A Long Row To Hoe – The Gentle Art Of Chopping Weeds

Lillian SteinBy Lillian SteinNov 6, 20170

Admittedly, hoeing isn’t particularly complicated, but it is important if you want to get a decent bed of vegetables, flowers, or shrubs. Given a good choice of tools, a couple of tricks, and a little technique, this chore can be turned to… okay, it’s still going to be a chore, but it’ll be a reasonably painless chore.

Why Hoe?

Why Hoe?

The most obvious reason is that gardeners don’t want weeds taking all the space and nutrients away from what they’ve planted and want to grow. A “weed”, of course, is any plant a gardener doesn’t want to be growing in that particular place.

Take grass, for example. A gardener may spend a great deal of time and effort to get the stuff to grow on a perpetually bald spot in one place, but it refuses to even send up a shoot. Let the same person plant a bed of decorative cabbage, however, and grass grows there like there’s no tomorrow. Grass there, good; grass here, weed.

Another reason to hoe is to keep the soil loose and aerated. This allows moisture and nutrients to get down to plant roots and to prevent weeds from taking root. Also, if trying to condition garden soil – mix in topsoil, compost, manure, whatever – a hoe can chop, mix and spread the good stuff into the soil.

Choose Your Tools

Choose Your Tools

A hoe is not just a hoe. No, this isn’t about high-tech cool-tools, but there are some differences between a good-quality hoe and one that isn’t as good. If you’re shopping for a hoe, the best advice is to go to an old-fashioned feed store and examine their selection in person. Catalogues can be good, but nothing beats hands-on inspection.

The first thing to look for is the construction of the blade itself. Cheaper (and weaker) hoes will have the blade spot-welded to the metal shaft; far better are hoes where the shaft is actually of a piece with the blade. The ferrule (the metal cap where the shaft goes into the handle) should fit snugly and, ideally, be attached to the wooden handle with a small nail. This makes handle replacement easy if it should break someday (unlikely, but possible).

And, yes, wooden handles – particularly good hickory ones – are preferable to plastic or composite ones. The handle should also be long enough that the user doesn’t have to bend over. Working in the fields with a “short-handle hoe” used to be a deliberate part of the hard labor punishment for convicts on penitentiary work farms. There’s no need to make things more difficult than necessary.

Although hoes have been around since the dawn of agriculture, they’ve changed in design over the centuries. Blade sizes and shapes have come to vary widely. A general-use hoe, sometimes called a paddle hoe, is a basic must-have design. It should have a blade about five or six inches wide, with an angle of about 90° from the shaft. This size is good for all-around hoeing and will fit between most rows and individual plants.

If you want a second one for more detailed work, there are hoes with narrower blades. There are some that have a blade only about one and a half inches wide, which can be used to eliminate suckers (those ancillary shoots that grow up at the base of young corn stalks). There are triangle-shaped blades which can be used for digging between closely-spaced plants and are very useful for opening up furrows for seed planting.

Some gardeners like stirrup (or “loop”) hoes. They make it easy to slice weeds just under the surface of the soil and allow the hoer to push as well as pull the blade. A variation of this is the circle hoe, which looks odd but seems to work well on good, loose soil. Yet another variation are the blade hoes, which look like the letter L. They can be used in an almost sickle-like motion on tall weeds or to carefully get into tight areas to slice weeds that are trying to hide between crop plants.

Finally, there are the earth-movers. Fork hoes (not to be confused with pitch forks) come in various sizes and are excellent for mixing soils, particularly useful when incorporating fresh soil or mulch. When working on a patch with heavy clods, thick weeds, sod, or roots, a much tougher tool is needed. Grub hoes have blades which are wider and thicker than paddle hoes and are up to rough work. Instead of a shaft-and-ferule design, the base of the blade has a thick ring through which the handle is inserted.

Finally, there is a tool variously called the maddox, maddock or mattock; these have a longer, curved blade on one side and a pick-like feature on the other. These are great not only for breaking up tough soil but for trenching irrigation courses.

Preparation

Preparation

Hoe blades should be kept clean of dirt. Clods stuck to a hoe not only make it heavier but reduce its efficiency. If you wash off a hoe blade after use, make sure to dry it to prevent rust. Handles should be wiped down with a little bit of neat’s-foot oil occasionally, particularly after long storage. This keeps them from drying out, which makes them more prone to cracking or splitting.

Finally, hoe blades should be kept sharp. They don’t have to be carving-knife sharp, but they should have enough of an edge to actually slice through the soil. A few passes with a flat file on the outside edge (the side facing away from you) will create a nice keen bevel that will increase the efficiency of the blade and – important point, here – reduce the amount of effort it takes to hoe.

When To Hoe

When To Hoe

Bed preparation is, of course, just the beginning of the game. Once the weeds are under control, the trick is to hoe often enough to avoid having to fight through a thick patch of them every time. It’s actually less of a chore to weed several times when there are only a few weeds than to go at it just once after they’ve made a strong return to the garden. It’s also a good idea to try to hoe when the soil is a little moist, but not soggy.

Hoeing right after a rain can result creating a mire instead of a well-tended bed. Earlier in the day, when the dew has just settled into the soil is much easier than at high noon (and much cooler, too). During periods of low rainfall, however, it’s better to back off a little on a hoeing schedule: breaking through the surface crust of the soil will expose the moist layer below to the air and sun.

How To Hoe

How To Hoe

Aside from being careful to not chop the crop plants, another trick is to not chop at all. Unless breaking up clods of dirt or grubbing out particularly stubborn roots, hoeing should not involve a chopping motion. When weeding, the hoe blade shouldn’t move more than a few inches, just enough to cut through the soil and the weeds.

Ideally, you just want to slice through the weed just below the crown, to separate the upper plant from the roots. Keep the blade at a shallow angle to the surface and use a smooth pulling motion, under control, not too far in front of your foot. About a quarter of an inch or so below the surface (depending upon the size of the plant) is all you need to reach.

A good stance, your hands positioned on the handle just so – you’ll find your way naturally – a steady rhythm and, if the blade is sharp enough , letting gravity do about half of the work will soon make hoeing a natural routine.

Although it takes a little getting used to for people new to hoeing, walking backwards is also the best method. Not only are you not stepping on and packing down the areas you’ve just hoed, but it gives you a chance to keep an eye out for a spot you may have missed. Besides, it’s always more pleasant to see what you’ve already accomplished rather than how far you have yet to go.

A Few Accessories

A Few Accessories

A broad-brimmed hat, or at least one with a bill, goes a long way to making hoeing a little more comfortable. A canteen or bottle of water can also be beneficial. Some people prefer wearing gloves, but a well-kept hoe handle and proper technique don’t always make them necessary.

Wear comfortable shoes or boots, but wearing sandals while hoeing is a very, very bad idea. Finally, some people like to have a radio, tape player or compact disk player along to keep them company.

The point is to keep comfortable and not wear yourself out. After all, it’s a long row.

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