Weeding Tools

Weeding Tools

Which weeding tool is best for you?

There are people who profess that weeding is their all-time favourite gardening task. They swear a Zen-like calm comes over them as they yank, tug, and uproot their creeping Charlie and quackgrass.

I am suspicious of such people, the same way I’m suspicious of people who clean their houses from top to bottom when they get upset. (I’ve always found a bag of potato chips in front of the television is much more soothing.)

So when it’s time to tackle weeding, I want a tool that will help me finish the task quickly and efficiently so I can move on to my favourite garden task—planting.

There are many new and inventive weeding tools on the market. Just browse through any garden supply catalog or look through a well-equipped garden centre to see countless types of hoes, hand tools, hoops, and blades designed to eliminate weeds. Here’s a list of things to consider when shopping for a weeding tool:

Handles. Some weeding tools come in both short- and long-handled versions. Short handles give you a bit more leverage, but long handles are easier on the knees.

Pulling Weeds
Pulling Weeds

Quality. The tool should feel light but substantial and fit well in your hands so you won’t get blisters and strains.

Construction. The fewer separate parts there are to a tool, the less chance there is that something will come loose. Avoid tools where the metal portion is attached to the handle or shaft with only a screw. The screws tend to come out easily.

Sturdiness. Hold the metal part of the tool in one hand and the portion of the handle right above the connection of the handle and metal in the other. Wiggle it as hard as you can. It should feel solid and have absolutely no give.

Weeding Tips

No matter what weeding tool you decide to use, here are some tips to make the process easier:
Wear gloves. An hour or two of bare-handed weeding can result in a nasty blister or two.
Work when the soil is moist. If the soil is bone dry, the roots of the weeds will remain in the ground. If the soil is too wet, you can damage the soil’s texture, and it will dry into problem clumps. The best time to weed is when the soil is damp—right after a moderate rain or watering, or two days after a heavy rain.

Weed often and early. You’ll save hours of labor if you get weeds while they’re small rather than waiting until they’re larger. And never let weeds go to seed. Otherwise, you’ll have hundreds of seeds scattered in your garden.

Dandelion removal
Dandelion removal

Coordinate weeding with mulching. In areas where you’d like a light layer of mulch, such as around vegetables or annuals, first weed thoroughly in early spring. Then, in late spring, lay down an inch or two of organic mulch that will break down easily, such as shredded leaves, cocoa hulls, double-shredded wood mulch, or grass clippings that are free of herbicide. You’ll have destroyed the worst of the developing weeds for the season and will slow down weeds that develop in the mulch. Spot weed as needed afterward.

Mulch is a wonderful weed suppressant, but it can also make weeding problematic when landscape fabric is underneath the mulch. In areas with a heavy layer of mulch, such as around shrubs, use a sharp, pointed weeding tool or the tip of a hoe to remove developing weeds. Be careful not to rip through any landscape fabric that might be underneath. If desired, top with a fresh layer of mulch, making sure it’s no deeper than 3 inches.

Hoe or pull?

More than one gardening couple has an ongoing dispute about this one: Do you hoe a weed or pull it? The answer is, “It depends.”
Large weeds, those more than a few inches high, are useless to hoe. Even if you slice through their stalks, their root systems are so strong that they’re likely to come back. The only way to get rid of them is to pull out the entire plant, including the roots. On the other hand, a hoe works well for patches of tiny weeds.

Some weeds, such as purslane, like nothing better than a good chopping with a hoe. They see this not as eradication but as propagation—each tiny bit of plant left in or on the soil merrily starts a new plant. Definitely pull these monsters.

Remember, weeding with a small tool is often a combination of digging and pulling: You may be pulling on a weed with one hand and digging up its roots with another.

Choosing a weeding tool

Our buyer’s guide to getting what you need

Tool: Cape Cod weeder

Comments: Point the Cape Cod’s sharp end downward to plant small annuals. Turn diagonally to cultivate soil. Turn horizontally and take out a swath of tiny weeds in one stroke. The narrow design makes it ideal for getting weeds out of tight spots. Long-handled types available.

Price: £12 to £25 for short-handled version; £20 to £35 for long-handled version.

Cape Cod weeder
Cape Cod weeder

Tool: Asian plow

Comments: This tool is also sold as an EZ digger or a Korean plow. Use its sharp end to hack a hole in dry or hard soil, reach large and persistent weeds, and mix dry materials. Turn the point to the side to uproot a swath of tiny weeds. It’s less precise than the Cape Cod weeder, but more effective in hard soils and with large weeds.

Price: £8 to £15 for short-handled model; £20 to £25 for 57-inch model.

Tool: Swoe

Comments: This weeding and cultivating tool has an almost cult-like following. It’s held a little like a golf club and can slice just barely under the soil’s surface to cultivate and knock out new weeds. Use when the soil is loose and friable and for early weeds.

Cost: £55 to £65

Swoe
Swoe

Tool: Broad hoe

Comments: The broad hoe is big and sharp enough at the corners to hack out medium-sized weeds and wipe out swaths of tiny weeds. Moves earth and makes trenches and hills in the vegetable garden. Because of its long handle, you don’t have to bend over. Because it’s less agile and precise than other weeders, it’s hard to avoid nicking or knocking over plants you want to keep.

Cost: £15 to £40

Tool: Warren hoe

Comments: The warren hoe is like the broad hoe, only better. Its triangular or heart-
shaped business end gives you more precision than the broad hoe, allowing you to get around flowers and delicate vegetables. The warren hoe doesn’t move soil as well as a broad hoe, but that’s also its beauty—you don’t have to smooth the soil after removing weeds because it barely disrupts the soil. A super-long handle means no bending or kneeling.

Price: £15 to £35

Warren hoe
Warren hoe

Tool: Cultivator

Comments: The cultivator is commonly used as a weeding tool, which is a mistake. This tool is excellent for loosening the soil’s surface for better water absorption or roughing it up to scatter seed. But it’s not for weeding, folks. Think about it. All the fingers do is rake tiny trenches into the soil. It’s great for loosening soil, but awful for weeding.

Price: £5 to £15


Garden kneepads

Knees are infamous for giving out. Our bodies may last 80 years, but for some inexplicable reason of bad design, our knees are engineered to hold out for 50.

So whether you’ve got a bad knee, you want to keep the knees of your pants from blowing out from wear, or you’re tired of perennially muddy knees, it might be time to invest in knee protection.
Even if you’re a young gardener with knees like springboards, kneeling pads or strap-on kneepads are great for times when you don’t feel like changing into your garden grubbies for quick weeding or planting. If you’re wearing shorts, kneepads and kneeling pads protect your skin—and if you’re wearing pants, they save your clothes. I especially like them when I’m planting along my gravel path or kneeling in my woodchip-mulched flower beds.

Depending on the design of your knee protection, you may find other uses for it, too. Water-resistant kneepads and kneeling pads are great when scrubbing floors, washing the dog, laying tile, installing baseboard, or getting under that dusty deck to fetch a soccer ball.

Garden Knee Pads
Garden Knee Pads

Types of knee protection

Kneepads and kneelers come in one of three types: kneepads (strapped on), rectangular kneeling pads (carried out into the garden and kneeled on), and kneeling pads with supports to help you get up and down.

Strap-on kneepads are probably the most popular. They’re easy to put on and most are extremely lightweight—you can wear them for hours and hardly know they’re there as you go about various garden tasks. However, the lightest fabric and foam-plastic types often have short lives. The elastic straps stretch out or the Velcro fasteners fail after a year or two. Heavy-duty rubber pads with buckles last much longer, but they’re heavier, making them useful only when kneeling.

Kneeling pads are usually 2 to 2½ feet across and 1 to 2 feet wide. You put them down on the ground to keep your knees clean and dry. Some gardeners swear by them. However, you have to move the pad every time you switch to a new spot—which means you have to haul yourself to your feet or scoot the pad in an awkward move that makes you look like you’re playing Twister.

Garden knee pads
Garden knee pads

Kneeling pads with supports are a great idea for gardeners who can use a little help getting up and down. But again, they’re not perfect. They can be cumbersome to lug out into the garden, unfold, and refold. But once they’re set up in the garden, they’re wonderful.

New on the scene are Green Jeans, a cross between kneepads and old-fashioned coveralls. Billing themselves as garden chaps, they’re faster to put on and more water resistant than coveralls, but give more coverage than kneepads, making them great for messier jobs.

For me, any inexpensive tool that makes it easier for me to get out in the garden is worth every penny. And if it makes my body feel better and keeps my clothes and skin in better shape, I just might have to get down on my knees and give thanks.

Choosing knee protection

Our buyer’s guide to getting what you need

Strap-on kneepads

Advantages: Great for when you need to get up and down a lot. Look for wide, comfortable straps. Good for gardeners with bursitis or other conditions that make kneeling on hard surfaces painful. Some garden kneepads are designed like athletic kneepads and slip over the foot and up the leg—no painful fasteners or narrow straps.

Disadvantages: Pads with narrow elastic straps are inexpensive but the elastic stretches out over time. Also, narrow straps can cut into your skin and be uncomfortable. Gel-type kneepads are comfortable but less durable than solid-rubber types.

Price: £3 to £40.

Garden chaps

Advantages: If you make a mess when you’re out in the garden, garden chaps may be a quick solution. A hybrid between a garden apron and very long kneepads, they quickly strap on and give you full-body protection. They’re great for carrying armfuls of muddy branches or hauling a heavy pot braced against your body.

Disadvantages: They are not cheap and certainly don’t cover everything, but for certain kinds of gardening they’re great. Often sold under the brand name Green Jeans.

Price: £50

Garden chaps
Garden chaps

Kneeling pads

Advantages: If you park yourself in one spot while weeding or planting on your knees, a kneeling pad may be for you. Gel types provide maximum comfort.

Disadvantages: While there are some cheap kneeling pads on the market, consider a better one with dense padding. The inexpensive pads get damaged within just a few uses. They can be a bit bulky to drag around the garden.

Price: £2 to £35

Kneeling pads with supports

Advantages: There are various designs for kneeling pads with supports, but the most common has a kneeling pad with two “arms” on either side to help you lower yourself and push yourself up. You can also flip it over for a handy garden stool. The unit folds up for easy storage.

Disadvantages: Check the weight. For gardeners with limited mobility, it may be a pain to lug around in the garden.

Price: £25 to £50

Kneepad and kneeler tips

Keep ‘em clean. Wipe off plastic kneepads each time you use them. Occasionally, toss kneepads in the washer (no bleach) and air-dry to preserve foam. Fasten the straps first so they don’t wrap around other laundry or each other. They’re inexpensive, so you may want to buy a couple pairs—one to wear and one to wash.

Protect knee gear from the elements. Store kneepads out of direct sunlight because ultraviolet rays will break down the foam. Also, rain isn’t good for the metal parts of the kneeler with supports.

kneeling pads
kneeling pads

Keep the receipt. Inexpensive kneepads that strap on may stretch out after a month or two. Inexpensive kneeler pads may get trashed after just a few uses. If you end up with one of these lemons, have your receipt on hand so you can make a return.


Composting

Composting Equipment

Composting is a little like cooking. Anyone can do it, but doing it well and in large quantities is an art that demands skill and dedication.
I’ve experimented with different methods of composting for almost 20 years, and I still haven’t hit on perfection. I’ve composted in simple piles, wire cylindrical enclosures, pits, and even a rotary bin (the composter that looks like a garbage can on a spindle). I’ve finally settled on a three-bin system made of wire panels that attach at the corners with pins. On good weeks, this works well and I can gaze at it contentedly. On bad weeks, it looks like someone buried a twin bed in garbage.

I stick with it because I know how wonderful compost is for my garden. It not only feeds my plants, but also greatly improves the texture of my soil, which makes watering, weeding, planting, and fertilising easier and better. It attracts earthworms, which aerate and fertilise the soil. And it has almost magical properties, containing micronutrients and microbial actions that scientists are still learning about.

Then there’s the issue of waste management. A compost heap keeps grass clippings, leaves, and other biodegradables out of landfills and recycles them into the ultimate earth-friendly byproduct.

I’ve purchased bagged compost, too, and was disappointed. Good compost is black, moist, and crumbly with an indescribable earthy, alive smell. Bad compost may be crumbly, but it’s not always black and it doesn’t have that incredible aroma that means all those magical properties are there. Compost geeks like me call it dead compost.
So it’s worth the time and money to invest in a good composting system.

Before you begin, consider these four factors:

Location, location, location

The best compost system for you depends on where you garden. If you’ve got 10 acres, hey, knock yourself out. I know gardeners who have six bins, each designed to make individual 3-foot by 3-foot piles—big enough for the pile to retain moisture and heat, but small enough so you can turn it with relative ease. You can cobble together a system like this from free wooden pallets and tuck it behind the barn. With this system, it’s easy to do cold composting (also called passive composting). Simply pile leaves, grass clippings, and other organic yard waste in several of the bins and stockpile finished compost in the others. And if you have more garden materials than you can handle, make one big pile that you can toss into the smaller piles as the larger twigs and leaves break down.

Compost Bin
Compost Bin

Even in a smaller garden, you may have room for three bins, tucked behind a garage or hidden in a side yard. With three bins, you can put non-decomposed material into two of the bins while you dig out compost from the bottom of another. (The bottom of the heap, the oldest part of the pile, is where all the good black stuff is.) Three bins also hold a considerable amount of material.

In a small city garden or a tiny plot attached to a condo, a single compost heap may be all you need. You can make a container from pallets, stacked concrete blocks, or chicken wire stretched around some stakes driven into the ground. But if you have to look at it every day, you may want to invest in a sleek, tidy commercial unit that hides all those old banana peels and egg shells. These units also keep out mice, which like to burrow in heaps, and rats, which feed on garbage. (Compost heaps also can attract more charming animals, like a Baltimore oriole feeding on the remnants of an orange—or, in my case, a neighbourhood golden retriever with an unexplained fondness for watermelon rinds.)

Hot or cold?

The system you choose also depends on whether you want to do cold composting or hot composting. Cold compost rots at a relatively low temperature. It develops after a year or two of collecting leaves, clippings, and other waste and leaving the pile alone. It helps if you add moisture (or protect it from too much moisture) and turn it occasionally, but it will still break down even if you never touch it. Cold composting is sometimes called passive composting.

Hot composting, sometimes called active composting, requires paying attention to the ratio of brown materials (carbon-rich things like autumn leaves and dried-up perennial foliage) and green materials (nitrogen-rich waste such as grass clippings and green foliage). Materials break down quickly—sometimes as fast as three weeks, if you’re good. Hot compost also requires correct moisture levels. You’ll need to keep the compost moist but never soggy, and turn it every few days to mix materials and work in oxygen.

Hot compost can reach a temperature of more than 130°F—it’s uncomfortable to put your hand in the centre of the pile—and it kills weed seeds and many disease pathogens lurking in the garden.

Good, hot compost requires enough space to stockpile green and brown materials so you can mix them together in the right ratio. To produce it in large volumes, you’ll probably need a chipper-shredder—a machine about the size of an oversized lawn mower. If you want fast compost, a rotating bin might be a good choice, but you’ll also need an area to stockpile leaves, clippings, and other raw materials.

You can also let worms do your composting (called vermicomposting). To do this, you need to keep a container of specially purchased red wiggler worms (not earthworms from the garden) evenly moist at an even temperature and feed them kitchen and yard waste. The worms don’t produce a lot of compost, but they give you a rich, valuable blend of compost and worm castings for the garden. Vermicomposting takes up little space, so you can compost indoors in a closet or the corner of a heated garage.

Volume control

The composter you choose also depends on how much material you want to compost. My garden is a typical suburban lot, but it’s full of perennials that need to be cut back every spring. Other gardeners might have mountains of autumn leaves each fall.

I don’t have a chipper-shredder, so after years of struggling to fit all my yard waste into three bins and a few pits, I gave up and had my lawn service haul away a pile of debris as big as my minivan. Now I can focus realistically on composting the more modest amount of debris left.
If you have a very small amount of waste—some grass clippings, two or three bags of autumn leaves, and a steady supply of kitchen waste—a one-bin system will work fine.

Keeping up appearances

Once you’ve decided on the ideal system, it’s time to think about looks. Composting is messy—it’s refuse and waste, after all. If you don’t care what it looks like—or you’ve got a perfect hidden spot somewhere to stash several bins—more power to you.

You can make even the most expansive composting operation attractive with a little determination. My neighbour built a beautifully crafted three-bin system with lattice panels and tucked it in among undulating limestone-edged raised flower beds. In the nearby garage, he stashes a chipper-shredder with wheels.

However, the store-bought, self-contained systems with convenient lids are easier for those of us who are less creative or who have to walk by the compost every time we step out our back door.

Purchased compost systems are not cheap. They start around £25 (for one bin) and can run up to £300 for a more complex system. But when I think about how much I spent for my prized tree peony or the pretty wooden bench by the pond, splurging on a good compost system doesn’t seem out of line. After all, for that £100 or so, I’m feeding my soil, improving my garden, and saving the planet all in one fell swoop. How great is that?

Choosing a composter

Traditional multi-bin system

Ideal for: Gardeners with lots of space who don’t have to worry about the appearance of their compost heap.

Advantages: Can handle lots of plant materials and waste. Ideal for cold composting.

Disadvantages: Takes up a lot of space. With some bins, you have to take them apart to get to the compost on the bottom. Not necessarily attractive.

Cost: Free if you use salvaged materials. Wire bins are about £25 to £50 each. Up to £400 for store-bought all-wood kits with three bins.

Rotating bin system

Ideal for: Dedicated compost junkies who want a constant supply.

Advantages: Eliminates strenuous turning. Can create compost in as little as three weeks. Container helps you control moisture.

Disadvantages: Can’t be used alone—you need a holding area to store raw materials.

Cost: £125 to £300

Enclosed one-bin system

Ideal for: Small-space gardeners

Advantages: Contained, tidy-looking. Usually rodent-proof, depending on design. Container helps control moisture.

Disadvantages: Handles small volume only. Best for cold compost.

Cost: £25 to £175

Wire or flexible plastic cylinder

Ideal for: Gardeners who like to compost smaller amounts in a variety of spots around the garden

Advantages: Assembles in a snap. Easy to lift to reach compost at the bottom. Portable so you can position in various spots around the garden, such as behind shrubs, for temporary compost piles.

Disadvantages: A bit flimsy; bends and cracks over time. Can tip if not partly buried or anchored.

Cost: £20 to £50

Worm box or bin

Ideal for: Avid composers, especially those in temperate climates who are able to compost outdoors.

Advantages: Can be used indoors or out. Compost includes highly beneficial worm castings.

Disadvantages: Worms must be kept at 50°F to 75°F. If you’re not fond of worms, there’s the “ick” factor. In cold-winter climates, must be done indoors, limiting the amount of compost produced.

Cost: Worms cost around £20. Box or bin is free if made with salvaged materials; otherwise £75 to £300.