a scuffle hoe as
are other hoes with varying shapes such as triangular,
which are sharpened on all sides and travel flat to the
soil just beneath the surface.
This is the second hoe that goes by the name
stirrup hoe but it is quite unlike the oscillating hoe.
These tools have a continuous loop of metal that is
flattened into a sharp blade along the base edge. They
are good for working in close around plants and provide
the advantage of making it easier to see where the edge
of the tool's cutting surface is. This avoids a few
This is quite
similar to the stirrup and loop hoes except that the
blade is a flat circular piece of metal sharpened on
both edges. The tool is easy to use and makes weeding
around plants fast and goof proof too.
certainly not an exhaustive list of the many specialty
hoes on the market. There are a number of variations on
many of these hoes and additional hoes by other names
including onion hoe (wide narrow blade for close work),
pointed push hoe (push & pull slicing), cavex hoe
(similar to standard hoe but with curved blade edge),
and the Dutch scuffle hoe (a push hoe).
Provide a quality tool good care and it will
last for years. Whenever you finish using a hoe wash it
off to remove any dirt. If your soil is heavy clay a
flathead screwdriver or wire brush may be needed to
remove the sticky soil. Dry the blade promptly after
Spray the metal parts with a product
like WD-40 or wipe them with oil to prevent rust. Once
in a while sand any wooden handles lightly to smooth
them if they are becoming rough. An occasional wipe down
with linseed oil will also help keep the wood in good
Some gardeners use a 5 gallon bucket
3/4 full of coarse sand to clean and oil their hoes,
shovels, spades and other tools. Pour a quart of oil
into the sand. Then push your tools into the sand a few
times to clean any remaining dirt off and to apply a
thin coat of oil to their surfaces. Remove the tools and
wipe off excess oil and sand. You can also leave spades
and shovels stuck down into the bucket of sand as a
Keep your hoes sharp for
easier, more effective weeding. Place the blade in a
vise with the blade edge pointing up to hold it
securely. I like to put on a pair of leather gloves just
to be safe. Use a mill file to put a 30 to 45 degree
angle on the blade. Use long smooth strokes downward or
toward the blade. A mill file cuts in one direction, so
only push the file against the tool blade on the down
stroke. File the 30 to 45 degree angle on just one side
of the blade. Finish by filing the opposite side with
just a few very light strokes just to remove any burs
that curled under when you were working the beveled side
in order to leave a good sharp edge on the blade.
Don't be concerned if you aren't an expert at
sharpening garden tools. Even if you don't do a superb
job your hoe will work much better than had you not
sharpened it at all, and you'll gain practice in the
these hoes come in long handled and hand held sizes.
Both come in very handy. While we focused on hoes in
this article I can't help but mention that there are
many other great garden tools for cultivating, and hand
weeding. One such tool is a simple little hand tool
called the Cobrahead Weeder which is great for loosening
soil for setting out transplants, working around plants
to remove weeds and for forming a seeding furrow.
Visit a good full service garden center in your area
to see what types of hoes and other weeding tools they
carry. There are many brands and styles on the market at
a wide range of prices. If you have trouble finding
these specialty hoes in your area the sources list that
accompanies this article lists mail order companies that
carry many of these tools.
241 Fox Drive
Piqua, OH 45356-0816
Action Hoe (an Oscillating type hoe)
EZ-Digger (a Korean Hoe)
Valley Tools Ltd.
P.O. Box 1780
Ogdensburg, NY 13669-6780
Customer Service (800) 267-8735
Circlehoe (hand held size)
6534 Tunnel Loop Road
Grants Pass, OR 97526
Gardener's Supply Company
Burlington, VT 05401
Swan Neck Hoe
Johnny's Selected Seeds
955 Benton Avenue
Winslow, ME 04901
Garden Hoe (quality design with
shaped blade and stronger
attachment to the handle than most)
Hoe (an Oscillating Hoe)
1525 Kays Branch Road
Swan Neck Hoe
(standard garden type hoe
with a replaceable trapezoid shaped blade
and a stronger attachment to the handle