Anthropologists often say that humankind went “from bow to hoe” when switching from hunting and gathering to growing food. Garden hoes were probably the first gardening tools, made from sticks, antlers, bone and stone. Then as now, hoes were indispensable for shaping soil and controlling weeds. Every gardener needs at least one good hoe, and most serious gardeners use several. Hoes vary in the types of work they are designed to do, so the challenge is to choose the best hoes for the tasks that await in your garden. For a chart of which hoes work best for which tasks, check out Choose the Right Hoe for the Job.
Sizing Up Handles
A hoe is comprised of a head — of which there are several major variations, discussed below — and a handle. The handle can be made of wood, metal or fiberglass. Although most handles are straight, push-pull scuffle hoes may include a second “pistol grip” (link to image gallery) on the handle for easier operation.
The length of a hoe’s handle should correspond to both the nature and duration of its use. If you have many rows to weed in a large garden, a long-handled hoe you can use in an upright position will save time and muscle strain. On the other hand, if your garden is a small collection of intensively managed raised beds, you may find you prefer the more detailed weeding job you can do with a short-handled hoe. Many of the hoe heads described here are available mounted on short- and long-handled hoes. Artisan toolmakers, such as leftyfriendly Red Pig tools in Oregon and Rogue Hoe in Missouri, make state-of-the-art hoes (and “hand plows”) with 12-inch handles. Among long-handled hoes, handle length ranges from 55 to 60 inches for hoes you’d use when bending over, to 74 inches for hoes you’d use while standing up. Tall people should opt for the longest handle available. For folks of average height, a 65-inch handle offers good balance and grip.
With hard-to-weed carrots, beets and onions, you can often do a better job using a short-handled tool than you can using a hoe with a long handle. Some diversity in the handle lengths of your hoes is obviously in order.
High-Efficiency Scuffle Hoes
Ready to start talking heads and blades? For most gardeners, a sharp, ultralight scuffle hoe is a top tool for controlling young weeds up to 4 inches tall. Scuffle hoes cut when you push and again when you pull on the handle, which makes them more efficient than hoes that cut in just one direction. Many scuffle hoes can be operated from a near-standing position, usually by swinging the blade through weeds instead of chopping them, which can be hard on your back. Scuffle hoes come in two designs:
Diamond or triangle hoes slice through weeds on all sides, so they make excellent use of time and energy. Models include DeWit’s diamond hoe ($47), Rogue Hoe’s triangle hoe ($25), and Fisher Industries’ Winged Weeder (about $20), which looks like a swept-back diamond hoe. At retail stores, look for Ames’ floral scuffle hoe for about $40.
Keep in mind that diamond and triangle hoes are dangerously sharp, so they must be handled carefully and stored out of the reach of young children. Their efficiency depends on the sharpness of their blades, so you should start every serious weeding session by honing out any bumps or dull spots in blades with a hand file or whetstone. When you use one of these hoes, make small, controlled movements to avoid slicing down seedlings instead of weeds.
Stirrup hoes are a safer alternative because their outer edges are smooth rather than sharp, reducing danger to nearby plants. Both edges of a stirrup hoe’s cutting blade are sharp, so it cuts on the push and the pull as you scuffle it through the soil. Many gardeners consider stirrup hoes a step up from diamond and triangle hoes, and they switch to stirrups for weeds that have formed clumps or grown more than 4 inches high. Prices range from $20 for a small Hula Hoe or other American-made model to about $50 for stirrup hoes from esteemed European toolmakers.
Endearing Draw Hoes
What about the traditional American garden hoe, which you can buy for less than $15 at garden and hardware stores? Called a draw hoe because it cuts only on the pull (or draw), a well-sharpened American garden hoe will slice down weeds reasonably well, and you can use it to shape beds, chop and mix compost, or make planting furrows. I keep one around (you never know when you might need to mix up a batch of concrete), but several higher-quality draw hoes are much better suited to controlling garden weeds. Starting with the lightest, here are some draw hoes worth considering:
Collinear hoes have thin, sharp blades that shave down young weeds and are nimble enough to get between closely spaced plants. People who grow a lot of onions eventually fall in love with these $40, featherweight hoes. Like diamond and triangle hoes, collinear hoes are only for weeding.
The unique design of the circle hoe ($30) makes it safer than the collinear hoes for close work. Circle hoes work well when used up close to your crops, but don’t cover as much ground as quickly as other styles. Swan-neck hoes have curved necks to enable less bending on the part of their human operators, but the phrase “swan neck” describes the hoe’s mount, not its cutting blade. You can get a swan neck with a Warren hoe blade (which has a triangular, often slightly curved blade); a flat, half-moon (semicircle) blade; or a number of other blade designs.
Japanese draw hoes usually have a half-moon (semicircle) shape, but without the swan-neck mount. Subtle differences between products are endless, as you will see by looking at the selection of hoes sold by Lee Valley Tools and Rogue Hoe. At $25 to $55, draw hoes, inspired by Japanese gardeners’ dedication to sharp edges, make great all-around garden hoes.
Field or grub hoes are noticeably heavier than many other hoes, but as weeds gain size, these chopping champs quickly emerge as the best tools for the job. If you want to attack deep-rooted dock, burdock or Canada thistle, this is the kind of hoe you need. Their weight also makes them a top choice if you need to cut weeds growing up through hay or bark mulches. Field hoes also are great tools for cutting irrigation trenches, hilling up soil, taking down spent crops, or breaking up chunks of almost-done compost.
Lovin' Care for Your Best Hoes
Given reasonable care, a good hoe will last a lifetime, and often longer. Chopping into soil, rocks and roots dulls a blade, so you should keep a small mill file handy for sharpening your hoe ($2 to $5 at any hardware store). I keep a file with my gardening gloves so it’s always ready to grab on my way out the door. (For details on how to sharpen garden tools, see A Guide to Tool Sharpening Basics. — MOTHER EARTH NEWS)
You can make an old hoe seem young again by spiffing up the blade with a sharp edge, and by sanding and oiling the handle (linseed oil is preferred, but canola will do in a pinch). Some stirrup and collinear hoes have replaceable blades, and there is no limit to how many times you can replace a hoe’s handle. After you discover how effective a high-quality hoe can be, you won’t mind spending a few minutes now and then keeping it in top condition — something smart gardeners have known for nearly 10,000 years.
Garden Hoe Sources
Earth Tools: 502-484-3988
Johnny’s Selected Seeds: 877-564-6697
Lee Valley Tools: 800-871-8158 (USA); 800-267-8767 (Canada)
Peaceful Valley Farm Supply: 888-784-1722
Red Pig Garden Tools: 503-663-9404
Rogue Hoe: 417-962-5091
Do you have a favorite weeding tool or tip we didn’t mention? Post a comment below and share your wisdom with the world. — MOTHER EARTH NEWS