“Earth is here so kind, that just tickle her with a hoe and she laughs with a harvest.” So the old quote goes, and to this day the garden hoe remains one of the most popular tools in the garden shed.
As long as we’ve cultivated crops, we’ve hoed. Garden hoes are among the oldest tools of agriculture. Records exist of their use by Egyptian civilizations from about the same time the first wheels turned, more than 5,000 years ago.
Hoes fall into two main families: long-handled and short-handled. The latter have become more popular with home gardeners in recent years because of the rising popularity of raised garden beds. But a short-handled hoe is hard on your back if you have a large garden to tend. Within the long-handled family of garden hoes, there are push hoes and pull hoes, with many designs for each.
Push hoes, such as the triangle-shaped scuffle hoe and the Dutch hoe, are designed to glide through the top layer of soil with a gentle push of the handle. The blades are sharp on each side for slicing weeds. My favorite push hoe has a wide blade on an open hoop that lets the earth flow back through without clogging. When the fork and shovel have done their job, this old hoe works the earth to a lovely crumb, demolishing clods and leaving a fine tilth that’s perfect for sowing or planting.
Pull hoes, also known as draw hoes or field hoes, include heads of various shapes designed to cut weeds and move earth with a more vigorous pull on the handle. Their solid, angled blades (either on a swan neck or a short neck) tend to be larger and heavier than those of push hoes. Pull hoes are good for deeper cultivating, soil mounding, and grubbing larger weeds.
Form and Function
The hoe endures because it works, delivering results for the garden and the gardener. For the garden, hoeing helps control weeds, allowing vegetables to perform their best. For gardeners, the regular act of hoeing lets them commune with the garden in a rhythmic form of meditation that does as much for the soul as any mindfulness session or health spa. There’s something deeply therapeutic about decapitating weeds with a gentle push or pull of the hoe. The long-handled hoe is also the best friend of a gardener’s knees and back, especially in larger plots where hours of hoeing may be required. One gardener I know enjoys pottering in her patch in the evening with a long-handled hoe in one hand and a beer in the other. A nice kind of therapy!
Depending on the design, hoes can plant, mound, cultivate, and harvest the garden. Weeding is only a minor role. An old W. Cooper tool catalog from 1910 informed me, “None should imagine the only use of hoes is to destroy weeds when they appear; forsooth, if they are permitted to grow and claim notice, they are a true sign of indifferent culture.” In other words, if you’re using your hoe right, you won’t have weeds.
That catalog was from the golden age of garden tools, where the variety of options would rival the choice in any online store today. Through necessity, the art of gardening was more widespread and, in many ways, more sophisticated than today. A gardener would use a range of hoes, each with a different width and design, to suit different tasks in the garden, such as narrow scuffle hoes for final tilling and wide swan-neck pull hoes for mounding and grubbing. Handle length and blade width could all be chosen to suit the gardener and the garden.
Back when folks owned fewer things — but put more care into the things they did have — garden tools were expensive hand-wrought items, repaired and used for a lifetime. Thomas Jefferson’s account books at Monticello show references to both making and repairing hoes at the blacksmithing shop, and entries in his Farm Book and Garden Book record ownership of both grubbing and hilling hoes along with his observations on what laborers could achieve with them. In 1796, no fewer than 18 hoes were recorded in his list of tools.
Innovation and New Design
In this world of nearly limitless choices, it’s surprising to realize that our great grandparents had a wider range of garden hoes to choose from than we do. Today, it seems that it’s fashion, not necessity, that’s the mother of invention. If gardening were as fashionable as cooking, we’d have a much wider range of hoes to choose from. We’d probably have silicone-coated titanium hoes, spiralizing hoes, and perhaps even a self-cleaning hoe.
But some encouraging innovations in the hoe world are breaking new ground in both form and function. Donald G. Towt Sr. was granted a U.S. patent for the pendulum cultivator in 1960. He marketed it under the Hula-Ho trademark through his Kingsburg, California, firm, Don Towt & Sons, for many years. The popular design, also known as the push-pull hoe or stirrup hoe, enabled gardeners to cut and cultivate on both the push and pull stroke with the unique oscillating action of the hoop head.
Around the same time, British designer Hulme Chadwick came up with the revolutionary swoe hoe for manufacturer Wilkinson Sword. Shaped like a narrow golf wedge, the swoe has sharpened blades for push, pull, and side hoeing. This design is still popular with many gardeners today.
Two other notable new designs are the collinear hoe invented by American organic farmer and author Eliot Coleman, and the recycled hoe created by Eric Brennan of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The collinear hoe allows the user to stand straight while slicing weeds with a sharp, thin blade that rides flat against the soil’s surface. The recycled hoe solved the problem of weeding between plastic-covered strawberry beds. Made from metal strapping and pieces of bicycle inner tube, it reminds us that the test of a great tool is how well it does the job, not how much it costs.
My collection of long-handled hoes numbers six, and none of them are younger than me. I like the quality of these old hoes with heads forged from a single piece of metal and handles with a slight taper where your hand slides. My collection includes a mix of push and pull hoes, all of which are a joy to use.
You probably won’t need six hoes (I don’t either, really), but after you’ve found the right hoe for you, I guarantee you’ll never be parted from it, and will be quick to proclaim it the best of all hoes. This theory was confirmed when I asked a few well-known gardeners to tell me about their favorite hoes.
Whichever hoe you choose, I wish you luck in finding the one for you and many hours of peaceful hoeing.