What to Brandish at Your Weeds: Hori-Horis, Soil Knives, and Trowels (With a Video Review of my Top Two!)

Weeding is one of those perennial garden tasks – we all do it, all year long, and while there are sprays and tools we can use from a standing position, most weeding is done from the ground, with a trowel or trowel-like object. You may have noticed that my years of doing garden maintenance have given me some strong opinions on the subject of tools, so it should come as no surprise that I have some favorites to share!
My two favorite hand tools
My favorites: The Stainless Steel Hori-Hori and the Fiskars Big Grip Soil Knife

My criteria for trowels and soil knives:

Multi-purpose I can’t stand going back and forth to get a new tool to do a few minutes of work. My soil knife or trowel needs to be able to plant things, weed dandelions and grassy weeds, and preferably cut through landscape fabric and roots to help me keep moving. Lightweight and ergonomic If you are only weeding for an hour at a time, maybe it doesn’t matter if your tool is heavy or has poor ergonomics, but as a pro, I sure prefer it. My wrists get tired after a long day of weeding and planting, and the extra weight of a heavier tool is easily noticed. Same with ergonomics; a fatter, rounder handle seems to allow a more natural grip. Straight, sharp blade I’ve found that the curve on trowels is nice for scooping, but poor for getting down into the soil to get the roots of weeds. If you have bark mulch or chips on top of your soil to keep weeds down, you don’t want to be pulling soil up over the top of your chips every time you pull a weed. I find the curve of a trowel brings a lot more soil up with the weed’s roots than does the flat blade of a soil knife. So what tools do I prefer?

Hori-Horis/ Japanese Soil Knives

Green Top Hori-Hori I love the stainless steel Hori-Hori (which means diggy-diggy in Japanese!)  for all-around work. The blade stays sharp, smooth, and rust-free, and it has a sharp side and a serrated side for cutting through landscape fabric or tough roots. The tip has a sharp point, so it goes into the soil smoothly and can get even weeds with long taproots out. It’s great for planting annuals or six- packs, too. Thing is, it’s the most pricy option – but I think it is well worth it, and I even bought a backup one for when I occasionally misplace it. That’s how much I love it. Carbon Steel Hori Hori or Soil KnifeMany people like the carbon steel Hori-Hori, which is slightly less expensive,  but it is heavier and the porous surface of the wood and blade seem to collect muddy clay. After using the stainless version, I had trouble going back to my old carbon steel one. Both hori-horis have the downside of a flat, non-ergonomic handle. I find the stainless one is so sharp and smooth that I like it best even without an ergonomic handle, but your mileage may vary.

Fiskars Big Grip Soil Knife

(I guess American tool manufacturers do not wish to call their manly orange knife a diggy-diggy, so we will humor them and call it a soil knife.) Fiskars Soil KnifeThe budget soil knife option is the Fiskars Big Grip Knife, which has a  wonderfully comfortable ergonomic handle and orange detailing that makes it easy to find in the garden if you set it down. (Although, ugh – more orange on tools! Public service announcement to manufacturers: many gardeners are girls! We like purple. Please take close note of this fact and stop making everything orange.) Just after I made this video, Karl, the “carpetbagging Yankee trying to grow things in South Central Texas”, dropped me an email to rave about the tool:
My favorite garden tool by far where I am now (in south Texas… yeah, don’t ask!) is the Fiskars Big Grip Knife – it’s surprisingly versatile for someone who spends a lot of time pulling weeds (nothing else grows here…) and working with thick grasses. I’ve even sharpened the ‘straight’ end to give myself more of a cutting edge, and I use a nylon knife sheath to hold it during the few times it’s NOT in my hands. It’s replaced my trowel (planting annuals from large nursery packs becomes a “stab, wiggle, pull, drop” even in thickly mulched landscaping), my weed pulling tool, the small pick mattock I used to remove some particular types of thick taproot weeds, and in some cases where I don’t really care about what I’m cutting (like separating vine from tree), my need to carry pruners. I’ve introduced it to a few people over at the IDigMyGarden forums, and everyone who’s tried it loves it.
Karl went on to say:
Mine looks like it’s been chewed on by a 80 pound dog and used daily for three years! Gardening’s year round ’round here… our tools get a LOT of use…
That’s a pretty glowing review! I personally find that the dandelion fork tip makes it harder for me to plunge the knife into the ground – particularly when weeding dandelions in the lawn. The dual tip catches on the blades of grass and takes some muscle to get in the ground. That said, Karl obviously doesn’t find that an issue, and I know many gardeners who get on well with the Big Grip Knife. I love that Karl broke the soil-knife-annual-planting technique down so well – “Stab, wiggle, pull, drop”. That’s exactly how I do it, too, Karl! Anyway, in the video I mention the postage stamp serration on the blade, and here’s a closeup of that blade edge: Postage Stamp Edge on Fiskars Big Grip Knife

Trashing the traditional trowel in favor of the Soil Scoop

As you’ve probably guessed, I don’t like the traditional trowel. They aren’t sharp so they don’t plunge into the ground as smoothly as hori-horis/ soil knives do, the curve of the blade pulls up soil when weeding, which is a problem if you have mulch, and you can’t cut anything with it. They work poorly on dandelions and other taprooted plants. Their one strong suit is that they scoop soil nicely for planting 4” pots, but when they’re beat at their own game by newcomers like the Soil Scoop – well, what hope is there for them? The only reason trowels are so popular is that you can buy them everywhere, and they are cheap. Down with trowels! Long live soil knives! Ahem. Anyway, much as I value tools that can do everything, there are two specific-purpose hand tools that I actually quite like. Angle Weeder by Garden WorksOne is the Angle Weeder, which is great for getting the weeds in the cracks of concrete. It’s ergonomically built with a great curve and a fat handle to make using it more comfy, and they come in left- and right-handed models. You are supposed to be able to use it for general-purpose weeding too, particularly in veggie beds where you can work the hook under the soil and get the weeds out from below. (I’ve only tested it once on sidewalk cracks, and it worked brilliantly for that.) Soil Scoop in PURPLE!!!!The other is the Soil Scoop, which as I mentioned, puts the digging ability of trowels to shame. It’s got a great scooping portion, with serrated edges and a sharp tip so you can break up harder soil, enlarge planting holes, or get out weeds. If I did a lot of veggie gardening in raised beds or annual flowerbed planting, this is the tool I’d pick up. (And HURRAH! It comes in purple!)

Now it’s your turn! Are you a fan of the old-school trowel, or have you found a new-fangled weeding tool to fall in love with? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

  1. says

    I got a stainless hori hori last year and have never looked back. I LOVE that thing. I pretty much always have it with me in the garden (which makes me feel like a real bad-ass walking around with weapon … even if it is a weapon against weeds). I’m not a fan of the wood handle. I have a bad habit of leaving my tools outside on occasion, and even though I’ve only done that a few times, it already has that sort of scratchy needs-to-be-varnished feel. It’s also really easy to lose (as in, stick it in the dirt for a second, turn around do something else, turn back and um … where’s the hori hori?)

    My favorite thing about it is that it does everything. Zips open plastic bags, trims off stray stems, works perfectly when I’m planting new plants, you name it.

    As an aside, I recently ordered a Soil Scoop through our Master Gardener sale but haven’t gotten it yet. It looks cool but I have a feeling I’ll just end up with the hori hori anyway. How many tools can one person carry around anyway?

    One quick question on the hori hori though … do you ever sharpen it? It does the job great for weeds and planting, but I can tell the blade is getting dull when I am trying to open bags, etc.

    Erin’s last blog post..A new look

    • says

      LOL at Karl and Monica – Karl – “I Grow Good Weed”, indeed!!!! Daff, feel free to ask me questions anytime, but remember – everyone is different, so I can give you my reasons to love and hate certain tools but you may well find you have a different favorite than I do!

      Erin, your question will be answered in my next post… How’s that for mystery? I’ve already recorded a bit of video….

  2. says

    Great teaser! I hope that video is going to show me how to sharpen things because I just ordered a Speedy Sharp thanks to your review too! Reading your blog is starting to get expensive for me, which is part of the topic my blog post today!

  3. says

    Hi Genevieve, what a good case you make for each tool, but I have the carbon hori hori and admit to feeling a bit smug about that packed on clay and goo, not to mention the rusty appearance of the blade. The teeth will cut many things too, so I don’t have to get up and look for another tool. Like you, I like to just go around with the one. It plants small things very well, weeds like a dream and cuts well enough. A stainless steel one would be great. I can understand how the forked tip of the fiskars wouldn’t work as well. I have the soil scoop and rarely use it for some reason. I guess I just don’t scoop that much soil, and when I do, gloved hands are the tool of choice. :-)
    Frances

    Frances’s last blog post..Whirling Frolic Of The Dianthus*

  4. gerg says

    I have had my eye on the hori hori for years now, but have never ordered one. I am sure I will fall in love when I get one, but for now I just keep the trowels sharp. A few good swipes with a file does a hell of a lot of good. Actually, I sharpen them brand new and they work great. But I work mainly in a yard that has been intensively gardened for nearly one hundred years and as soil quality goes I am quiet spoiled from digging there.

  5. John Dollison says

    I bought a hori-hori this weekend and immediately realized this could be my new favorite lawn & garden (and camping) tool. Unfortunately, I now realize that I got a cheap “made in China” version that doesn’t have good cutting edges, and is not serrated along the entire side.

    I want to buy the deluxe Nisaku No.800 YAMA-KATANA Weeding Knife, but I can’t find an American distributor:
    http://www.nisaku.co.jp/njc/garden/newproducts/800/0800.html

    The best I can find is the Nisaku No.650 GREEN TOP Weeding Knife:
    http://www.nisaku.co.jp/njc/garden/knife/0650-LeisureKnifeN/0650.html

    John

  6. Richard says

    thank you for your garden knife review. it was helpful. i’ve been thinking about purchasing a Hori-Hori, but wasn’t sure about quality. your review was quite helpful. i will have to order a good stainless steel one. is there a specific company you suggest? i have had a Fiskars for about 3 years now (ever since Paul James on Gardening by the Yard reviewed the Hori-Hori on his show) and i love it. only a little rust, but still strong, and in Oklahoma rock and clay, it’s great! use it every weekend.
    thanks again…
    …rich

  7. PaulMBurgess says

    Orginally I was going to order the Yamakatana direct from company Nisaku they wanted a lot more than worldknives is selling it for.i had looked at worldknives and didn’t see listed as something else.If I had I would have gotten one.So I got the Nisaku Green Top coming in the 11″ version it also comes in 14 ” version same size blade longer handle.The Nisaku Green Top I ordered was on sale twenty in change from its 29 in change price.But I still got killed on the shipping.Can’t wait to get it and give it a work out

  8. Chris says

    I have a Nisaku wood handle that is amazing. We have very hard clay in arkansas though and i ordered the polymer handle one too just because of the guard. Cheaper than losing a figure or slicing my hand open i figured and ill probably leave one laying around im sure. Thanks for the links!

    FYI, i cant tell a difference between the Nisaku, Joshua Roth or Green To, if i had to guess, they just take different routes at the end of their production line. I like the Nisaku name the best though, sounds the most “Japanese”.

  9. Jeff says

    As a professional landscaper, my installers have a soil knife as part of their standard kit. Tough as nails and extremely versatile, we absolutely couldn’t live without them. After trying out many different brands, including Fiskars, I can honestly say that there is none better for professional use than this:
    http://www.amleo.com/Leonard-Soil-Knife/p/4752/
    Reasonably priced and gives 110% every time.

  10. says

    Soil knives are a great tool for getting weeds out of your soil without using chemicals to poison them and the microbial life below the surface. Thanks for the great comparison! This is one quick way to reduce your footprint and save money that’s spent and chemical weed control products.

  11. says

    My Hori-Hori is one of my favorite tools. I’ve had mine for years and there isn’t a hint of rust on it. The serrated edge is undamaged. I stitched the leather sheath to my gardening toolbelt, so it’s always there when I need it.

    I once lost my Hori-Hori for several months after using it to scrape out weeds from under low-lying shrubs. When I finally found it, it was totally undamaged, no rust, no rot in the wooden handle, nothing. I primed and painted the wood handle with bright orange “caution” paint. It’s not as pretty as the nice hardwood appearance, but it is easy to spot under debris.

  12. Carrie Borgenicht says

    I’ve been using the AM Leonard soil knife for years, along with it’s holster, and it works fine. My one complaint applies to every soil knife I’ve ever seen – the serration is always on the side of the knife designed for right handed people. I’ve complained to every vendor who sells soil knives at trade & garden shows (I garden for a living) and most have said that they’ve heard the complaint before, and all say that they’ve never seen a soil knife designed for left-handed people. Any suggestions? I’ve searched online periodically, and, so far, no go.

    • says

      I just got two from Garret Wade that solve your problem! They’re well-made and have the serration on the other side as my Japanese hori-hori from Green Top or Joshua Roth. I believe Hida Tool also carries a left-handed model, but the Garret Wade ones are really quite nice.

  13. Carrie Borgenicht says

    Thanks, Genevieve! Is it the “Japanese Digging Kives” at the Garrett Wade website that are the ones with the serration on the other side? The description doesn’t say which side the serration is on, and photos are often transposed in such a way that make it impossible to discern.

  14. CorkyAgain says

    Add my vote for the Leonard soil knife.

    I’ve never lost track of mine, thanks to its orange handle. In fact, it inspired me to get a can of fluorescent orange paint and spray the handles of many of my other hand tools.

  15. Laura says

    AM LEONARD’S SOIL KNIFE IS THE BEST. HAVE BEEN A PROFESSIONAL GARDENER FOR MANY YEARS AND I WON’T WORK WITHOUT THIS TOOL.

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