Love my hoe

Swan-neck hoe                                                                   Maggie McCain/Flickr

Swan-neck hoe                                                                   Maggie McCain/Flickr

I don’t know why it is that a significant number of gardeners lack that most basic, most useful tool, the hoe.

Everyone’s got trowels and rakes, pruners and hoses, but not everyone has a hoe to call their own. Too many, in the vegetable patches and flower borders of the land, are perpetually on their knees, plucking the weeds individually, one by one.

Unless you’ve got one of those cushy kneeling pads or those fancy pants with knee pockets for foam inserts, this is all mighty hard on the knees. Squatting? Tough on the thighs and ankles.

Stand up, my friends, and take a hoe in hand. On a dry, sunny day, you can weed the garden lickety-split by dragging, scuffling or chopping where need be with the business end of a sturdy hoe. Even a long row can be hoed rather speedily when you get up off your knees — save that for praying the rains fall every Monday and Thursday and that the Japanese beetles don’t eat everything.

Countless generations of gardeners and farmers before you have perfected this instrument, tinkered with its mechanics and invented a wide range of variations on the theme. There’s a hoe for every taste, every style, every purpose under heaven.

I favor the standard draw hoe with a rectangular blade set more or less at right angles to the handle. Given a handle long enough to stand comfortably upright without a crick in your back — an important point — this tool is admirably well suited to doing in weeds among well-spaced plants, chopping at big, burly interlopers and their roots, and mixing batches of potting soil in the garden cart.

You can rotate it a bit so only one corner of the blade touches the ground and draw a nice, straight, shallow groove in the soil for planting a row of lettuce. You can use the flat and quickly hollow out a trench in soft ground for a cluster of small spring bulbs. You can even use it to grab a branch just slightly out of your natural reach for a quick lop with the pruners.

Triangular hoe                                                                         Mike/Flickr

Triangular hoe                                                                         Mike/Flickr

But the draw style is just the tip of the design iceberg. There’s the Dutch hoe with a u-shaped blade more or less in the same plane as the handle that is pushed forward, rather than being drawn toward you. There are double-bladed scuffle hoes that cut on the push and the pull stroke.

If you need surgical precision around tightly spaced plants, look for a triangular hoe with a blade like the wings of a stealth spy plane, or a swan-necked hoe with an irregular, offset blade that will let you sneak in there, close to the stems of desirable plants, dealing death to those pesky weeds. There’s even a pendulum hoe with a swinging bar that slices off weeds and loosens the soil at the same time.

For really close up work, there’s the short-handled garden hoe, which again comes in a variety of styles. Yes, you’re back down on your knees but one of these can make quick work of a small garden bed or around delicate plants where you need to be precise.

In all cases, the technique to strive for involves skimming that hoe blade just beneath the surface of the soil to cut weed stems decisively. As you will learn, tackling weeds when they are small is infinitely more satisfying than having to wrassle with them when they are knee high, or worse.

The general rule is this: Pull on the wet, hoe on the dry. After a heavy rain, weeds pull out easily, and you can remove them roots and all. On a hot, sunny day, you can get in there with your hoe, sever every weed in sight and just leave them on the surface to curl up and die. Compost!

After a while, you’ll find your hoe is getting dull, poor thing. Sharpen that hoe right up with a few strokes of a file, and she’ll be ready for business again. Keep her warm and dry in the garage or shed so she doesn’t rust up on you.

I’m convinced that once you get the technique down, you’ll come over to the side of the hoe partisans and get happily in touch with this ageless pastime. It’s funky, it’s trance-inducing, it’s labor-saving, this business of hoeing. Your garden will look well-tended and your back and knees will thank you.

You will say, as I do, “Love my hoe.”