|By Skip Richter
eeds are 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 For
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 investment.
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).
Another 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.
The 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.
This 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.
An 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.
Swan Neck/Half Moon Hoe
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 “oops.”
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.
This is 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 washing.
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 condition.
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 storage container.
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 process!
Many of 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.
|A. M. Leonard, Inc.
241 Fox Drive
P.O. Box 816
Piqua, OH 45356-0816
|Action Hoe (an Oscillating type hoe)
Eye Type Grub Hoe
EZ-Digger (a Korean Hoe)
|Lee Valley Tools Ltd.
P.O. Box 1780
Ogdensburg, NY 13669-6780
Orders (800) 871-8158
Customer Service (800) 267-8735
|Circlehoe (hand held size)
|Index Innovations, Inc.
6534 Tunnel Loop Road
Grants Pass, OR 97526
|Circlehoe (several sizes)
|Gardener’s Supply Company
128 Intervale Road
Burlington, VT 05401
Swan Neck Hoe
|Johnny’s Selected Seeds
955 Benton Avenue
Winslow, ME 04901
877-Johnnys (877) 564-6697
Garden Hoe (quality design with replaceable
trapezoid shaped blade and stronger
attachment to the handle than most)
Stirrup Hoe (an Oscillating Hoe)
|Earth Tools, Inc.
1525 Kays Branch Road
Owenton, KY 40359
Raised Bed Builder
Swan Neck Hoe
Upright Hoe (standard garden type hoe
with a replaceable trapezoid shaped blade
and a stronger attachment to the handle