Learning to Use a Stirrup Hoe

I’ve gotten it into my head that I’d like to work my garden entirely without the use of power tools, this year. Now that I can get into the garden (the final snow melted away on April 24), I’m attending to the weeds and grasses. This is just my third year gardening, and last year I ignored 60% of my garden space, which allowed the heavy grasses I had taken out – in the form of sod blocks – in 2009 to do a nice job of re-setting.

Not smart. This year I will undersow and follow-on with weed-suppressing, soil-building grasses and legumes. But first I have to prepare to plant.

I’m using a stirrup hoe to take out the weeds and grass. It’s designed to work in both forward and backward directions. The idea is to cut weeds an inch or two below the soil surface, which kills the plant. The roots rot into the soil, adding compost.

The promise is that over 3 – 5 years the weeds become fewer and fewer because the soil is not disturbed so much that new weed seeds are moved up into the ‘germination zone.’ I like that idea. So, I’m prepared to leave the rototiller in the cellar and work the soil by hand, turning over only the top few inches.

(I will loosen the soil with a broad-tined pitchfork, however, to assure my seedlings have soil loose enough for deep root penetration.)

On my third day of working with the hoe, I’m getting the hang of it. I’d read that the trick is to keep the handle at about a 70 degree angle to the soil. I didn’t achieve that until today. And today I accomplished about as much as I did yesterday, but in 25% less time and with less wear and tear on my ageing body. I’m optimistic that tomorrow will be very productive.

Holding the hoe correctly helps. A stirrup hoe is held either with both thumbs up (facing the top of the handle) for lighter work, or both thumbs down (facing the working end) for heavier work. The larger portion of my garden is requiring the thumbs down hold; I anticipate the smaller portion that I farmed last year, and which has far fewer weeds this spring, will be workable in the thumbs up position.

When the angle on a stirrup hoe is right, the blade practically glides through the soil, neatly slicing weeds and smaller clumps of grass, and leaving a nice length of cultivated soil that slides over the blade as the blade cuts through the soil. It’s really a pleasure to use when it works as intended!

In my case, however, there are a number of thickly rooted clumps of grass that regularly interrupt the smooth run of the hoe. Keeping the blade in the right attitude lets me cut through larger clumps than I could when the angle was wrong.

Also, as a former user of a traditional hoe with its “hack and scrape” approach, I have to keep telling myself to relax. This hoe does not require heavy muscle action, except for those particularly thick grass clumps. Thus, I can do more with less bodily wear. Give me a few more days, and I’ll have this thing mastered.

And my blisters will have been beaten into callouses.