Tilling By Hand With a Grub Hoe

grub-hoeA few weeks ago, I discovered a “new” favorite tool.

I put “new” in quotation marks because the tool I discovered (rediscovered?) is in fact quite old. It pre-dates tillers, gasoline and the Industrial Revolution.

It’s simple, tough and – in my newly enlightened eyes – indispensable for grid-down gardening and tilling by hand. If you’re gardening without electricity, you’re going to need tools that will keep food growing from become near impossible. I’ve written on some of these tools before, and I’ve mentioned how much I like my broadfork as a tilling machine.

For years I eyed grub hoes, having seen them used in videos of subsistence farmers… but I wondered what they could offer that wasn’t offered by a standard hoe.

Then I was sent one in the mail to review. And now I’m a convert.

Unlike a shovel, a grub hoe allows you to dig with a minimum of effort. You use the swing of the handle and the weight of the blade to throw dirt around at a rapid pace. One of the first projects I completed with my new grub hoe was sinking this kiddie pool/water chestnut pond into the ground:


Kiddie pools are great ways to grow aquatic plants and mosquitoes.

The digging proceeded much more quickly than I could have hoped – plus the grub hoe allowed for easy and precise shaping of the hole. I dug another shallow pond in the front yard that same week and again, the grub hoe came through for me.

The heavy head of a grub hoe works with you, meaning that you don’t have to put a lot of effort into your “swing” as you chop down into the earth. This particular model’s blade is made of good thick steel, meaning it also makes short work of tree roots and tough sod.

If you had to till a large area without access to gasoline or draft animals, a grub hoe would be invaluable. Now that I have one, I’m using it regularly and wondering how I got along without one.

Cost-wise, the grub hoe isn’t too bad. EasyDigging.com sells them for $29.95. They’re the folks that sent me this particular model to try out. I asked Greg, the owner, for more info on his specific model and this is what he wrote back:

“The weight/width ratio is for designing a grub hoe head for effective digging and chopping into the soil. The ratio should be 1 pound per 2 inches of blade width. So a good 6″ head should weigh 3 lbs and a good 4″ head should weigh 2 lbs. You don’t often see 8” grub hoe heads because they would have to weigh 4 lbs which gets uncomfortable on a long handle.

And speaking of handles, the ergonomics recommendation for this kind of tool’s handle is that it should be about as high as your armpit/shoulder zone. 
Our handle connection is wedged, even though the old style grub hoes had a flared handle. Flared handles are OK if you know how to shave the handle to make it fit tightly into the tool socket. But very few people know how to do that anymore. The wedged handle connection is pretty foolproof. I learned about it from Bellotto that makes and sells these tool all over the world. In Brazil they provide handles very similar to mine to all their customers.
The rest of the cool info is online…
Here is our “How to use a grub hoe” page: http://www.easydigging.com/how-to/use-grub-hoe.html  and it has some links on it to interesting tips from some guys in Scotland and England.
Here is the Ergonomics page:  http://www.easydigging.com/how-to/long-handled-hoes.html  and it has some good links about the use of these tools in Africa.”
You can also find vintage grub hoe heads on ebay and in antique shops. Make your own handle and you’re good to go – just don’t make it too short or you’ll be hunching over to dig. Unless you’re Quasimodo, I don’t recommend that position.

For tilling off-grid, the grub hoe works excellently, though its reach doesn’t go as far as that of a broadfork. It busts through tough weeds and sod that would choke a consumer-grade rototiller. I can get down to 12″ pretty easily in my sandy loam, but your local conditions will vary. I can say that I wish I had this tool back when I was dealing with thick Tennessee red clay. All I had then was a mattock from Lowe’s. Interestingly, the grub hoe’s cousin, the “grape hoe,” works even better for digging in my sandy soil thanks to its wider blade, though that’s not its intended use.

Is it hard to use a grub hoe? Not really, but it does take some work. You will get winded if you attack the ground too vigorously; however, pace yourself and tilling by hand is a good and productive exercise, unlike riding a stationary bike.

Remember that Eight Essential Human-Powered Garden Tools for TEOTWAWKI post I did last year?

From now on, I’m upping my “essential” tool list to nine. Try a grub hoe and you’ll never look back.

About David The Good

David The Good is a naturalist, author and hard-core gardener who has grown his own food since 1984. At age five, he sprouted a bean in a Dixie cup of soil and caught the gardening bug. Soon after, his dad built an 8’ by 8’ plot for him and David hasn’t stopped growing since. David is the author of four books, writes a regular column for The Ag Mag in North Central Florida, is a Mother Earth News blogger and has also written for outlets including Backwoods Home, Survival Blog and Self-Reliance Magazine. You can find his books on Amazon here. David is a Christian, an artist, a husband, a father of seven, a cigar-smoker and an unrepentant economics junkie who now lives somewhere near the equator on a productive cocoa farm. Visit his daily gardening and survival blog here: The Survival Gardener And for lots more gardening info, click here and subscribe to his often hilarious YouTube channel.

View all posts by David The Good

2 Responses to “Tilling By Hand With a Grub Hoe”

  1. Bryan Says:

    I can also attest the awesome utility of a large bladed grubhoe. Independently, we seemed to have acquired one from the same source around the same time. Greg is great to deal with.

    So far this year, I have tilled my very soggy garden, created 3 new large flower beds, weeded, dug composted mulch, and edged… just about any job is well serviced by this single tool. My one complaint is the round handle makes fine adjustments difficult and causes hand fatigue, where an oval handled tool excels in those areas.


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