Choosing the Right Garden Tools for Weeding

To the uninitiated, gardening seems a genteel pursuit, nothing more than people puttering about peacefully among the pretty flowers, tempting veggies, or fragrant herbs. Veteran gardeners know gardening can be more like a battle, one fought on many fronts simultaneously. Weather, pests, and disease are potential enemies, but some of the fiercest battles pit gardeners against weeds. These out-of-place plants do not surrender easily! Victory requires an armory of tools.

Some gardeners engage in hand-to-weed combat, pulling the invaders out of the ground, a physically challenging act. Other gardeners employ horticultural chemicals, though there are concerns about safety and effectiveness. If neither of these strategies appeals to you, there are a number of hand tools you can enlist to help discharge these unwanted volunteers.

The long and short of it

Weeding implements fall into two basic categories: long-handle tools and short-handle tools. A good arsenal requires one or more of each kind.

Long-handle tools let you attack weeds from above. These include simple hoe-type tools, which employ some type of blade to uproot or slice weeds, as well as a number of popping, pinching, grabbing, and twisting tools designed to capture and dispatch weeds. Long-handle tools are used from a standing position, generally making them easy on your back and knees. Their wide heads are best suited for working in large areas where plants are spaced fairly far apart and the weeds are mostly shallow-rooted.

Short-handle tools allow you to attack weeds at point-blank range. These act as extensions or substitutes for your hands, with fingerlike blades and tines designed to claw, slice, or hook weeds and pull them out of the ground. Though these small tools do require you to bend over, squat, or kneel, they allow greater weeding power and precision in small and densely planted gardens. They work well against deeply rooted perennial weeds.

With all the weeding products on the market today, you can often find a normally short-handle type blade on a long handle.

How the handle fits

Whether it's long or short, you want a weeding tool that's built well and fits in your hand. Most weeders have a tang-and-ferrule construction. A skinny neck, called a tang, connects the blade to the handle. The tang inserts into the handle and is secured by a metal ring, or ferrule. In the stronger versions, the blade and tang are forged from one piece of steel; weaker ones have a separate tang welded to the blade. The best tools feature socket construction--a forged blade and tang with a socket end that's riveted to the handle. For a light yet durable handle, choose ash or hickory wood.

Don't choose a weeding tool on looks alone. Pick it up and see how it feels. With long-handle tools, the key considerations are length and weight. Can you use the tool comfortably from a standing position? Generally, a thicker handle that allows more of your hand to touch its surface is more comfortable over a long period than a smaller-diameter handle. If you have a small grip, look for weeding tools specifically designed for smaller hands, as well as models with grips that are rubberized, formed, or cushioned for comfort.

Getting the edge on weeds

A sharp weeder works more efficiently as it skims through the dirt, cutting off weeds where they stand. Depending on how much you use the tool, the blade may need sharpening several times throughout the season.

  • Hold the hoe securely while you sharpen. A tool bench vise makes a great garden tool holder.

  • Use a bastard mill flat file for most tools.

  • Match the existing bevel when you sharpen. If a blade is beveled only on one side, sharpen only that side.

  • Sharpen at a 45° angle to the blade.

  • Sharpen in only one direction with motions away from your body. As you bring the file back toward you, lift it away from the blade, and then reset it at the proper angle for the next sharpening stroke.

  • Spray the metal toolhead with a penetrating oil and wipe clean when sharpening is complete.

Weeding wisely

Even with the power of the perfect tool, weeding can be hard work. Proper technique can help reduce muscle fatigue and prevent injury. When using long-handle hoe-type weeders, keep your back straight and your knees slightly bent. When drawing or pushing with the tool, your thumbs should point down or along the handle. For slicing weeds, a sharp blade is essential. The easier the blade cuts, the less force you have to exert. Use a metal file to keep the edge keen, and sharpen the blade often.

When using a short-handle weeder, kneeling or squatting is better than stooping because it reduces back strain and puts more power behind your strokes. In a crowded bed, the best technique is to grab weeds with one hand while you use the other to brandish the weeder.

Long-handle weeders

The most common long-handle weeders are variations on the hoe. With all the motion a hoe allows--chopping, drawing, and pushing--any garden-variety hoe can be a decent weed fighter. However, there are specialized hoes that excel at weeding. Here are some examples.

Warren hoe

This is a draw hoe, meaning the head is designed to be pulled back toward your body. The Warren hoe's pointed, arrowlike blade gets to the deep roots of weeds such as dandelions. It's good for breaking through hard ground and working in tight spots.

Dutch hoe

Also called a scuffle hoe, the Dutch hoe features a flat, splayed blade attached to the handle with a horseshoe or V-shape shank. The blade skims along the top of the soil as you push the blade away from your body, slicing weeds as it goes. Because the pushing action requires more effort than pulling, this tool is a good choice for fine, sandy soil that offers little resistance.

Oscillating hoe

The hinged, stirrup-shape blade of the oscillating hoe moves back and forth as you push or pull it along the soil surface. The double-edge blade cuts in both directions for greater weeding power; its flexible nature makes it easier to push and pull. It works well on young weeds in loose soil, where it can separate foliage from roots, but it tends to get hung up in tough, rocky soil.

Short-handle weeders

Short-handle weeders look like a cross between silverware and grilling tools--lots of knives, forks, and other tined, pronged, and bladed instruments. Some are basically miniature hoes, while others are more like claws. The idea is to give you maximum power with controlled surgical weeding strikes that are less likely to damage healthy plants. There are several types of short-handle weeders.

Fishtail weeder
Also called an asparagus knife, the fishtail weeder uses a V-shape notch to hook weeds and bring them to the surface, or at least cut them off at the roots. It works especially well between pavers and sidewalk crevices.

Taproot weeder
The key to defeating many weeds is removing the taproot, the plant's lifeline. The taproot weeder has a long forked blade and a fulcrum so that you can stick the tool deep into the ground and pry upward.

Collinear hand weeder
With a long neck and a blade like that of an old-fashioned straight razor, the collinear hand weeder is designed to shave weeds just below the soil surface.

The shape of this tool minimizes wrist strain, and an hourglass handle provides a comfortable grip. You can also find long-handle hoes with blades like this.

Cape Cod weeder
Like a bent finger made of steel, the Cape Cod weeder's L-shape blade reaches into tight spaces around plants. This old favorite works in all soils and on the biggest weeds.

Japanese farmer's knife
Weeding is just one application for this versatile tool, also called a farmer's weeder or hori-hori knife. It has one smooth, slicing edge and one serrated edge, letting it stab through the soil and saw tough roots.

Paving weeder

Some of the most annoying and hard-to-reach weeds grow between pavers and slabs of concrete. The ice-pick-shape blade reaches deep down into walkway and wall crevices to scrape out the weeds.

Besides traditional tools, take a look at newer weeders that employ a variety of technologies, including foot-powered tines that pop weeds from the ground, hose-fed wands that blast weeds out with a high-pressure stream of water, and propane-powered weed burners that kill weeds with a blast of heat. Though all work to some degree, they don't promise the versatility or the track record of older, less high-tech tools. If you're interested in one of these weeding tools, see if you can rent one for a trial run before plunking down your hard-earned cash.

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