It’s not often that a simple garden tool becomes a cult, but such is the case for the wheel hoe. It’s easily the most time-saving, back-sparing tool in my shed, as it deals with the most taxing job: removing weeds, especially ones in compacted soil.
Picture a stirrup hoe, which is shaped like a horseman’s stirrup with a sharp horizontal blade at the bottom. Instead of chopping weeds, you draw the blade through the soil, cutting off weeds below the surface. In some versions the blade is stationary, but in the case of the oscillating hoe (or “hula hoe”) the blade is hinged to produce a waggling, back and forth motion, so you can both push and pull the hoe, and with force.
A wheel hoe has a stirrup hoe mounted behind a wheel. The gardener grasps the tool’s two handles and rolls it forward with little effort. I can push mine down a weedy, well-trodden garden path at a walking pace, dislodging stubborn weeds, to be then raked up or allowed to shrivel in the sun. I also use it in garden beds and, in some cases, for creating a new growing area without tilling.
Until fairly recently, wheel hoes were not easily found because few companies made or sold them. Yard sales and eBay were the primary sources. But now, catalogs such as Johnny’s Selected Seeds, Hoss Tools, Valley Oak Tool Co. and Peaceful Valley Farm Supply carry them, with most prices ranging from $200 to $400 — more if you add attachments such as plows and seeders, or want Johnny’s jumbo model with two wheels that straddle a row of plants. (Mine has repaid its price many times over in work saved.
I compare it not with a $30 regular hand hoe but with the $1,500 rototiller I might have bought instead.) It’s a purchase that could be shared with neighbors, family or members of a community garden.
But why the cult status? Partly because of its long unavailability, to be sure. People became fanatical collectors of old versions, made during the long period of widespread use. In doing so, they turned up rich material about the tool’s history, and how it came to be a symbol of a saner way to grow food.
Its inventor was Jethro Tull — no, not the English rock group but the English agricultural engineer who developed the first mechanical, horse-drawn seed drill in 1701, of which the oscillating wheel hoe was a spinoff.
In the United States, Tull’s hoes were quickly adopted, and in the late 19th century, a firm named Allen and Co. supplied both farms and households with horse-drawn models. As horses gave way to tractors, the company pioneered motorized versions, always favoring home gardeners and small farmers, despite the pressure on farmers to go large scale.
But hand-pushed, non-motorized versions were offered in their catalog as well, and became increasingly popular with gardeners and farmers alike. Many were ingenious. For example, a seeder was made that opened a furrow, dropped in seeds from a canister, covered the seeds with soil, tamped the soil and marked it for the next furrow.
An era of increased suburbanization led to a growing interest in home food gardening, as did the pressure to grow food during both world wars and the Depression. Then, as in the times to follow, both home gardening and small-scale farming persisted as a counter-trend to the mainstream push toward urbanization and the consolidation of the agricultural industry, even though it was almost invisible to mainstream farm education and research.
At present there are many Facebook pages where wheel hoe devotees share information. It’s a tool that does away with the need for herbicides or fossil fuels — and the expense, noise, fumes and environmental harm that accompany them. It’s well adapted to the layout of home gardens and small farms, with their intensively planted beds and space-saving narrow paths. It’s perfect in a greenhouse, where even a small rototiller might impossible to use.
As a great time-saver, it addresses the often-voiced dismissal of small-scale growing as too labor intensive to be profitable.
Currently, the wheel hoe cult seems to be farm-centered. But in many ways the home garden and the small farm have more in common than do small farms and their large, industrialized counterparts. Understandably, if your garden is a small and tidy collection of raised beds with gravel paths, a wheel hoe might not be an obvious necessity. But try one once and it might lead you to consider a modest — and more easily managed — expansion.