Hoes are designed to accomplish two major tasks: cultivation (chopping, loosening, and moving light soil) and weeding (cutting off weeds at or just below the soil surface). Some are made for just one of these tasks and others accomplish either.

Hoes, like shovels, spades, and forks, are usually made with a solid forged socket or with a tang-and-ferrule construction. A third style, often found on heavy-duty hoes, has an “eye” at the top of the blade, with a mattock-like handle fitted through the eye. Follow the rule that applies to all your tools—select the one with the strongest construction possible. Handles range in length from 50 to 60 inches; yours should be long enough to let you work without having to bend unduly.

As for blades, the sizes vary considerably. Some are sharpened only on the bottom, some on all three sides, and some not at all. The following descriptions will help you decide which type to buy. Also consider your garden’s size and type. For heavy or rocky soil, you’ll need a hoe that’s big enough to do the job; for a small border garden, a narrow-blade or pointed hoe will be more suitable; for a specific weeding problem that can’t be solved by a standard garden hoe, consider a scuffle hoe. Try out your neighbor’s hoes to see which do best in your own garden.

Types of Hoes

Most hoes are only variations on a blade at right angles to the handle. A few, especially some of the modern weeding hoes, are quite different from this pattern, but still do the same job.

General gardening hoes are the ones found in the tool sheds of most gardeners. Because the blade is slightly angled, it slips just beneath the soil to cut weeds on each downward stroke. The blade emerges from the end of a gooseneck-shape tang or socket. It usually has a beveled cutting edge on the outer side, and is between 5 and 7 inches wide. The heavier your soil, the heavier your hoe should be.

Onion hoes have a broader head (about 7 inches by 2 inches). The blade is sharpened on the sides as well as on the bottom. The broad head is designed for working between onion rows, but when turned on edge it can weed and cultivate in the tight spaces between onions or other bulb-type plants.

Triangular hoes have an arrow-shaped head; the tapered end with its flat tip is better than the standard hoe for breaking into stubborn soil. This hoe is also excellent for weeding: The blade breaks deeply into the soil around the roots of the weed and then jerks out the entire plant rather than just cutting off the portion above ground. It is also useful for weeding or cultivating in tight spots. The flat tip is sharpened like any other hoe.

Warren hoes , which also have a triangular head, have a pointed tip and do not need to be sharpened. This hoe was developed to make furrows for vegetables, irrigation furrows, and trenches for planting sets or large seeds. After planting, flip the hoe over and pull the two points along either side of the furrow to cover the sets or seeds.

Some gardeners try to use the Warren hoe as a weeding tool, but its construction makes it ineffective for this purpose. The pointed tip must be aimed at a weed very directly, or else the tip will just slide past it. Also, the severe angle of the blade in relation to the handle means that you must bend quite low in order to use it properly. However, it is good for its intended purpose—making furrows.

Eye hoes are designed to tackle big jobs and to last a lifetime. The head is fitted directly onto the handle, which flares at one end so that it won’t come off. The blades vary in size according to the requirements of the job. There are standard-size cultivating blades (7 1/2 inches by 6 3/4 inches); blades for chopping weeds and light brush (4 inches by 7 inches); and other blades, the largest of which is the specialized grape hoe that’s used widely in California vineyards (8 inches by 7 inches).

Scuffle hoes are used primarily for weeding and occasionally for tilling. However, if your garden is already well tilled and your main task is keeping small weeds from becoming established, the scuffle hoe makes a good second hoe. It generally has a flat blade that rests parallel to the ground and is beveled both on the front and the back.

To cut weeds with a standard hoe, you move the blade in one direction, but with a scuffle hoe you move the blade back and forth. You can also turn this hoe over and use it to cultivate the soil or to edge a border.

Several related hoes are used the same way. Since scuffle hoes are all designed to accomplish the same thing, which one you choose is largely a matter of preference. Keep the blades sharp and out of rocky or heavy-clay soils.

Also called a hula hoe, the action hoe is so named because the blade moves about 1/2 inch each way when it’s either pushed or pulled. The slight movement adjusts the blade angle so that it cuts down at the roots of weeds.

The blade of the disc hoe is fixed in one position to ride parallel to the ground whether it is pushed or pulled. Both the front and back have notches to catch and cut larger weeds. All four sides are sharp. Run this hoe back and forth through weeds, just beneath the soil surface.

The swoe is a cross between a standard hoe and a scuffle hoe. Made of stainless steel, it is about 2 inches wide at the cutting end, narrowing to about 1 inch near the handle. Since the blade is sharp on all three edges, it will cut when pulled or pushed to either side.

The diamond-shape scuffle hoe is excellent for working in tight places, such as in border gardens. The hoe is about 2 inches wide in the center, narrowing down to about 1/2 inch at each end. All the edges are sharp. It is convenient to use for cultivating under a mulch, such as bark.

Caring for Hoes

The first thing is to keep your hoe clean. If it has a tang-and-ferrule construction, make sure the ferrule fits tightly around the handle end so that soil doesn’t get in; eventually, soil would rot the wood and cause the tang to fall out.

Sharpen hoes depending on the job they are doing. Sharpen hoes used for heavy cultivating at an 85 degrees angle. Hoes used for weeding should be sharpened at a 45 degrees angle. For sharpening instructions, see Sharpening Hoes and Spades.

When working, get in the habit of placing hoes on the ground with the blade down. Hang them up or lean them against a wall when not in use.