From the pages of Kitchen Gardener Magazine

Short-Handled Weeding Tools

A test-drive of 12 handy weeding tools helps you pick the right one for the job

by Joe Queirolo

When you're building an arsenal of weapons to battle the forces of nature, it's a good idea to include a short-handled tool or two for situations that call for detail work. Short-handled weeders prove useful for reaching under low perennials, for weeding among thorny plants such as roses or blackberries where even a gloved hand dare not go, for particularly tough hoeing where both hands on the tool can give you extra scraping power, or for prying tenacious weeds from cracks between paving stones.

To help you choose short-handled weeders that suit your particular gardening needs, Kitchen Gardener asked me to test-drive a representative sample. From the wide range of choices available, we selected 12 that looked the most promising. Prices mentioned in this article date from summer 2000 and may have changed since then; you'll find contact information for the companies in Sources for short-handled weeding tools. I put them to the test in loose soil and compacted soil, both wet and dry. I attacked weeds of all sizes. And I used the tools on weeds growing in a gravel path and in cracks between pavers.

I was looking for five qualities that I think are important in an effective weeder: accuracy, sturdiness, sharpness, versatility, and value. I divided the tools roughly into two groups based on the way they function. Cutters have sharp blades that get under the soil surface and cut weeds off at the roots. Scrapers work on top of the soil, scraping away the visible part of the weed. Several of the tools were designed to perform in more than one way. Some actually did.

Cutters clip weeds at their roots
The Yankee Weeder is solidly made with a long, varnished hardwood handle and a forged steel blade. The blade arrived about as sharp as a butter knife, but a little filing gave it a good edge. It was at its best clearing weeds from cracks and cutting small to mid-sized weeds. The 3-inch blade mounted 90 degrees to the shaft made it easy to hook clumps of grass and yank them out. But I found it frustrating to use close in to my plants because, with the blade underground and off to the side of the shaft, I kept losing track of it. Still, it's a good value.

Yankee/Cape Cod Weeder and the Hot Bed Weeder
Yankee/Cape Cod Weeder: Lee Valley ($6.95); A.M. Leonard ($14.95); Walt Nicke ($14.95)
Hot Bed Weeder: A.M. Leonard ($15.83); Walt Nicke ($16.95)

An angular variation on the cutting theme is the Hot Bed Weeder, a ribbon of steel bent into a C-shape with sharpened edges all around attached to a short, tapered handle. You can chop small weeds with the chisellike tip or you can cut side to side. As I tried to cut sideways, the blade twisted in my hand. The effectiveness of either operation is limited by the springiness of the thin blade. Still, I found it to be a well-made tool that should last a very long time if you were to use it in loose, well-cultivated soil, such as you might find in a (surprise!) hot bed.

Angle Weeder
Angle Weeder: Peaceful Valley ($13.95); Stillbrook ($14.95)
The stainless steel Angle Weeder is one of those ambitious tools that's purported to be three tools in one. The catalog says that using the serrated curved blade, you can saw beneath the soil surface, cutting and grabbing weeds by their roots. This I was able to do. Using the hooked tip you can weed cracks. This also I was able to do. And using the forked tip you can lift tap-rooted weeds with a flip of the wrist. This I was not able to do. Perhaps my wrist wasn't built for flipping. In any case, it is a strongly built tool with an ash handle and tang-and-ferrule attachment. It will probably last for many years. Especially so because this tool is not particularly useful. I found the sideways sawing motion awkward, and the forked tip continually clogged with soil and plant material. I'd rather weed by hand than do the horticultural contortions this tool requires.

Scrapers work on top of the soil
I've been using a Hand Weeder (mine is from Smith & Hawken) for more than 10 years, and I consider it my right hand. It's of moderate weight and well balanced, with a hard, forged-steel blade welded to a long shaft set into a comfortable wooden handle. I like its versatility. I can get close to plants with the short side of the blade, clear large areas with the entire blade, use the corner of the blade to get into cracks, and, with one hand on the blade and one on the handle, get under most weeds to shave them off like a razor. It's strong enough to hook and pull tough clumps of grass, and its long shaft allows you weed without kneeling and to reach into and under places your hand won't go. Its only drawback is that the steel is so hard I've found it nearly impossible to sharpen with a file. A grinder would do the job. A tool well worth the price.

Hand Weeder and the Circle Hoe
Hand Weeder: Smith & Hawken ($15)
Circle Hoe: Peaceful Valley ($17.95); Harmony Farm ($14.95)

One scraper that won't take out your plants by mistake is the Circle Hoe. Only the bottom of the circular head is sharpened. The rest of the circle is dull and won't do anything worse than bruise your plants. The cutting edge is only about 1-1/2 inches across, though, so it would take a very long time to weed a large area. It was at its best weeding on hard, dry ground. Although a bit pricey given its limited range, it's a solid tool with a thick handle that feels like it would last a very long time.

The V-Shaped Scraper is a Japanese digger/scraper that has a comfortable 16-inch handle. I found it most effective for weeding while walking. Its long handle allowed me to bend and chop without getting my knees dirty. The pointed blade lets you vary the size of the chunk of earth you remove. It also worked well pitted against clumps of grass. The way the blade is mounted on the shaft means you can get under a clump and lever it out. Because the blade is pointed, however, it slips around tap-rooted weeds. You can loosen the soil but you still have to pull them by hand. All in all, a pretty good value.

V-Shaped Scraper and the Winged Weeder
V-Shaped Scraper: Hida ($14.80)
Winged Weeder: Harmony Farm ($21.69)

The Winged Weeder works both pushing and pulling. On the pull stroke, the fixed angle of the blade causes it to skim rather than scrape the soil surface. I found it very difficult to get the angle just right. It worked much better on the push stroke; the point dug in and the wings cut the weeds. It was more effective after I sharpened it well. The tool is light and comfortable. I think it would work best using the wings to weed cracks and the tough areas close to rocks and edgings.

Garden Weeder
Garden Weeder: Burrell's ($3.65/$7.65)
A no-frills scraper called simply Garden Weeder is available from Burrell's Better Seed, with either a standard or a tempered steel blade. There's a pointed version I didn't care for. The square-bladed version is more comfortable. The blade allowed me to cut weeds both pushing and pulling, though it worked best on dry soils. The looping metal handle is quite short and a bit awkward to hold. I couldn't get a grip on it the way I can on wooden handles. I couldn't apply enough strength to take on tap-rooted or other tenacious weeds. The blade is thin and easily sharpened, and it's welded solidly to the handles.

Four other weeders
The small Tricorner Weeder is designed to weed cracks, and weed cracks it will. This is a strong, simple tool that looks and feels like it will never wear out. If I had a brick patio or walkway where weeds tended to congregate, I'd use this handy tool to show them they're unwanted. It's not versatile, but it's very effective.

Tricorner Weeder and the Triangle Hoe
Tri-Corner Weeder: Stillbrook ($9.95)
Triangle Hoe: Harmony Farm ($22.50); Hida ($14.80); Peaceful Valley ($14.95)

The Triangle Hoe has a strong and comfortable oak handle, and the head is firmly attached. It's a miniature version of a gold miner's pickax. It does a good job of lifting clumping weeds in wet or dry conditions, but it is a heavy-duty tool more suited to cultivating, digging holes, and moving stones than it is to weeding. If I were clearing a field of woody weeds, though, I'd reach for this tool.

Jeckyll Weeder
Jekyll Weeder: Lee Valley ($7.95)
The inscrutable Jekyll Weeder appears to be a prier but it doesn't pry. It's light. It's comfortable. It's well made. But what is it supposed to do? I tried in vain to make this tool work by lifting, twisting, pushing, and prying. It went into the soil all right and loosened the soil around the weeds, but I still had to pull the weeds by hand. The two stainless steel prongs slipped around any weed I tried to lever out. Though I couldn't figure out how to weed with this tool, I think if I were to somehow electrify it I might be able to use it as a prod to herd gophers away from the garden.

Hori-Hori Weeder
Hori Hori/Japanese Farmer's Knife: Harmony Farm ($24.95); Hida ($19.80); Lee Valley ($15.95); Walt Nicke ($24.50); Peaceful Valley ($19.95)
My other right hand is the Hori-Hori Knife, a simple digging, scraping, cutting, and prying tool from Japan. I use it for serious weeding jobs involving deep-rooted weeds, where I can dig, pry, and cut off deeply without changing tools. I also use it extensively for transplanting and dividing perennials. The blade is very hard steel, and difficult to sharpen with a file. It should last a very long time, provided you don't lose it. It's not a large tool and, once the handle is caked with mud, it's easily lost. I've lost several. I suggest wrapping the handle with brightly colored duct tape to help you spot it in a wheelbarrow full of weeds. Every gardener I know who's used one of these swears by it.

Over the years, I've developed a comfortable relationship with just a few trusty tools. I know such relationships can be very personal. Many an unfamiliar tool has come to me highly recommended, only to leave me scratching my head after a few awkward and fruitless attempts to make it work. Obviously one man's treasured weeder is another man's yard-sale item.

Joe Queirolo was a contributing editor to Kitchen Gardener. He is the head gardener at Crow Canyon Gardens in San Ramon, California.

Photos: Judi Rutz and Scott Phillips

From Kitchen Gardener #27, pp. 29-31
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