For some jobs – like raising a garden and raising boys – the simple, hickory-handled hoe is the perfect tool.
I confess: I’ve had a long, long—is 50 years long?—relationship with hoes.
Garden hoes, that is, and it began at a very young age on the big southern Illinois dairy farm of my youth.
Back then my parents somehow juggled 900 acres, 120 Holsteins, five kids (the sixth was a 10-years-after tail-ender), four hired men and garden so big that in its mid-summer productive prime it could have fed either a small prison or a big family. My three brothers and I, the prime garden labor on the farm, often considered that mostly peas-and-potato patch the former and never gave one thought to the latter.
Our serious hoe season began every Good Friday when my grandfather, a stockbroker by trade, arrived with a 100-lb. burlap sack of seed potatoes—one year Kennebecs, another year Russets— in the trunk of his gleaming Chevrolet.
Grandpa’s only contribution to any garden was his surgeon-like dissection of each potato into three-eyed pieces of seed. Happily and quietly he’d cut buckets of potato seed for us to plant and unhappily and noisily we’d go about the grim duty of planting each one.
And did we plant potatoes. Fifteen, sometimes 20, rows of potatoes, each more than 100-feet long, covered half the garden’s ocean-like acreage.
One year Grandpa brought 200-lbs. of seed and we dutifully planted every last ounce. (The planting crew grumbled enough, however, to ensure that marathon was never held again.)
Even my father would forego two or three hours of spring fieldwork on the big day to wield a big hoe to help us hill the many rows of freshly planted potatoes. Slender and as tough as the hickory handle of his hoe, Dad set a modest, steady pace that we’d follow without complaint.
Later, after leafy, green shoots emerged from the long, mounded graves, we’d “hill the potatoes” over and over throughout the season.
My mother always thought the potatoes needed hilling about the same time she thought we boys needed discipline. Some weeks that was daily so, daily, out to the garden my brothers and I would go to hoe, hoe, hoe; hill, hill, hill.
Hours, days, weeks, years, decades passed as we hilled, hoed and howled.
Our simple tool more than organized our garden; it organized our days, our summers, our years. When we weren’t hilling potatoes, we’d weed carrots, green beans, peas, Swiss chard, cabbage, spinach, broccoli, beets (yuck), cucumbers, zucchini and whatever other vegetables my mother wanted to can.
Then, when we were finished weeding, we’d harvest buckets of green, wax and pole beans, washtubs of onions, bushels of peas, cabbage and tomatoes.
Every summer day our hoe-handled bounty all but filled our noon dinner plates and almost every morning we blanched, canned and carried everything else to our big basement larder for later.
Throughout all that work, all that sweating and all that hoeing, I never remember a hoe handle breaking. Ever. Pitchfork handles broke. Shovel handles broke; even wheelbarrow handles broke. A hoe handle? Never.
It’s a simple tool for a simple job; if you’re talking perfect design and perfect function, you’re talking hoes.
My grandmother (the other half of the Great Potato Seed Slicer) had great hoes. They were so slim-handled and so well-balanced that my brothers and I never complained when she asked us to hoe her tiny vegetable patch or flower beds.
They—she had two—likely were her mother’s and both had wonderfully weathered, gray handles and knife-sharp edges. My older brother David was willed one because he, rather wisely, had asked Grandma for it. David knows a good hoe.
When the lovely Catherine and I started our first household a key, initial purchase was, you guessed it, a hoe. Thirty-seven years later that first hoe finally looks like the hoes of my youth—dull-colored, smooth-handled, sharp.
And rare is a week that I don’t use it. It’s always ready to round-up any or all the weeds in our home vegetable patch (sorry, Grandpa, no potatoes) or Catherine’s many flower beds.
Like I said, simple tool for a simple job for, OK, a simple old farmboy.
Ag journalist Alan Guebert lives in central Illinois.