A Cook's Garden

Home gardeners should take wheel hoes for a spin in their back yards

Seemingly a thing of the past, wheel hoes are making a comeback. New ones use a blade that cuts on both forward and back strokes.
Seemingly a thing of the past, wheel hoes are making a comeback. New ones use a blade that cuts on both forward and back strokes. (Valley Oak Tool Co.)
By Barbara Damrosch
Thursday, August 19, 2010

About this time in the summer, the vegetable garden could well use an Elizabeth Arden spa day. Busy days whir by as fast as sprouting pigweed, and all I can give my plot is a quick manicure. So I reach for the wheel hoe.

A few generations ago, wheel hoes were standard equipment for market gardeners and for home gardeners who grew much of their own food. An octogenarian neighbor who was raised on a large farm recalls how 20 workers would show up each morning and reach for just that implement. In those times, it was the tool by which large acreages were managed. Few would recognize it today.

A wheel hoe is simply a hoe blade mounted on a wheel. The wheel is there to lessen the work of moving the blade along, keep it a consistent distance from the soil and lend force to its cutting action. Wheel hoes are designed so that you can weed close to crops planted in straight rows. They also do a championship job on dirt paths between beds. Nothing else makes such quick work of weeds in hard, trodden earth that would normally have you on your knees, stabbing peevishly with your trowel.

Modern versions of the wheel hoe are more efficient than the ones my neighbor remembers because they use an oscillating blade, like that of a hula hoe, which cuts on both the forward and back strokes. Walk at a comfortable pace, pushing back and forth, and weeds are severed just below the surface so that none can regrow. Weeds too small to see are dispatched as well.

Older versions had a large, two-foot-diameter wheel in front, where the handles attached. Today's feature a much smaller wheel, mounted so that the line of force is directed straight down the handles to the blade. Attachments can turn it into a Swiss army knife garden tool. A three-tine cultivator, for example, lets you incorporate soil amendments. A small, plow-shaped blade makes a V-shaped trough for seeds or potatoes, then buries them. My husband, Eliot, uses that one for laying down plastic: One pass makes a trench to tuck the edge into, another covers the edge with soil so it won't blow away.

The wheel hoe we use is a $350 professional model made by Glaser and sold by Johnny's Selected Seeds (http://www.johnnyseeds.com) and Peaceful Valley (http://www.groworganic.com). For us it's well worth the price, but someone with a small garden might do fine with a $200 version that Peaceful Valley offers. Other brands exist as well, such as Valley Oak (http://www.valleyoaktools.com) and Hoss (http://store.hosstools.com), after years when you could find wheel hoes only at garage sales.

It's yet another clear sign that small-scale farms and serious home vegetable gardens are returning to the American landscape.

Damrosch is a freelance writer and the author of "The Garden Primer."

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