I love my garden tiller and when I was younger I loved it even more. But as I grow older I have to admit that when it comes to controlling weeds, the good old hoe is better than any cultivator. Tillers are good for loosening up the dirt in spring, or to smooth the soil after turning it over with a spade. And of course if you have really large plots to cultivate, the tiller is the better choice. For everything else I vote for the hoe.
Reaching that conclusion has been a long time coming. All children raised on the farm hate the hoe. It becomes the symbol of benevolent family-type slavery. “You’ll know when you are working hard enough,” my mother would say drily as she handed me a hoe and pointed me toward the garden, “when sweat runs down your belly as well as your back.” No farmer then would have dreamed of just putting out a nice-sized sane garden, but only obscenely large ones which they referred to as truck patches, as if we were going to sell produce at a city market. So hoeing meant long hours at the very height of horsefly and mosquito season.Trading a hoe for one of the those hand-pushed cultivators didn’t help.That was like going from rowing a canoe to manning an oar as a galley slave.
We not only had to hoe in the garden but also in the pastures. To escape the heat of summer, my sister and I would start out at some ungodly hour in the morning, hoes over our shoulders, to face bull thistles and sourdock in mortal combat. For every hundred of these evil things we chopped out, Dad would pay us a dime. “Chopped out” meant cutting the tap root two inches below the soil surface so it wouldn’t grow back. Dad knew he could trust our counting because the two of us kept a gimlet eye on the other. If either of us said we had reached a hundred slain weeds in less time than the other deemed appropriate, we would voice our suspicion loud and clear when we got back home. We often spent most of the time in the field challenging each other’s arithmetic.
When garden tillers came into existence I was overjoyed. But as with other farm technology, the tiller just meant that I had to put out a bigger garden and so saved no time at all. This kind of gardening continued until somehow I made it to my seventies without dying from a heart attack heaving heavy tillers around without knocking over my garden plants. I tried those little, light tillers and they were easier on my back but it occurred to me that they were heavier than hoes and not any faster.
What really brought me back to hoes in recent years was the infernal whitetail deer. The only way to keep them out of the garden is to build an eight foot fence around the vegetables they like the most. When you have to erect that tall a fence, you tend to use the space inside very very efficiently. My rows kept getting more crowded until I almost had to lift the tiller high into the air at the ends of the rows to turn around and then there was the danger of getting hung up in the fence. And so I came to realize that with very close rows, I could hoe weeds just as fast, and with less effort, than horsing a tiller around.
Then I became enamored with succession planting which at first seemed like more work. But actually it makes hoeing less strenuous. Plantings are smaller and each is on its own weeding schedule so to speak. The time needed for hoeing does not decrease but it is spread out over time into shorter intervals. You don’t have to hoe as long on any given day so the job does not seem to be exhausting.
To make hoeing easier than tilling, keep the hoe very sharp, almost sharp enough to shave with. You want a good hoe too, one in which blade and ferrule are all one piece of steel. We’ve talked about that before in this space. Many of you responded that that you had found sources of good hoes still being made but I vote for the ancient ones you can sometimes buy at farm auctions fairly cheap if the crowd is mostly made up of young rotary tiller worshipers like I used to be.
The payback for the hoe comes in more efficient use of available land. The plants don’t need all that space between rows; the tiller does. As many of you who respond to this blog site know, you don’t need rows at all, just nimble fingers and skillfully handled hoes to remove the weeds.