Tilling with a grub hoe

The rain finally let up for enough days in a row that I went out with my new grub hoes to try tilling over a garden bed. I dug a 4’x20′ bed using the 4″ grub hoe yesterday, and another 4’x20′ bed using the 6″ grub hoe today. So, what’s the verdict?

It’s hard work. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. It’s certainly easier on your back than using a shovel, but I broke a sweat in our 55° weather. If you have health problems or grow an acre market garden I wouldn’t recommend it. There are those for whom a garden tiller is the only reasonable option.

But, I like it.

It’s good exercise. It gets your heart rate up without straining anything. You can easily control your pace to match your fitness level (my pace was slow). Our great-grandparents had better health than we do not just because they ate better food but also because they didn’t have a gas-powered-gadget-for-everything.

It does a better job. Many will disagree with me on this one, but please hear out a few points. Hand tilling does not destroy the soil structure as thoroughly as rototilling, preserving valuable mycorrhizal mycelia structure. You can aim your strikes to avoid earthworms or fetch out rocks as you see them. Also, I dug the soil at least 9″ deep, and often deeper. As Steve Solomon points out in Growing Vegetables West of the Cascades, most rototillers only fluff up the top 5″ of soil. He recommends hand spading to 12″.

It is meditative. You can hear the birds, smell the fresh air, pause when you like, and lean on the tool’s handle. The chickens will inspect your work (a little too closely sometimes) instead of fleeing in terror. There’s no vibrating handle bars or gas fumes or roar.

It is faster. In Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, he argues that walking is faster than taking the train if you count the time required to earn the train fare. Similarly, digging with a grub hoe may well be faster, if you count the time to earn the money for the tiller and the fuel and the maintenance. Beyond that, ownership of a tiller seems to imply a gardening system of yearly tilling. (More time!) I hope to manually till only once, and thereafter rely on a system of top dressing, cover crops, broadforking, and no stepping in beds. We will see how this works out.

It seems I’ve launched into a philosophical discussion without reviewing the actual tools in question. They were sturdy and functioned well. I worked at about the same pace with both the 4″ hoe and 6″ hoe, although I expect I’ll prefer the 6″ for tilling as I get more accustomed to the work. I used the trenching and perpendicular nipping method recommended on the seller’s site, but I briefly tried the alternate method mentioned by the writer of the Stonehead blog. This actually seemed much more effective, and I plan to till the next bed in this manner.

With 160 square feet of raised beds complete, only 2200 square feet to go …

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10 Responses to Tilling with a grub hoe

  1. Leigh says:

    Lee, I am officially impressed! So nice to see your helpers out in force too, keeping those grubs in check.

    I should be ashamed to admit it, but I’ve never read Walden. From what you mention, I see that I would like it. It is so true that we evaluate things on a surface level only, not taking account of everything that was required in order to have a surface at all.

    Dan and I absolutely agree with what you’re saying about hard work. There is something both physically as well as emotionally rewarding in doing it.

  2. Benita says:

    I dug our first garden when we moved to the country with a shovel and it was hard work. I’ve been looking for a good grubbing hoe and like the looks of what you have. So, do you recommend this company?

  3. lee says:

    Leigh – Thanks! I first read Walden a couple years ago, although I should probably read it again now. It’s not exactly an easy read, as he’s very opinionated and questions everything. I had to stop reading excerpts of it to Robin, because she kept getting angry on other people’s behalf. One thing I took away is that human nature has changed very little in the last 200 years. Thoreau questions the same ignorance, the same illogical lifestyle choices and vicious cycles of financial ruin we see today.

    Benita – I’m happy with the tools so far and don’t foresee any durability issues. I thought this purchase was the best balance of the available options. I looked at two others. The easiest to find is a blue grub hoe blade by Seymour Mfg. Our local farm co-op carries these, which is an Ace Hardware partner. They are made in China, which I try to avoid, especially for steel products. The others were by Rogue. These are U.S. made and were recommended by Karl in the comments here. They look really nice, but I crossed these out because they used a socket attachment instead of the traditional eye and wedge (personal preference). Also, I could not find quite the right combination of blade dimensions and handle length. I looked at a few others online, but the rest were either designed wrong or had handles shorter than 60″.

  4. Ron says:

    I share your philosophy, although I have turned to gas-powered engines for some tasks (hauling things around, shredding mulch) and won’t look back. More practical than a draft horse, in our situation. But, yeah, it’s definitely a lot more peaceful to be out working in the garden and enjoying the birds singing and squirrels hopping around. And I don’t till, which has worked out well so far.

    Are you growing a market garden? Or just for personal use?


  5. Ron says:

    Oh, and I’m quite impressed that you achieved that depth manually! I mainly just wiggled a fork around as deep as I could go when prepping our current beds. I did double-dig a garden once, but that’s not practical on a larger scale.


  6. lee says:

    Ron – Yes, I also have the Ferguson tractor to stack logs and clear brush. I can back the brush hog into blackberry thickets that would take me hours to clear by hand. (Although thickets which grow over barb wire fences require manual clearing.) On the other hand, I’ll probably be buying a scythe in the next year. I’m interested in storing hay using only hand tools. Despite the looks I’ll no doubt get from neighbors, I believe this is realistic for our climate, which allows grazing almost year round if you manage your pastures very carefully.

    Nope, no market garden. I’m interested in the idea, but have much to learn about supplying our own food first.

    I had to recheck my depth with a tape measure after your comment. From the edge of the blade to the ring that wraps around the handle is 9″. I noticed when working that this was the general depth to which the blade dug without additional strikes into the cleared hole. In the interests of full disclosure, I should say that this area was rototilled by a neighbor’s tractor about a year ago (to a depth of 5″), but that this hardly makes a difference. We are fortunate to have sandy loam soil, instead of the clay that is so common in much of Oregon. In the middle of the summer I could dig post holes for fencing with minimal effort.

  7. Ron says:

    I got a nice scythe at a farm auction last year for $8. I tried using it, and sorta got the hang of it. Maybe I’ll try again after spring frenzy season.

    We’re just growing for our own use too. I figure between growing for ourselves and our livestock, if any is left over we might get a booth at the farmer’s market. It’s a tough way to make money around here, though.

    Eventually, I’d like to get into MIG, with some meat goats and/or hair sheep. Every square foot we want to repurpose from the woods is painful, though. Probably a long-term thing, doing some thinning each year of less desirable trees.


  8. Lou says:

    best grub hoe out there is the number 20 made by Warwood……..awsome; forged steel and the blade is 11 1/4 inches long………cuts through my 2 inch oak roots like butter……….still made in the USA……….no financial interest
    Warwood Tool Company
    164 North 19th Street
    Wheeling, West Virginia 26003-7064
    Toll Free 1-877-687-1410
    Phone: (304) 277 – 1414 Fax: (304) 277 – 1420

    • lee says:

      Normally I don’t allow comments with direct advertising, but I’ve never run across this company in my searches so I appreciate the reference. The Warwood No. 20 does look like a nice piece of hardware, but it’s unfortunately listed as discontinued on their website. If that’s true, it’s too bad. There seems to be an ever dwindling supply of quality hand tools.

  9. Lou says:

    Lee; hate that it is listed as discontinued; maybe if a few of us call they might make them again….. mine is treasured, have sharpened it so many times that it is about an inch shorter……now at only 10 inches BUT still a heck of a lot better than the Seymours made in China; used it about 3 hours today and it was very heavy work digging up stumps; raise it high with its heavy duty 36 inch # 8 grub hoe handle …..yes, made by Seymour in the USA hickory no less :))) ; let its weight and sharpeness do the work; admit am lazy……..mattock blades are just too short and I like to double dig my beds ­čÖé

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