grow it cook it preserve it eat it wendy pillar blog gardener grow your own in dorset

To hoe or not to hoe, that is the question - February 2016

Gardeners get awfully passionate about their hoes. Bob Flowerdew is strongly pro-hoe, pro-well-sharpened-hoe, that is. At the Grow it Yourself Gathering in Ireland in 2014 I watched a heated debate between Alys Fowler, Joy Larkcom and  Klaus Laitenberger, all accomplished gardeners, none of whom could agree about hoeing!

The idea is that, as a blade on a stick, ideally a sharp one, you push it along just under the surface of the soil and cut off weeds before they get started. This is what Bob recommends, and Joy and Klaus are also fans. Many professional gardeners will speak about hoeing as if it's an obvious, taken for granted bit of garden know-how.

Alys didn't agree though, saying that it didn't appear to mimic any natural process, and I'm with Alys. It's often said that you can create a 'dust mulch' through hoeing that stops weeds growing, but I'm not in favour of turning my soil to dust for any reason. Dust blows away. When it gets wet it forms a cap. It's just dry and sterile looking. I prefer my soil to be covered with growing plants or organic matter, and consequently lumpy if need be, and moist.

If I have a rash of hundreds of weed seedlings appear, where some weed has seeded itself, I hoe them, as it's quick and easy. Otherwise I prefer to hand weed. At this point (were he to read my blog!), Bob Flowerdew would throw up his hands and exclaim about the amount of work. But for one thing, I enjoy hand weeding, by which I mean weeding out little seedlings, not fighting a losing battle against couch grass and its like. On my hands and knees, able to smell the soil, getting up close and personal with it and performing a repetitive and detailed task, is therapeutic, it produces a zen-like state of calm. If the sun is also on my back and the birds singing, I'd go as far as to say it is one of my favourite tasks. It feels like an act of caring for the soil, and the sight of the clean, composted beds afterwards is one that fills me with happiness.

Also, my style of growing depends on self-seeding. Flowers like Phacelia, marigolds and Verbena pop up and are allowed to grow when they are not in the way. Salads like red orache, Claytonia and watercress sow themselves about the place, and herbs like parsley and coriander grow where they like. If I removed every seedling without looking to see what it was, I would miss out on all of this and make extra work for myself in sowing them and planting them out.

Perhaps it's my natural clumsiness, but I also have a habit of decapitating my plants with a hoe! Weeds grow amongst the seedlings and plants, so they have to be hand-weeded anyway, and by the time I've left a margin of safety, I might just as well keep going. Then there are the perennial weeds that need to be pulled by hand because hoeing would just multiply them. Plus there aren't big areas of vacant soil or wide pathways between rows, as there might be in a conventional system. Perhaps that's why the hoe seems less useful in my garden.

So most of the time, my hoe stands neglected in the corner of the shed, replaced by a kneeler, a trug and a pair of gloves for the inevitable nettle seedlings. There's a reason why three respected gardeners can have a heated debate about a basic gardening method. It's because our gardens are all different, and we are all different, and there is no one right way to garden.

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