The Hoe Is Better


I love my garden tiller and when I was younger I loved it even more. But as I grow older I have to admit that when it comes to controlling weeds, the good old hoe is better than any cultivator. Tillers are good for loosening  up the dirt in spring, or to smooth the soil after turning it over with a spade. And of course if you have really large plots to cultivate, the tiller is the better choice. For everything else I vote for the hoe.

Reaching that conclusion has been a long time coming.  All children raised on the farm hate the hoe. It becomes the symbol of benevolent family-type slavery. “You’ll know when you are working hard enough,” my mother would say drily as she handed me a hoe and pointed me toward the garden, “when sweat runs down your belly as well as your back.” No farmer then would have dreamed of just putting out a nice-sized sane garden, but only obscenely large ones which they referred to as truck patches, as if we were going to sell produce at a city market. So hoeing meant long hours at the very height of horsefly and mosquito season.Trading a hoe for one of the those hand-pushed cultivators didn’t help.That was like going from rowing a canoe to manning an oar as a galley slave.

We not only had to hoe in the garden but also in the pastures. To escape the heat of summer, my sister and I would start out at some ungodly hour in the morning, hoes over our shoulders, to face bull thistles and sourdock in mortal combat. For every hundred of  these evil things we chopped out, Dad would pay us a dime. “Chopped out” meant cutting the tap root two inches below the soil surface so it wouldn’t grow back. Dad knew he could trust our counting because the two of us kept a gimlet eye on the other. If either of us said we had reached a hundred slain weeds in less time than the other deemed appropriate, we would voice our suspicion loud and clear when we got back home. We often spent most of the time in the field challenging each other’s arithmetic.

When garden tillers came into existence I was overjoyed. But as with other farm technology, the tiller just meant that I had to put out a bigger garden and so saved no time at all. This kind of gardening continued until somehow I made it to my seventies without dying from a heart attack heaving heavy tillers around without knocking over my garden plants. I tried those little, light tillers and they were easier on my back but it occurred to me that they were heavier than hoes and not any faster.

What really brought me back to hoes in recent years was the infernal whitetail deer. The only way to keep them out of the garden is to build an eight foot fence around the vegetables they like the most. When you have to erect that tall a fence, you tend to use the space inside very very efficiently. My rows kept getting more crowded until I almost had to lift the tiller high into the air at the ends of the rows to turn around and then there was the danger of getting hung up in the fence. And so I came to realize that with very close rows, I could hoe weeds just as fast, and with less effort, than horsing a tiller around.

Then I became enamored with succession planting which at first seemed like more work. But actually it makes hoeing less strenuous. Plantings are smaller and each is on its own weeding schedule so to speak. The time needed for hoeing does not decrease but it is spread out over time into shorter intervals. You don’t have to hoe as long on any given day so the job does not seem to be exhausting.

To make hoeing easier than tilling, keep the hoe very sharp, almost sharp enough to shave with. You want a good hoe too, one in which blade and ferrule are all one piece of steel. We’ve talked about that before in this space. Many of you responded that that you had found sources of good hoes still being made but I vote for the ancient ones you can sometimes buy at farm auctions fairly cheap if the crowd is mostly made up of young rotary tiller worshipers like I used to be.

The payback for the hoe comes in more efficient use of available land. The plants don’t need all that space between rows; the tiller does. As many of you who respond to this blog site know, you don’t need rows at all, just nimble fingers and skillfully handled hoes to remove the weeds.


For Dewit tools try, Earthtools website.
Well made, from ny experience so far. No affiliation, just a satisfied customer.

Thanks for the info. Clarington Forge’s website has some nice looking garden tools.

Marsha - aka Homegrown July 17, 2012 at 1:27 pm

Gene, the thing is, and you know this, when you till you’re bringing up old seed from these pesky critters. Give it a couple years and for Pete’s Sake pull the ones you see before they go to seed. If you chop ’em out, put ’em in a five gallon bucket and get them into a black trash bag to ‘cook’ or out of there altogether. You know they’ll lay there on your garden and with their last dying breath, make flipping’ seed to perpetuate their pesky species!!!! Wish I could post pics. I can prove what I say, fellow Buckeye. Me, in hard scrabble down here in SE Ohio ridges. OH, this year, I got a couple trailer loads of raw, yes, green sawdust from a local mill. I put wet newspapers from a local weekly under them and it’s the best damm aisles I’ve ever had. Thought I was playing fast and loose, and the nitrogen in it would hurt. Hell, no. Turned out peachy! THANKS so much for taking the time to have this blog, buddy. You’re attracting some great people. – Marsha

Marsha - aka Homegrown July 17, 2012 at 1:21 pm

Hmmm manual earthmoving tool that won’t kill ya. I use a fork I got from Clarington Forge (I think Lee Valley sold it to me) and the 90 dollar price tag scared me, but I tell ya, this puppy has been ‘popping’ up the soil on this clay ridge for ten years now little sign of wear. Can’t put a price tag on this tool. Then, I have to add some gypsum and when the moisture is right, I can either re-pop the row or chop with a regular hoe to loosen the clods and add amendments on top. For a weed hoe, my go-to tool nowadays is a long handled version of an old Korean design called a “ho mi.” Wish I could post a picture. All in one tool. I always grab it. Good luck to you, and keep growing… I will as long as I can, arthritis in these old 58 year old hands and all.

Marsha - aka Homegrown July 17, 2012 at 1:12 pm

You just said everything and more that I was going to say. I used raised beds w/o sides, occasionally ‘pop’ the rows a bit (since it’s hard clay here on the ridge) before planting in spring and after harvest in fall so the amendments can get in a bit. I’ve been converting my entire garden since 1990 to this method and I can’t recommend it enough. Bonus: you can see small volunteers like dill and cilantro and beneficial companion plants coming up and decide which to keep. Since I pull the bad weeds that do show up before they go to seed, I have practically no weed problem unless I’m careless about the leaf amendments. Dandies do find their way in, but I eat ’em! grin. Tilthiness, solid balance, double AMEN. And, I’m always fully underway in the spring before the tiller can hit the soil in other sad gardens. I do have a nice old trusty Troy-Bilt for new sod, and really bad spots here on this SE Ohio Appalachian ridge. Folks used to say here, “You can’t raise hell on this ground with a jug of whisky.” I beg to differ. Gotta go snap some beans. Good yield in this drought.
Remember, folks, “Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed.” – Francis Bacon

hi. reading steve solomon book ‘gardening when it counts’. espouses wider rows and spacing between plants. he used to be proponent of intensive methods.. says wide space better for coming h2o shortages and you can leave for a couple of days and plants won’t die from lack of h2o.
i am using the book ‘cinder block gardening’ by gillespie. we have what amounts to adobe here. gave myself bursitis going at it with a mattock. only have one small bed because cost of materials. if we went to wider spacing i could not afford the materials for so many beds.
we water everyday–have to in this heat (youngstown,ohio).
what do you think about wide spacing? i see from the blog that your spacing is close to consrve deer fencing.
thanks, Deb Harvey
love all your books. went past upper sandusky once and wished we could drive norther to see if you were in the cafe but time and duty precluded. you have groupies!!

Thanks Gene,

You’re right.. I think the spade or shovel method then a rake would be easier. Love the blog!

Decided to catch up on your blogs, gene, and found it really ironic to see the one about hoes and thistles, since I just returned from chopping bull thistles. We made the mistake of letting a bull thistle go to seed a few years ago on the sheep pasture hill and we’ve been paying for it ever since. Sister #1 and I chopped out all we could find in the spring, so I was just doing follow up, and the thistles weren’t too bad. Maybe 40. Besides being relentlessly pursued by a horse fly, it wasn’t too ornery of a task. I did have an OLD hoe that needed sharpening, but have the chop down to a science.
Do sheep ever eat bull thistles if they get down to barely any grass due to drought? Nice and green and fleshy!
Sister #4

Dan, other readers can no doubt give you names and numbers of heavy hoes for primary tillage but myself, I think on a smaller garden, spading is better especially for something like a grass cover. Turning sod or old growth over with a spade or shovel, then using a rake or hoe to smooth and fine the soil is easier, I think. Gene

What type of hoe is recommended for manual tilling at the end of the season (tilling in old plants and such) and at the beginning of spring (tilling in ground cover like rye grass)?? I am a new gardener who has decided to go the old school route and use a hoe versus gas tillers. I have a fairly small garden and in the past I’ve borrowed gas tillers from friends. This year I moved my garden and did it by hand via a big box garden hoe. I could have done a better job but I plan on changing its angle and sharpening it. I will start looking for older garden hoes at yard sales as well. I definitely need to work on my technique as well.

saddlebackmountainfarm July 9, 2012 at 6:47 pm

You make no mention of the golden garden rule: “If you see a weed, you’ve waited too long.” “Chopping” weeds? Fie and shame….

Yes, yes, John. I’ve had the same experiences. And noticing these tiny details is why my garden farm makes me satisfied to stay home and not travel off somewhere in search of scenic beauty. I’ve got all the scenery I can handle right here. Gene

I would agree wholeheartedly with Gene’s (and others) view of the value of the tried and trusty hoe. If you find the perfect one for you it should be treasured, well cared for and used as often and as much as needed. There is another aspect however of using a hand tool that other forms of mechanised utensils cannot do and that is the effect it has on the mind and awareness while you are using it. I have found that when using an implement such as a hoe, fork (my personal favourite), spade or anything else of a similar nature that as you get into the rhythm of using it your mind is focused quite intensely on the little patch of soil or weed that you are currently working on. You tend to notice things such as differences in soil friability, variations in weed species and insect life, soil moisture variances, etc, etc so much more than if you just walked along the rows “looking”. Doesn’t work of course if you are hoeing and worrying about the big bill due tomorrow or what you are going to cook for dinner but those things are best left at the garden gate anyway in my humble opinion!

In fact now, if I want to really see the ‘state of the nation’ of my piece of productive paradise, I will invariably take a hand tool with me to ensure that I am getting a true reading. I have found that the small knapsack sprayer I use for organic foliar fertilisers has the same effect.

Have to say in all humility, Gene, that I’ve no idea what sort of mess I’d get into trying what I do, but in your climate, your soil, your array of native species that I never see here.

I’d start applying the basic practical permaculture principles, and see what happened. I guess it would be something of a hit and miss mess for several seasons, before I started to get some cunning system going. It’s what happened here: plenty of catastrophes, total failures, thin results, and on, before things started to come together. I guess that’s going to be true wherever you garden, and whichever approach you favour. No magic answers, beyond trying, watching, trying some more, and sticking to it! And of course: too much bragging more or less guarantees an embarrassing slip-up…

Rhisiart, as you can see, I left out a ‘not’ in my last sentence. I should have written “if I did not weed…” Alors. Gene

I just bought a DeWit hoe and I have to tell you that I have chopped the life out of everything within a hundred foot of the house and the garden. A nice little pocket stone to keep it sharp and wandering around hoeing that annoying lace looking weed, crabgrass, some other annoying weed and anything else that doesn’t belong! I have to say that it’s been an absolute joy!
I planted a cover crop of white clover in my garden to help with the weed control this year. So far, the groundhogs have loved it and the crabgrass doesn’t care that it’s there. It was a beautiful garden with all of the baby clover growing under everything before the grasses and groundhogs showed up. I think that it helped with weed control overall, but I need to refine my seed delivery technique and fencing options.
I love the galley ship line! I’ll go out of my way to do a job with a hand tool or physical labor instead of finding a “new tool” that was made for the job!
Great post, as always!

Jan, but when I tried the same kind of bribery on my little brother, offering him a quarter to do my chores, Dad put his foot down at my attempt at capitalism. Gene

So, your father paid a bounty, too?

We had a “price list” for various things. Burdock got as a penny for ten. Cabbage butterflies, a penny for five. And tomato hornworms got us a labour-inspiring nickel each!

Some of us kids became hunters (a handfull of dirt shotgunned will easily take out a cabbage butterfly) and others became gatherers. But it usually didn’t last much past the first payment, until we ran out of jaw breakers and other stuff from the variety store a couple miles down the road.

RhG: You make a convincing argument for no-till and I firmly believe almost all of it in theory. You just tell me how to get rid of sow thistles, seedling trees, bramble bushes, dandelion, bluegrass and other assorted grasses, and many more weeds, without weeding, and you have a convert. I do no till in asparagus, raspberries, strawberries, in melons and other vine plants with help from mulch, but in all these cases, if I did weed, it would be a total jungle mess. Gene

Gene, old bro: before you die you really must do a few experiments with no-till. It’s a whole other world!

Why do you think Fukuoka called it ‘Do-nothing farming’? That needs a bit of interpretation, true, but it’s not far from being literally true, properly understood.

Why do you think Ruth Stout called her methods ‘No-work gardening’? Again, interpret with a bit of leeway; but only a bit.

I do this stuff, having done the work-yourself-into-the-ground-fighting-Nature-tooth-and-nail methods previously. After the armistice, there’s no going back.

And let me say that all the theoretical objections that people can think up, before they’ve actually tried no-till for a few seasons — objections that seemed cogent to me too, before I’d tried — somehow sort of evaporate when you actually do it.

I’ll agree that no-till and other methods associated with permaculture don’t satisfy the Suburban Hypertidiness Neurosis which is so epidemic now, especially in the over-rich, over-petroed countries. But so what?

The real questions are: does it produce the goods? (Yes!) Does it build and maintain fantastic soil-fertility, water-holding capacity, CEC, organic-matter content, and on? (Bet your life!) And is it less work? Do bears make love in the woods…..!

Finally, consider Emilia Hazelip: In her youth one of Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters; in her last years a mistress of her technique, developed from Fukuoka’s, of Natural Agriculture for the soil and climate of Southern France. Here’s what she said:

“The Fundamental Reality that Underlies Fukuoka’s Principles”
By Emilia Hazelip
a Fukuoka Farming Website exclusive

Soil is created by living plants working with microorganisms, and by the plants’ residues and the microorganisms’ corpses after their death.

Soil is drained of nutrients by cultivation, NOT by plants.

Tilling and cultivation of any sort diminishes the natural fertility of the soil in three ways:

· Mechanical grinding of the soil particles reduces their size and smooths them. This greatly reduces the size and number of micro-cavities between the particles, which are the habitats of balanced bacteria breathing out gases essential to mineral absorption and plants’ health.

· Tilling kills vital microorganisms in the soil by exposing them to excessive oxygen in the air.

· And tilling exposes the organic matter in the rhizosphere (soil around the roots) to the atmospheric gases, precipitating the combustion of the humus turning it into soluable mineralized nutrients . This provides a quick fertilizer for the plants, but at the cost of destroying permanently the texture and tilth of the organic, humic, rich soil, which accellerates erosion as well as contamination of the watertable with nitrates.

Minerals and trace elements, although present in soil, may not be accessible to plants due to the absence of the micoorganisms (killed by tilling, pollution, or the use of herbicides or pesticides) that participate in the plant’s mineral nutritional process. Just as microflora in our own digestive systems are needed so that our bodies can absorb and use the nutrients of the ingested food, microorganisms in the soil perform the same function for plants.

In crops, if the edible parts of a plant are harvested and the rest left to return to the soil, the organic mass left by the decaying plants will be superior to the volume of nutrients taken from the soil.

A plant gets up to 95% of all the nutrients it needs from the sky (gases and sunlight), NOT the soil. Of the 5% taken from the soil, half of it is the essential nutrient nitrogen, which, if the plant is grown in combination with a legume, can also come from the air.

ONLY 2 1/2% of the total nutrition of a plant IS COMING EXCLUSIVELY FROM THE SOIL in the form of soluable minerals and trace elements.

That is the fundamental reality that underlies and supports Fukuoka’s principles of No tilling, No fertilizer, No weeding, and No pesticides or herbicides. Natural agriculture refutes and disproves the foundation of current agronomical logic, and because it does it is seen as heresy by most of the agronomic community. Fukuoka proposes, and supports with evidence, the first fundamental agronomic reform since agriculture was invented.”
— Emilia Hazelip

How about that last paragraph!!

See her beautiful garden, with her own narration in her charming hispanic-accented English, here:

Hwyl i chi, Gene fy mrawd i! RhG

I worship my Grandmother’s hoe that I bought at her estate auction in 1969. The wooden handle is grooved and smooth while the head has been sharpened to a mere shadow of its newly forged self. It glides through clay like a filet knife through butter. I left my beloved 8 hp TroyBilt tiller with my ex and unregrettably moved on with Jenny, Grandma’s hoe!

Much like my American Scythe ( curved handle) Only recently did I learn the difference from the European.

Because of a shoulder injury, I hired someone to weedwack and area of meadow, Three hours later he came up and called it a day. I was appalled at how little was done and he worked with only one short break, I could hear the engine. and what a mess, cut crap all over the place.

. I’ve cut the entire meadow last year in less time then that. and had neat stacked rows . Next week I will start going at a 430 am ( when the rooster wakes me anyway) and do a half hour or so till my rotor cuff gives out or the humidity gets to me and dance with the newly sharpened scythe.

I’ve dedicated myself to using manual power tools whenever possible, and I love my hoe … even though it is just the cheap variety found at the Big Box. I’ve been teaching myself blacksmithing though, so someday I’ll have to forge my own!

I’ve also noticed those tiny Mantis tillers don’t save any work at all. I watch my neighbor with one of those things, I could do an entire one of his rows with the hoe by the time he’s not even halfway done.

Have you ever noticed how funny it is we spend all this money on machinery to do our work for us, only to turn around and spend more money on other machines to exercise our bodies? I just don’t get it.

Gene, first time responding. This from an ohio boy (Perrysburg)now living far far away in the maritime pacific NW. I love my tiller for my 3acre truck patch- speeding down wide paths making a clean trail with just foot prints in my long it doesnt get ornery and vere headlong through a treasured planting. A grass margin round the edges makes room the turnaround, but the thing is heavy and smells like burnt gas money not to mention the sweaty works but leaves me feeling exhausted and uneasy.when i need to calm down i head out with my garage sale hoe of 15 years …a nice old fashioned piece with a wide blade, oiled handle, pretty sharp… and i hill some potatoes or shape a bed or chop some thistles and i feel much better.Thank you for bringing our attention to these gifts, ideas and matters and on this independence day, thank you for encouraging us to be just that.~George

I didn’t know how to use a hoe properly until a couple of years ago when I read some tips in a gardening book (we haven’t been gardening too long). As you mentioned Gene, keeping the hoe sharp is important. I also bent the shaft so that the hoe blade is 20 to 30 degrees to the handle, instead of 90 degrees — this brings the blade parallel to the ground while I hoe, which allows the blade to slide just below the soil surface and cut the weeds with minimal disturbance to the soil itself. Now that I’ve learned those two simple tips, I can hoe a huge amount of ground in a short time.

Yep I grew up on a farm, used the hoe in soybean fields and tomato fields (25 acres or so) and you are right the hoe is not popular when you are a child on the farm!! 🙂

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s