Digging up grub hoes

Okay, I admit it. I love tools–especially well-made hand tools. About a year ago I became enamored with purchasing a grub hoe. A grub hoe is a heavy-duty long-handled tool which can be used to dig and till soil much more efficiently than a shovel. It was once a common American hand tool, and even today it is the primary tool for countless South American, African, and Asian farmers. There’s just one problem: you can’t buy one here.

Most gardeners will agree that the choices among hand tools at most home centers and hardware stores is extremely limited. Only the most basic tools are sold, and options are dominated by poorly made imports with weak handle connections and dull blades. I always find it amazing that we can put a man on the moon but we can no longer make a decent garden hoe. I searched nearby stores and the Internet, but eventually our garden was tilled by a helpful neighbor with a John Deere tractor, and I ground an edge on our poorly made garden hoe which was passable for weeding.

Fast forward a year, and Robin again needs seed beds prepared for planting onion starts. If only I had a grub hoe … so I threw caution to the wind and ordered from EasyDigging.com. The sales-pitch style of their website puts me off, but it’s a small business and they appear to sell sturdy tools made in Brazil and Britain. (The fact that contrary farmer Gene Logsdon put in a good word for one of their products didn’t hurt either.) Of course, the biggest problem with ordering online is that the shipping for one tool rivals the cost of the tool, so you can’t buy just one, can you?

My tools arrived Tuesday in a well-packed box, and I set about assembling and admiring them. The castings won’t win any awards (none of the blades are dead-square to the handle), but they are plenty sturdy and pre-ground to a decent edge. From right to left, here’s a description of each tool:

  • Fork Hoe – This is a cultivating tool that I plan to use to break up dirt clods, stir compost, and tear up weeds in loose soil. Further uses are described in this Fine Gardening article.
  • 4″ Grub Hoe – The steeply set blade and long handle on this tool are optimized for digging. I plan to use this narrower grub hoe to break new ground for garden beds. I’m hoping this little human-powered tiller will be efficient enough for us to postpone any plans to buy a gas-powered tiller. I also plan to carry this tool on occasional pasture walks to quickly eradicate undesirable plants, such as blackberries and Bull Thistles. This is the tool mentioned by Gene Logsdon in his treatise on the hoe.
  • 6″ Grub Hoe – A wider grub hoe for faster digging in looser soil or when I’m feeling more energetic.
  • 8″ Italian Grape Hoe – This is the only true weeding hoe in the bunch as indicated by the shallower blade angle and the lighter weight. The wide blade should be great for clearing large swaths of weeds in garden paths and around established plants.

So, am I satiated with tools for a while? Not likely. Robin tells me that the weeding this year will be largely my responsibility, so I’m still going to need a nice light hoe for the fine work. I’m hoping to find something marvelous at an estate sale, but if that doesn’t work out I know where I can find a nice one locally. And of course, once you have one nice garden hoe, you’ll think of others you need: perhaps a scuffle hoe, a collinear hoe or even a wheel hoe

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14 Responses to Digging up grub hoes

  1. Leigh says:

    A long time ago I had a grub hoe and absolutely loved it! It made hoeing so much easier. I’ve always wanted another one but as you say, gardening centers only offer the backbreaking inefficient kind. What I’m trying to get around to saying is, good choices and thanks for the link!

  2. Ron says:

    Thanks for the explanation and review of the grub hoes. I’ve enjoyed looking through some of your posts… same sorts of topics I’m interested in. And you have a TO-20 too! :)

    I practice no-till and using a lot of mulch… Ruth Stout style… at least so far. We have a lot of rocks. Weeds manage to grow, though, wherever the mulch isn’t thick enough (everywhere). I may have to get one of these grub hoes… or 4. :) I share your frustration with the pitiful offerings of the “farm stores” for hand tools… I bought a $100 shovel/fork combo from Lee Valley Tools once… can’t say that I regret it!

    Ron

  3. karl says:

    we have one decent hoe. it is made by rogue. hardened farm implement grade steel. tabitha won’t pick up another hoe. we use a combination of tilling mulching and hoeing–it still isn’t enough..

    the hoes are very cool.

  4. karl says:

    our tiller is a Husqvarna Tiller 700DRT Dual Rotating Tiller Cultivator and we love it.

  5. lee says:

    Leigh – I’m trying to acquire the right tools so I can find the true zen of the hoe. This state of transcendence seems a common thread among gardening authors I like–the ability to keep vast stretches of land weed-free with this solitary tool. I’m also very interested in trying some dry gardening this summer. It’s essential to keep the weeds down in this case, because they’ll steal water your plants need, but as the top layer of soil dries out you should have fewer and fewer weeds. Of course, this is a somewhat Oregon-specific strategy, as it only rained twice that we remembered all last summer.

    Ron – I have to admit I might be turning into something of a Ferguson-holic. The TO-20 is a pretty easy tractor to find parts for (or whole tractors on Craigslist), but it’s manufacturer is unknown enough to be pretty unique too. I wouldn’t mind having a second one as a backup, perhaps with a front scoop …

    I’ve read that the Ruth Stout method doesn’t work well here in Oregon. We don’t get hard long freezes in the winter, so the mulch builds up summer pests and provides a moist nesting site for slugs. Oregon is the land of the slug. My source is Steve Solomon, author of a series of books focused on our specific climate and founder of our local Territorial Seed Company. I’ll probably give it a try anyway on a few trial plots some day. This year we are going to try mulch in the paths and we’ll be watching for slugs.

    I’m working my way into no-till, but we need to establish some defined rows and paths where we can sufficiently loosen the soil. Do you use a broadfork? If we get the garden where I want to have it by the end of the year, we’ll probably need to get one for next season.

    Lee Valley has great tools and I admired a number of their garden tools before making my purchase. I’ve purchased woodworking hand tools and sharpening equipment from them before, and it has always been top-notch.

    Karl – I looked at Rogue as well online. They seemed to have very nice American-made equipment, but I wanted a more traditional shape for these specific tools. Probably a bad reason. I wouldn’t mind having one someday.

    I’m going to see how far I can take the no-till route before spending money for a tiller. None of my relatives use this method, so it is something of an experiment to see how it goes. My parents had an old TroyBilt Horse tiller when I was growing up, and I still watch for sales of them on Craigslist. It was a great tiller, all cast steel, with a transmission and PTO drive system like a small tractor. I’m a big fan of sturdy old equipment made from cast steel. (See above comments about TO-20.) :)

  6. Ron says:

    I have my beds set up 4′ wide, with 2′ paths between them. Three years ago, we used the fork I bought from Lee Valley tools (after breaking a cheapo one while removing a stump…) to loosen up the soil. The concrete contractor who poured the slab our house is on had compacted the soil badly. So, we punched a few thousand holes, painstakingly, through the hardpan. Just a plain fork, not a broad fork. Added a lot of manure on top, and lots of leaves.

    Now, 3 years later, I really don’t much bother to loosen the soil. It’s pretty much loose enough as-is… the plants don’t seem to mind. I can easily take a trowel and push it up to the hilt, where before I could hardly make a dent. (There are interesting reads on Mother Earth news regarding soil health and tilling).

    As far as mulch in general… I don’t have slugs. The wood ashes I use might help with that. I do have voles, which will chew on my potatoes. And I have squash bugs in a bad way… although the existing mulch in the forest around us guarantees they will do just fine, mulch or not (trying lemon balm this year to repel). There are more insects in general with the mulch…. thousands of spiders… most don’t harm my crops though. Also, I’ve used plain old oak leaves so far, and on a windy day they can blow around, smothering small seedlings. My plan is to shred them and see how well that works. As far as weeding, it does help a lot to use the mulch. Weeds mainly grow wherever I have bare ground, and once they have a foothold they spread.

    I can see where a different climate may make the mulch more of a problem though, depending on what sorts of pests there are.

    I’m really getting into these Fergusons too. I really like the fact that I am finding a lot of aftermarket parts that are inexpensive so I can fix mine up. I have a pond scoop that attaches to the 3-pt… my plan is to haul compost that way, straddling my beds… or maybe pulling my utility trailer (4 1/2′ wide) over the beds. Either way… a lot easier than using a wheelbarrow, like I have so far!

    Ron

  7. lee says:

    Hi Ron, wow, thanks for all the ideas. I’m presently trying to figure out how to adjust our garden bed layout so I can line the tractor up with any row. We switched to east/west rows this year, and unfortunately the gates are at the north and south. To the east is a line of blueberry plants, and to the west is a fence. Hmm …

  8. Lee says:

    I’m presently using a Rogue field hoe to break new ground here in Alabama. Although it’s as dense as cheese and as heavy as clay, this fine tool is making quick work of it. Rogue hoes also makes many other implements from cultivator blades. The scuffle hoes are the best tool going for weeding quickly–my wife actually enjoys the process.

  9. lee says:

    Hey Capital-L Lee, :)

    Thanks for another recommendation for Rogue hoes. Definitely have to get one some day!

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  13. Jim says:

    I share your enthusiasm for the hoe. I had a 3″ heavy weight grub hoe that was great on nasty weeds, and for everything else. If you love good hand tools and are trying not to buy a rototiller, look into a U-bar, also known as a broadfork. I sold my rototiller after I purchased one of these. Johnny’s Seeds is one source. Elliot Coleman definitely likes these.

    • lee says:

      I still love hand tools, but we finally caved in and bought a rototiller this year. The windows for planting between the spring rains are so narrow here, and the sod so thick that for the past few years fighting back the weeds has consumed much of our time. We don’t yet own a broadfork, but I’ve admired the one at Johnny’s Select Seeds and Lee Valley. Once we have some established beds, I plan to use a combination of broadforking and cover crops to reduce our tillage.

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