Hoe, Hoe, Hoe - it's off to work we go
A selection of hand tools to suit the job
A selection of hand tools to suit the job

There is always a place for a hand hoe on an organic farm. No matter how small or large a property, there are always weed infestations which start somewhere - along a roadside, in a holding yard or around a haystack or feeding area - and they are susceptible to control by hand methods. Many small horticulture properties rely on a hand hoe as the main tool for weed control.

There are many types of hoes and they are not all the same. There are many different designs and they suit different uses. They also vary greatly in the amount of effort required to use them. Each grower has a preference for a particular hoe too, although this article contains some information on unique designs, which will be new for some readers.

The hoe is not generally a ‘primary cultivation’ tool - it is not used for ‘opening up’ new soil. The primary purpose of a hoe is to cut weeds or weed roots. It may also be used to bury organic matter (chipped weeds, manure etc) and open the soil up for easy water penetration.

The big guns of the hoe family include mattocks and pickaxes. These tools are capable of very heavy work in new soil. A mattock is a very effective tool for many jobs and in skilled hands the different working surfaces on the blade allow it to be used like a pick, an axe and a spade. There are many versions of the pick, including the long, slender trenching pick and the short handled ‘miners’ pick.

Blade hoes are sometimes used for primary cultivation - usually in the third world. A blade hoe has a strong handle, for a double handed chopping action, and often the blade is attached to the handle by a ring socket, although they may have a tang which fits into the shaft, and a ferrule. These hoes are good for removing large weeds in a variety of soil conditions. They are heavy and inefficient, in that the only work stroke is the down stroke, the lifting strike does not work, it only positions the hoe for the next work stroke.

Many lighter hoes have tines and are useful for removing smaller weeds and loosening soil which has previously been cultivated. Typical of this type of hoe is the familiar three prong hoe, often available with a long or shorter handle.

This article reviews these and other, more specialised hoes and reveals some advantages (and disadvantages) of each type.

There are many different hoe designs and many versions or adaptations of each shape. Many of my friends and colleagues have developed their own tools, to suit a particular purpose, starting with a similar tool or design.

The handle

Almost every hoe sold in Australia is fitted with a handle which is too short for comfortable, ergonomic work. Ignore this section if you are under five foot tall. If you are taller than that, check your hoe in the field. You should be able to work with the hoe with a straight back - almost impossible with a chopping hoe, but even here there should be a minimal amount of lean in order to make the tool work.

I replace the handles, or better still buy the hoe and handle separately and fit them myself.

For chopping hoes the blade must also be strong, to be able to withstand hand work in the soil. I call the smaller, light weight hoes ‘chipping’ hoes, rather then chopping hoes, and they are fine for light garden work.

It is also useful to have very short handled hoes, which can be used when on your knees. I have a chip hoe, three prong hoe, single prong hoe and a disc hoe with short handles and they all have their use for different functions. The strong stainless steel single prong is especially useful for chasing stolons or runners, and hooking down deep into soil.

I still like the concept of wolf tools too, although they are harder to find these days. Wolf tools were produced with removable working heads and three handle legths, long, short and very short. This means two people in the family can use one tool, even if they are very different in height, and it can be used in the kneeling position with the very short handle.

The working head

Virtually all the hoes cited in this article are available in different sizes. Select a size that suits your body size and strength, For instance, chopping hoes are generally around 125 - 180 mm wide. Limit yourself to a tool which you can comfortably use without serious strain.

Generally speaking a heavier soil is better suited to a heavier hoe.

With most hoes the blade will be bevelled on the outer side, to form the working point or surface.

A variety of tools can be attached to a wheel hoe
A variety of tools can be attached to a wheel hoe
Some specific hoes

The Turnip hoe:

You do occasionally see this hoe in a hardware store or garden centre or at a garage or jumble sale. It is a triangular blade, with three working points. I don’t know how this hoe got its name or why this shape suits turnips. It does have the advantage of three points - which means longer working spells between sharpening, and it is good for getting fairly deep into the soil.

General garden hoe or swan neck hoe:

This is a lighter ‘chipping’ hoe, similar to the chopping action blade hoes referred to above. The blade is usually attached via a tang and ferrule. The poor material generally used for the handle and the swan neck are the weak points so this hoe should not be used for two-handed chopping, but it is a useful tool for lightweight general garden use.

Onion hoe:

The onion hoe is similar to the garden hoe except that it has a broader head, around 180 mm by 50 mm deep. The blade is also sharpened on the sides as well as the bottom. The broad edge works between the rows but the whole tool can be tipped onto its side to work between onions within the row.

Warren hoe:

Rarely seen these days, the Warren hoe is a specialised tool for making furrows. The blade is triangular, with the wings angled in towards the operator. These wings are good for pulling soil out of a furrow and for pushing it back into the furrow after seeding or fertilising. Generally the operator needs to lean well forward to use this tool, but it does make a very fine trench or furrow.

Pronged hoes:

The three pronged hoe is a traditional Australian gardening tool. It is useful for removing smaller weeds and ‘tickling’ up soil to produce an attractive soil mulch under the roses or elsewhere. Often used in a short handled version for squatting or kneeling or long handled for standing. Often gardeners remove one or two prongs, make them into short handled tools in the home workshop and end up with an accurate, single pronged tool for working close to plants.

The Paxton hoe:

Paxton hoes have a broad face, gently shaped to a point in the middle, so that it can be used to drag soil away and form a shallow but broad depression or trench, for planting. It can also be used in the reverse way to build soil up around the roots and suits potatoes, tomatoes and other crops which are ‘hilled’.

The Spintiller:

I have one of these tools, but rarely find enough exposed soil on my property to give it a proper run. It would suit larger areas of row crop better. Two pairs of blades are set each side of the handle, at about 12º to the vertical. As the blade is pushed forwards the blades turn (‘spin’), converging (because of the angle) in a slicing motion. A similar tool is the ‘Star Weeder’, which has a number of star shaped disks which rotate when pushed or pulled. Wolf tools made an excellent version of this hoe, Can be used to cover a large area quickly, works in both directions, but only works fairly shallowly.

The Dutch hoe:

Dutch hoes are used with a pushing action, rather than chopping. With a good Dutch hoe, sharpened well, the blade can be simply placed on the ground and the operator walks forward. Inefficiencies appear when the hoe has to be ‘shunted’ a short distance and pulled back, or when the handle is too short and the operator has to stoop. This is similar (but opposite) to the chopping hoe - one stroke works while the other only positions the hoe for the next work stroke. The Dutch hoe sold by Hollander Imports (Hobart) is a superior design, with a tough blade, very long heavy duty handle and fitted with a ‘pistol grip’. This design is very easy to use and any one who relies heavily on a hoe should experiment with this design. Best suited to good soil with few stones. There have been many versions of this concept, including the Lincolnshire Longhorn hoe - effectively a broad arrow head tine with a two handled operation, looking very similar to bicycle handles.

A sirrup hoe works in both directions
A sirrup hoe works in both directions

The Stirrup hoe:

Stirrup hoes are also called scuffle hoes or ‘action’ hoes, because they are shaped like a stirrup and ‘scuffled’ back and forth across the ground. The blade is sharp on both sides and works in either direction. The thin blade actually rocks back and forth as the hoe is alternately pushed and pulled, so that the working surface is at exactly the correct angle to the ground. Any hoe which works in two directions ultimately saves work. An excellent version is available from Gundaroo Tiller.

Disc hoe:

Made with a long or short handle (for kneeling work) the disc hoe is simply a round disc of metal. It gas the advantage of being able to do its job in any direction and is easily worked back and forth under established plants - in effect a development of the scuffle hoe which is easier to build. (Other versions of the scuffle hoe, without the ‘moving’ blade include arrow head and diamond shaped hoes which may be used in both directions).

The Coleman Gung Hoe:

This tool was developed by master vegetable gardener Eliot Coleman, and is sold in Australia by Gundaroo Tiller. It is a different concept in hoeing and works very well for young weeds in soil with few stones. The Inox stainless steel blade is easily sharpened in the field (with a diamond sharpener) and is used as a draw hoe rather than with a chopping action. There are two main methods. In the first, the operator stands erect, with a straight back and holds the tool diagonally across the body. For right handers, the right hand holds the long handle about breast height and the left handle grips lower down, about belt height, with both hands gripping, thumbs up. The hoe is then drawn through the soil with quick, shallow strokes. In the second version the tool is located in the soil, close to the planting row, and simply drawn accurately through the soil from one end of the row to the other, without any need to lift the tool out of the soil. Some users turn the blade into a scalloped surface, but I prefer the straight edge.

Wheel hoes:

Wheeled hoes are an excellent development, which makes it possible to hoe very large areas by hand. The lightweight design, efficient wheels and multiple tool capacity of modern wheel hoes make them a serious consideration for any small scale vegetable producer. A tool bar behind the wheel can be used to fit a variety of hoeing and soil banking tools, including arrow heads, discs, prongs and delvers or potato mounders. Wheel hoes vary in price from around $250 - $350 depending on the model and the particular tools required.

Caring for hoes

Keep your hoe clean. If the blade is attached with a tang and ferrule, make sure the ferrule sits tight so that soil does not get in and cause the wood to rot.

Sharpen hoes with a large ‘bastard mill’ file. The bevel varies from about 45º for weeding to 85º for heavier hoes used for opening new ground. Place the hoe in a vice, draw the file away from you at the same angle as the bevel, with each stroke traversing the full width of the blade. Lift the file and reposition for each stroke. Maintain an even and constant pressure as much as possible. Use a few cleaning strokes from the inside of the blade to remove burrs.

Store hoes inside away from the weather, blade up (so you don’t step on the blade and wack yourself with the handle).

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