Ancient tool takes different forms for the job at hand

“The man who joyfully cleaves his ancestral fields with the hoe … will never be persuaded … to cleave the sea,” wrote the Roman poet Horace in his First Ode.

During Horace’s time, the first century BC, forged iron hoes were numerous and varied, from heavy, mattock-like tools to the more slender sarculum, which had a straight, cupped or pronged blade.

In the first century BC, forged iron hoes were numerous and varied, from heavy, mattock-like tools to the more slender sarculum, which had a straight, cupped or pronged blade. GETTY IMAGES PHOTO

They vary still, and while you may call a spade a spade, you had better be pretty specific when you use the word “hoe.”

Even prehistoric hoes took different forms, depending on their uses and the materials at hand. Stout sticks with angled roots or branches were used for scratching the soil, or implements lashed to the working end — a sharpened stone, the shoulder blade of a deer, for digging, a turtle or clam shell for scooping. Early hoes imitated the work of human hands, but with much more force, and were of first importance until the time when heavy shoes made spades and shovels possible. Bare or moccasin-clad feet could not have pressed down on these to drive home the blade.

In the industrial era, hoes in hundreds of styles have passed through gardeners’ hands, but in most minds a hoe is shaped like what we call the “garden hoe” or “common hoe,” with a blade about 6 inches wide and 4 inches high, sharpened on the outside edge and attached at an 80- to 90-degree angle to the handle. This is a chopping hoe, designed to sever large weeds below soil level, or to move soil around, as when you are mounding the earth around potato plants, or making a furrow in which to sow seeds. You will find it in any hardware store.

A few of the many variations on this theme include the onion hoe, whose narrower blade (about 7 by 2 inches) has the maneuverability needed to address weeds among closely planted onions and can better creep beneath leafy crops like tomatoes or peppers. There’s the southern hoe with a heavy blade designed to work in heavy clay soil, and the lightweight floral hoe, once called the ladies hoe — back in the days when people underestimated female gardeners. And the Warren hoe, whose arrow shape not only pokes out weed clumps, but also makes a deep furrow. Flip it over and the arrow’s “ears” neatly cover the furrow with soil.

For chopping heavy-duty weeds like raspberries, you might want one of the “eye hoes,” whose wooden handle is fitted into an oval hole in the blade. These work like picks or mattocks, using the weight of the steel head to give force to the chopping motion, or to dig holes. Some heavier hoes also have a forked projection in back that can be used to grub out stubborn roots.

All of this sounds like pretty hard work, doesn’t it? Alas, hoeing sometimes gives gardening its image of “stoop labor” — a person bent over his or her tool, with “a long row to hoe.”

But perfect gardeners rarely find themselves in this predicament. They never let weeds get big enough to warrant all that chopping. They cultivate the soil regularly, to dispatch weeds when they are tiny, or when they have just germinated. For a job like this, you need a hoe whose blade is parallel to the ground, so you can skim lightly beneath the soil surface. Some of these are push hoes, which have a blade sharpened in front, so that the hoe is urged forward. I have a V-shaped version that is very sturdy, and excellent for cultivating in crusted soil, or weeding a gravel walk or driveway.

There are also draw hoes, ones that you pull toward yourself while standing upright, such as the swan neck hoe, whose arched shaft allows the blade — a sliver shaped like a truncated half-moon — to lie flat on the ground. Or the collinear hoe, whose blade is a 6½-by-1-inch sliver. “Collinear” means that the blade is right in line with the handle, so you are scoring a bull’s eye, with the minimal effort needed to pull the tool along as you stroll down the row. The wire weeder, in which the blade is a mere 4 by ¼ inch, is even more of a surgeon’s tool, wiggling among small, closely planted crops without doing harm. Neither one disturbs the soil enough to bring new weed seeds to the surface.

I also enjoy using scuffle hoes, which employ a push-pull motion. Some are flat, like the one shaped like an elongated diamond, sharpened on all four sides. Another is a corrugated strip. The type called an action hoe, oscillating hoe or hula hoe is usually shaped like a stirrup with a slightly curves blade, sharp on both edges. The stirrup is hinged at the top and swings back and forth a bit as you push or pull it. The swinging action tilts the blade for better cutting. It works best in a garden with straight rows.

In fact, if yours is one of those big, old-fashioned gardens with long rows and paths, you might want to invest in a wheel hoe, with its two long handles and a rubber-tired wheel mounted in front. One of its best attachments is a stirrup hoe which, at a brisk walking pace, will remove even biggish weeds from the compacted soil of a trodden path.

Biggish weeds? Yes, we all have them. But if we can “joyfully cleave” them, any row will seem shorter.


Barbara Damrosch’s latest book is “The Four Season Farm Gardener’s Cookbook.”

Barbara Damrosch

Barbara Damrosch

Barbara Damrosch’s latest book is “The Four Season Gardener’s Cookbook.”

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