Wheel hoe or rototiller
My rototiller isn’t getting much use lately. It was necessary at first. The forest doesn’t give up its own easily. There were deep tree roots that needed cutting through, and deep soil that hadn’t seen oxygen in decades. Tillers are good for breaking new ground out of the forest and increasing the oxygen in the soil.
They’re also good for bringing weed seeds to the surface. The problem with tilling, though, is if you till the same ground year after year, it leaves behind a hard subsurface that the roots of plants can’t penetrate. Soil that is tilled is susceptible to wind and water erosion, too. Qualities you’d like to avoid if you want to grow your own groceries.
Further, rototilling breaks up the soil structure and inhibits the establishment of the symbiotic mycorrhizal cultures necessary for plant growth. Each time you rototill you lose organic matter. Rototilling has a place in the establishment of a new garden, but some folks make the mistake of rototilling regularly, even throughout the growing season.
An alternative to rototilling in the established garden is the deep mulch system, sometimes called the “Back to Eden” garden. In this system the garden is covered in a thick mulch of straw, hay, or even wood chips. The mulch is pushed aside for seed planting. And the plants grow up, surrounded by mulch. This retains the moisture in the soil, lessening the need for supplemental watering. It also lessens the amount of weeding necessary. However, it does not remove the need to weed. Weeds still grow up in the places where the mulch is thin or beside growing vegetables where the soil is exposed.
I recently had the opportunity to test drive a Hoss Tools Double Wheel Hoe. This tool is great for market gardeners and homesteaders with large gardens who want to avoid the problems inherent in rototilling their garden over and over during the growing season. While I’ve seen videos of gardeners using the wheel hoe on bare soil, much as others use a rototiller, I think the real benefit of the Wheel Hoe is using it in a no-till garden in conjunction with a deep mulch system.
Closer planting means more vegetables in the same space
The wheel hoe allows you to place your vegetable rows closer together. When gardeners are using a rototiller to keep the weeds down between rows, there’s 3 feet or more of wasted garden space, and wasted fertility. On the other hand, hoeing between rows with a wheel hoe needs only about 12 to 15 inches between rows. That’s just enough space for an adult to walk, making weeding and harvesting easier.
The Wheel Hoe is tough on weeds
The Hoss Tools wheel hoe makes weeding a breeze. Even with deep mulch there are weeds. And while I do sometimes sing the praises of weeds, aka medicinal herbs, there are place you don’t want them growing.
The Hoss Tools double wheel hoe nips those deeply rooted weeds off quickly and with little effort. Using the oscillating hoe attachment, I took the hoe down the path between garden areas and it pulled the established dandelions up, root and all. This was an area that we had walked over and over. It had hard, compacted soil and many deeply growing weeds like dandelions, buttercup, and mallow. Just one pass with the wheel hoe cleaned the area up before the dandelions went to seed. I was impressed with the efficiency of the work. It wasn’t much more effort than walking.
Faster row preparation for planting
While the wheel hoe doesn’t replace a rototiller in breaking new ground, many folks use a rototiller simply to prepare the rows for planting. This is unnecessary and reinforces the hard pan layer under the top soil.
The wheel hoe prepares the rows for planting easily. In a deep mulch system, the mulch is raked aside, exposing the soil, before the wheel hoe passes down the garden bed. In early spring, much of the mulch that was laid down the previous fall is already decomposing, so there is only a light mulch to move aside.
I used the cultivator teeth on the double wheel hoe to move the dirt and get the bed ready for planting. Any weeds that had managed to germinate under the thin mulch were nipped off with the cultivator teeth.
Then I switched to the right and left plow blades to create a shallow furrow for transplanting my cabbage, broccoli, and cauliflower plants. It only required a single pass with the plow blades to define the furrow. Then I laid a 4 to 6 inch layer of 4th cut alfalfa – grass hay down for mulch between the furrows.
If you use hay for mulch don’t use first cut hay, which will contain the seed heads. Third and fourth cut hay is usually weed-seed-free. The bed was ready for transplanting faster, without the need to tune up the rototiller.
Since we get frost right into June in zone 3, (We had frost this morning) I start my plants in a nursery bed and then transplant them out mid-June. The nursery bed is a hugelkultur bed that is 4 feet high, 4 feet wide, and 10 feet long. It warms up at the end of April, while the rest of my garden is still under snow.
Today I transplanted 40 cabbage, broccoli, and cauliflower plants from the nursery bed into the prepared furrows. As I was digging the holes for the transplants, in the furrows, I noticed the ground was warm. And there were ample earth worms. These are signs of healthy soil with high organic matter. The furrows remained weed-free.
The organic matter in the soil is stable
Organic matter in the soil is lost every time you rototill. More than 90 percent of plant species form a symbiotic relationship with the beneficial mycorrhizal fungi in the soil. While any kind of structural work in the soil breaks the mycorrhizal network and results in some organic matter loss, using hand tools or a mechanical wheel hoe, involves less structural changes in the soil and is therefore, less damaging to the mycorrhizal network.
No gas engine to maintain, tune up, or troubleshoot
Every spring around here the rototiller, chipper, weed whacker, and chainsaw tends to need some kind of shop time. Seriously! If you will need a gas powered tool for a job, it’s best to get it working and tuned up 3 weeks before you need it. You know it will be at the repair shop at least that long waiting for the part that you need to arrive from back east. Then you need to smell like gas for at least one afternoon, while you fill the tool with gas and then use it.
Not so with the double wheel hoe. It is human powered. Quiet. And it smells like freshly turned dirt. It’s built to last for years. It will be waiting for you in the spring rather than you waiting for it. But should it ever need repairs, Hoss Tools has the parts in their online catalog and you won’t need a professional to fix it for you.
You work with the wheel hoe from a standing position
So much of gardening is bending over. I’ve designed my raised hugelkultur beds so that I can plant, weed, and harvest them from a standing position.
However, the larger garden area is at ground level, on a gentle slope for frost drainage. So most of the work in that garden is done while bending over. You bend over to weed. You bend over to plant. You bend over to mulch. Not so with the wheel hoe. You work with the wheel hoe while standing upright. Your back will thank you.
It’s not too heavy for a woman to use easily
The gas powered gardening equipment around here is Mr. Joybilee’s domain. The rototiller and the gas powered weed whacker are just too heavy for me to handle for long periods of time. Not so the double wheel hoe. It’s light weight but not light duty. And the wheel balance is even, so doesn’t need a lot of effort to do its job.
I can’t say the same for the broad fork. Although it doesn’t use gas power, you have to throw your whole weight behind it to get it to work properly. An hour of swinging that around the garden and you’re ready to quit for the day. Before I used the Hoss Tools double wheel hoe, the broad fork was my tool of choice for preparing the garden beds for planting. On the other hand, the double wheel hoe is easy to use and not much more strenuous than pushing a baby stroller.
There was one feature of the Hoss Tools double wheel hoe that I didn’t like, though.
The smoothly sanded, bent ash handles made with Amish craftsmanship, come unfinished. They require a coating of linseed oil or another finish before use. To do that requires a few days of warm weather, plus a couple of coats of boiled linseed oil. And that needs to be done before the tool is assembled. So you are waiting for the tool to arrive and then you need to wait a little longer for the finish on the handles to dry, before you can assemble the double wheel hoe and use it.
Personally I’d put a beeswax finish on the handles rather than using boiled linseed oil, which contains heavy metals and petroleum distillates. (Maybe it’s good that it came unfinished then, eh?)
(Here’s my favorite nontoxic, but durable wood finish: 1 part beeswax, 1 part walnut oil (buy it at the grocery store), 1 part D-limonene. Melt the beeswax and walnut oil together in a double boiler, remove from heat. Stir in D-limonene. Rub on the tool handles. Let dry. Buff. Recoat in 24 hours. Let dry. Buff again before use.).
Or try this nontoxic nut-free beeswax finish.
Find out more about the Hoss Tools double wheel hoe and see if it might fit into your garden plans, here. If you already own a single wheel hoe (The one Lee Valley carries is also made by Hoss Tools), you can buy a conversion kit from Hoss Tools that will let you turn it into a double wheel hoe for greater stability and more uses.
I can tell that I’m going to find lots of ways to use this tool in my garden.
What’s your favorite garden tool? Do you have an innovative way of using it?
Disclaimer: I received a Double Wheel Hoe with sweeps, oscillating hoe, and plow attachments from Hoss Tools for the purpose of this review. I was not required to give a positive review of the product. As always, this review is my honest opinion of the product. This post contains affiliate links.