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Favorite cultivating tools

2013 July 15


I think somewhere along the line, early in adulthood, I missed a calling in botany or horticulture. I find the strangest things fascinating. Sooo not interested in Brangelina. Couldn’t get through even the second episode of Game of Thrones, Season 1 (not having read the book, I was left wondering whether there are story lines other than sex — total yawnfest. But, yay for Amazon streaming vidoes — I wasted only $4 on two episodes, not $40 on the DVD set.).

No, my interests lie in more hyperlocal pursuits. Like heirloom tomatoes, and Caprese anything. Growing garlic. Sriracha. And the many stages of butterflies.

And weeds*.

True, weeds are a gardener’s never-ending nemesis, but their very ability to survive and adapt is most impressive. Purslane, for example, was not to be found in my community in my childhood, but it arrived from somewhere at some point (probably from trucked-in commercial soil), kicked off its shoes, and made itself comfortable. If I were to abandon my gardens today, the garden floor would be carpeted in a thick mat of purslane by mid-August.

Purslane is edible (and delicious — edible weeds, in fact, are worthy of a post all their own), but alas, it’s not the focus of my garden.

Edible or not, beautiful or not (I do love the highly invasive wild blue violet), weeds are aggressive opportunists and survivalists, and they zap nutrients from the soil, the very nutrients my beloved heirloom tomatoes need to thrive. They also make growing anything from seed nearly impossible, as they’ll smother delicate seedlings trying to reach for the sun.

With all due respect to their Darwinian superiority, they have to go. I wanted to share with you the tools I use everyday to fight the war on weeds. (Do note that my armory is wood and steel, not chemicals. Round-up and its voodoo concoction of chemical soup has no place in my yard or on my food.)

(*For the naturalists among you, please do not be offended my use of the term weeds. A weed is simply a plant that is growing where it is not wanted. A rosebush in my heirloom tomato bed would be a weed in my eyes, and yanked (or, rather, transplanted — I’m not one to kill a rose) unapologetically.)


First up, my most favoritist tool in the whole wide world: the short-handled nejiri weeder. If the zombie apocalypse occurred tomorrow, I would grab my kitties, my box of vegetables seeds, and my nejiri weeder (which can double as a gardening tool and, as you can see from the photo, a zombie head basher-iner), and head for the hills.


With a sharp, angled blade, pointy on one end, this tool lets you slice easily into the earth and get down deep under a weed’s root system, lifting up it from below clean and whole (or, when impatience rules the day, slicing quickly through the roots while freeing the greenery). It’s also wicked useful to break up packed patches of soil in prep for seed sowing.


The pointy end is super useful for getting between tightly spaced plants. Here’s the nejiri in action, removing a clump of purslane in my onion bed.

I have yet to find this tool in my local stores, but I purchased one online a few years ago from Williams-Sonoma (which they still carry as part of their Agrarian line).


Second only to the nejiri weeder is the stirrup hoe. A trapezoid-shaped blade attached to a long handle, this tool is for clearing large patches of land. The sharp blade is easy to work into the ground, and the handle lets you get a nice push-pull motion going, getting under weeds, like the nejiri, and dislodging them from below. (That push-pull motion — kind of like mopping — gives it a leg up on the standard hoe, which uses a pull motion only.)

Stirrup hoes are readily available at big box garden centers (called “action hoes” at some stores).


I cleared this 10′ x 10′ plot of thistle, purslane and nutsedge in five minutes flat (the remaining plants are bee attractors, salvia and angelonia). Garden bed prep would be hideous without this tool.

Finally, there’s the old reliable hand shovel (photo at the top). Some weeds, such as dandelions and mature thistle, send long, thick taproots deep into the ground. Leaving any part of the root behind will allow the plant to quickly regenerate (survival of the fittest, ya know). No matter how tempting, you shouldn’t yank a dandelion by hand, which will simply break the plant at some point along its root (trust me, the root is stronger than you).

Instead, you should dig it out with a shovel.

I’ve noticed a sad trend in hand shovel manufacturing the last several years. While the nejiri weeder and the stirrup hoe are solidly built tools, hand shovels have digressed into shadows of their former selves.

This spring, I was appalled at the selection of plastic hand shovels lining the gardening tool walls. (And I do mean plastic for adults, not cute rainbow-colored tools for children.) Plastic is a completely inappropriate material for a hand shovel: breakage is guaranteed.

Moreover, even non-plastic shovels today are made with flimsy, easily bendable metals. The metal neck connecting the blade to handle must withstand considerable force, and aluminum (or other pliable metals) will just not cut it. The shovel shown at top is one I’ve had for probably 10 years: cleaned and polished, it would be good as new, solid and heavy. I have, however, bent newer two hand shovels into useless just this year alone.

In purchasing a hand shovel, look for heft and weight: the shovel should feel a bit heavy to hold, but with a comfortable handle grip. Even if your hands are weak or arthritic, a heavy hand shovel will do you well (remember, in hand shovel usage, the ground is bearing most of the weight of the tool, not your hand). The more solidly constructed the tool, the easier it will be to work it into the ground, as you apply force from above.

Our summer here has been hot and rainy — perfect conditions for weed overload. I’m grateful to have my arsenal of tools against these very worthy opponents.

Happy gardening!


3 Responses
  1. Darlynne permalink
    July 15, 2013

    I share your refusal to use pesticides, etc., but I have to admit, I am nearly at my wits’ end. We have a xeriscape yard comprised of decomposed granite (DG), boulders and flowering plants like dragon’s blood, phlox and so on. Big weeds? No problem. Dandelions? I laugh in their sunny yellow faces as I pull them out by hand.

    But the tiny, weedy, sticky ground cover that tries to take over has me thinking Agent Orange had its uses (that analogy used only to highlight my frustration, not an endorsement). There isn’t a tool (mine, btw, is a handy bayonet blade that does wonders for digging weeds out of our rocky soil) that can pull them up or in any way effectively remove them. They’re so small and insidious that, I swear, after a day of weeding and the tiniest bit of moisture overnight, they’re back the next day. Karen, they’re mocking me.

    So I am on the verge of looking at some kind of weed killer. I have also thought about just letting it take over, but that really annoys me.

    Bowed but Unbeaten

  2. July 22, 2013

    My husband’s the gardener at our house. I will show him this as he doesn’t have either of these tools but I know he’d love to know about them. Such great information!!

  3. Stephanie permalink
    July 26, 2013

    Darlynne: Check out this link to an Organic Gardening article:

    We are trying solarization on one of our beds to get rid of some persistent squash bugs. It’s covered in black plastic, and we won’t plant there until next year. Sadness.

    In the meantime, those wild strawberries in the yard are pretty, but driving me crazy!!!

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