Five Tips for Using a Garden Hoe

Matt working in the garden with a hoe

I didn’t grow up using a gardening hoe in my day to day life. As a kid in Houston, TX, I spent much of my free time at Little League or rollerblading around our  neighborhood.  As I got older, I played a lot of video games.

I rarely (if ever!) used a garden hoe, mattock, pruners, loppers or saws; tools that I now use on a regular basis around our 5-acre homestead.

About the extent of my hand tool experience was an old hatchet my grandfather passed on, an old oil sharpening stone that I had no idea how to use, and the push mower my mom bought one summer with high hopes that never materialized.

So, yeah, I was pretty much an  average suburban kid without much practical know-how.

Fast forward to today, about 10 years into this homesteading journey, and I feel comfortable using my body and hand tools to get things done.  It’s taken some time, practice and my fair share of blisters, sore muscles and minor injuries; but I believe that anyone, no matter your upbringing, can learn (or relearn) to use hand tools in an enjoyable, safe and effective way.

Here are five tips to help you succeed with a garden hoe.

1.  Keep your hoe sharp

I’ve said it before but it bears repeating, sharp tools make your work much easier and can be the difference between a frustrating or an enjoyable experience.  Unlike sharpening knives or axes, sharpening garden hoes is fairly straight forward and hard to mess up. So get yourself a good file and learn how to use it.

2.  Strive for perfect timing

Perfect timing means that the conditions are ideal for your intended task.  This means taking things like soil moisture, weather and other conditions into account.

For weeding and other garden hoe tasks, this means getting  out there when weeds are small and require minimal effort to slice.  Ideal soil conditions for weeding would be moist, but not too dry or sopping wet.

Attaining perfect timing is no easy task as there are so many variables in our lives, many of which we can’t control, but keeping it in mind can help improve the quality and efficiency of your work.

3.  Get your mind right

I believe that our results are partly  determined by our attitudes and beliefs.  So how do you feel about weeding or your other garden chores?

I must confess that even though I love to produce food and medicine, sometimes the work it takes to get there can feel like drudgery.

One way I combat this sort of mental resistance is to turn the work into a game or workout.

I might look at each row I need to hoe as a rep or segment of a larger workout.  I switch my left and right hands  between rows to get a more balanced workout.  Perhaps I’ll do some body weight exercises like squats in between rows.

In this way, the work becomes a part of my larger health and lifestyle goals.  I’m not just weeding, I’m also getting a work out, spending time outside, making vitamin D, etc.

How can you switch your mindset to make your work more pleasurable?

Bring the Target Closer – a subset of getting your mind right is the idea of bringing the target closer, or breaking your larger tasks down into more manageable, bite-sized chunks.

So you’ve got a whole garden to prep or weed?  Can you break that daunting goal down into smaller chunks?  Can you weed 2 beds this morning and 2 this evening?  Breaking your work up and setting small goals can make larger jobs more approachable.

4.  Pace yourself

There is a micro and macro scale to this.  At the micro level, this simply looks like taking your time as you work your way down the row, whether it’s weeding with a gardening hoe, digging holes for trees or pruning your rose bush.

Sometimes we have to hustle, but don’t rush.  Find a rhythm if you can.  Breathe!

If possible, I like to coordinate my breathing with my motions.  This is easiest when using garden hoes that require rhythmic movements, like chopping.

At the macro scale, pacing yourself often looks like planning.

Do you know about when you’ll plant your spring, summer or fall crops?  With this knowledge, you can make a plan for when your beds need to be ready for planting.  If possible, work your way towards readiness steadily, without last minute (and often back busting) flushes of work.

I know this can be challenging, as often it’s the weather that dictates when we can or can’t get things done in the garden, but it is possible and worth the extra bit of effort.

5.  Switch sides

Here’s another obvious, but not always easy, tactical use-tip:  Switch sides (reverse your hands) frequently while working.

If you’re anything like me (highly one sided), this can be both challenging and frustrating at first.  But trust me, it’s worth struggling through some awkwardness on your non-dominant side.

Your muscles will develop more evenly, your soreness will distribute more evenly :), you’ll have more endurance and my guess is that your brain will get a workout, too.

I hope these tips and ideas help you have a better experience with hand tools, whether you’re using a gardening hoe, a shovel or pruners.

Now I’d love to hear from you!  What are your favorite tips and techniques for working with hand tools? Send me an email with your tips, and I’ll add them to this list.