Use a Skimming Spade for Garden Weeding

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You can clear off even the most tangled, over-grown greenery with this technique.
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Bend way over — so the tool will slice just under the soil — then cut through the weed roots.
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Before you can skim with a spade, you have to sharpen its edge with a file.

Discover what may be one of the handiest all-purpose garden weeding techniques around.

When you need to clear out a lot of plants — say, you’re removing a cover crop or weeding a pathway — you can crank up the Rototiller (if you have one) . . . resign yourself to hours of hoeing . . . or grab a spade and skim off the unwanted foliage. MOTHER EARTH NEWS gardeners have found that, more often than not, the last method is the easiest and quickest way to get the job done.

Use a Skimming Spade for Garden Weeding

Skimming was introduced to this country by Alan Chadwick, founder of biodynamic/ French intensive gardening, and consists of using a sharpened spade to chop plants off just under the soil surface. It’s not difficult to master this garden weeding technique, but it does require a back strong enough to tolerate a good bit of bending over.

Please note you’ll need a spade — a digging tool with a flat, straight-edged blade that generally sits at only a slight angle to its shaft. (Our gardeners use the Bulldog garden spade from Smith & Hawken Tool Company.) A shovel, with its familiar curve edged blade that sits at a sharper angle to the shaft, won’t do for this job.

You’ll also need to sharpen the edge of your spade’s blade with an eight-inch mill bastard file, a carborundum stone, or a similar tool to give it the keen edge it will need to slice through soil and plant roots. Put this edge on one side of the blade; Susan Glaese, our head gardener, likes to hone the back edge of her spade, but some other gardeners prefer the front. To hone an edge, secure the blade in a stationary position — perhaps against a stump and held in place with a foot or knee and run your sharpening tool repeatedly over the blade edge at a constant, moderate angle. Go over the entire rim a couple of times (you’re not aiming for razor sharpness here) . . . then flip the spade over and give its other side a light filing to help finish pointing the main edge. You’ll have to resharpen the blade periodically as you cut. If you’re skimming tough weed stubble, you may need to rehone every hour . . . but if you’re just skimming a few young pathway weeds, the tool should hold its edge all day.

OK, it’s time to work. Stand in front of the area to be weeded, and bend over far enough so you can hold the spade almost flat to the ground — you’ll want to cut across the dirt more than down into it. Now push the blade forward, chopping just beneath the soil surface. The blade should cut smoothly through any small plants’ roots. If you hit more — obstinate vegetation, you can add a sideways, circular motion to your skimming to slice those tough roots. Then lift the cuttings on the blade and throw them off to the side or into a wheelbarrow. (They make good additions to the compost pile, especially since a bit of soil will still be sticking to the roots.)

You’ll be surprised how easy garden weeding by skimming is once you get the hang of it. If you’re going to cut tall plants, though, you may well want to cut them down first with a scythe or Kama (a Japanese sickle), and then skim the stubble with your spade.

Susan pulls out her spade anytime she needs to remove a cover or old crop. She regularly skims pathways before they get overgrown. If there’s room, she even uses the spade to weed near a standing crop, since the shallow-cutting technique won’t disturb many of the desired plants’ roots. And she uses the tool whenever she wants to make a clean garden border . . . by chopping down with the spade to establish the desired edge, and then skimming up to that cut.

So pull your old spade out of storage, file an edge on it, and give skimming an honest try. You may soon discover that your best big-job hoeing tool is one you didn’t even know you had!