Forbs, grasses, seedlings
Low-moderate (erosion, ground-dwelling animals)
Scuffle hoes are designed to remove weeds by a push-pull (“scuffling”) motion that cuts just under the soil surface. There are two types of scuffle hoes, the stirrup hoe and flat-bladed hoes, which include “dutch” push hoes and triangle hoes. Here we will focus mostly on describing the stirrup hoe, which is generally more popular as a weeding tool with practitioners.
The stirrup hoe is also called an oscillating hoe, a scuffle hoe, a hoop hoe, or a swivel hoe. One common brand is the Hula Hoe™. It consists of a handle generally about 5 feet long with a blade in the form of a trapezoidal ring of sharpened metal shaped like a stirrup. The stirrup-shaped cutting piece is pulled along the surface of the soil or just under the surface of the soil to sever a plant stem or roots. The stirrup hoe can be worked with a forward pushing action as well as a backward pulling action, and often it is worked continuously back and forth in both directions. The metal blade may swivel a short distance in its frame such that it oscillates when being worked back and forth, however in some models the stirrup shaped blade is fixed and does not oscillate. The stirrup hoe is not lifted and swung into the ground like the action of a grub hoe (see Grubbing: Grub Hoes).
Scuffle hoes work by cutting the root crown or roots of a weed depending on the depth of the cut. As long as the upper parts of the plant do not re-root into the soil and the underground plant parts do not produce new plants then this method can be highly effective. It is not very effective on species that grow from underground storage structures, such as bulbs, rhizomes or tubers, or plants that are woody or re-sprout from nodes or plant fragments.
Weeds should be hoed with a scuffle hoe when they are small- to medium-sized. A stirrup hoe in particular is a good tool to use when small- to medium-sized patches of weeds grow in low densities where workers might spend long periods walking to each patch. This tool is particularly effective on dense flushes of seedlings, especially from the late fall through mid-spring. Hoes are more efficient than hand weeding in this situation. When plants are left to grow larger, they are more difficult to control as the stems and roots become tough to sever.
A site may need to be treated several times in a season by scuffle hoeing for several reasons. Occasionally weeds will re-root into the soil and may not die, especially if it rains shortly after a treatment or in wet soils, such as in wetlands or riparian areas. In dense infestations it may be difficult to treat every single individual, especially with small annuals (in this case a broad scale method would be more effective—see BMPs on mowing, mulching, tarping or solarization). In other cases, some species may not be cut deeply enough below the soil surface with a stirrup hoe and may resprout. If treated species can resprout, then multiple treatments will be needed. Scuffle hoeing can cause significant soil disturbance when worked and should be cautiously used near weed species that grow especially well in disturbed soils.
A stirrup hoe in particular is a very inexpensive tool. Cheap ones can be purchased for less than $20, however at the lowest prices, the quality of the tool is also low.
A limitation with scuffle hoes is the amount of labor needed to treat large areas. Although few studies have been conducted with scuffle hoes, it is assumed here that their efficiency is somewhat similar to a grub hoe. In agricultural settings, a team of 10-25 people are needed to treat about 2.5 infested acres with a grub hoe in a day. If weed cover is low, between 1-5% for example, and weeds are small- to medium-sized annuals, then a single person could manage an acre in a day, assuming detectability of the weeds is high, because they would only be treating a few thousand square feet of weeds in a day. The ability to treat large areas with hoes limits their usefulness in medium- to large-scale weed infestations.
How to Use
A scuffle hoe is pushed and pulled, on or just below the soil surface (often ¼ to ½ inch deep) to sever weeds at the base of the stem or at the top of the roots. In a dense weed patch the stirrup hoe is worked continuously forward and backward. The motion entails pushing and pulling the arms, keeping a straight back, and slightly moving sideways to clear the entire weed patch. A stirrup hoe can also be used to cut individual weeds by using one short pull stroke after placing the hoe over the weed. If the weeds do not easily resprout (such as in some annual thistles, mustards and spurges) and have been treated before flowering, the aboveground parts of the plant can be left in place to desiccate and die.
Regular sharpening helps maintain optimal performance. Some hoe varieties need more sharpening than others, depending on the quality and shape of the metal. If the blade of a hoe becomes dull it will need to be sharpened and in many wildland situations it needs to be sharpened regularly especially in soils with small rocks. A hand file carried in the field can help with this task, where a grinder can be used in the shop.
Several different manufacturers make stirrup hoes with different weights and strengths. Stirrup hoes with thinner handles and smaller blades may not be durable enough for professional land managers or volunteer groups. Some stirrup hoes have a flat bottom to the stirrup where others are more rounded. The more rounded design (sometimes called a hoop hoe) can penetrate the soil deeper and can only be used in soils that are easy to work. Some stirrup hoes will weigh several pounds, have a stout handle, and robust mounting hardware and blade. Well-built hoes can last several seasons of field use, even with rough use.
Some on-site training may be needed to use the tool efficiently, especially for those using the tool the first time. Some users misunderstand that the tool is pushed and pulled and not intended to be lifted and swung into the soil, like when using a grub or draw hoe. Despite this minimal amount of training needed, the tool is much more efficient at weeding compared to hand pulling and can be more efficient at removing small plants than a grub hoe, while a grub hoe is more efficient at large or more woody weeds.
With a little practice, a scuffle hoe can be used as a precision weeding tool. If the blade of the stirrup hoe is turned to a 30-45 degree angle the narrow bend of the hoe can be used to precisely pick small individual weeds out around non-target species. This may be useful in situations when annual weeds such as mustards (Brassica spp.) are growing around native wildflowers or other non-target plants. Triangle hoes are also easily used as precision tools because of their sharply angled edges.
The stirrup hoe is used to treat small- to medium-sized herbaceous weeds and herbaceous perennials that do not resprout. They do not work well on large annuals and therefore are not recommended when annuals are large and flowering. This is especially important late in the growing season, unless the soils are loose enough for the hoeing action to pull the plant out of the ground or the roots are soft enough to be severed. However, it may be useful if the weeds have started to flower, but before seeds have matured, and when plants can promptly desiccate when severed. The blade may not sever large plants with a thick taproot such as large cheeseweed plants (Malva parviflora) or large mustards (such as black mustard, Brassica nigra, or shortpod mustard, Hirschfeldia incana). The tool is ineffective on woody species, except in the seedling stage.
In contrast to its limited utility in treating large areas, the stirrup hoe is very useful for treating low-density weed infestations and very localized seedling flushes of weeds. If small patches of weeds are widely scattered over multiple acres or sites, such as in early detection rapid response situations, then using a stirrup hoe may provide an efficient use of labor, similar to using a grub hoe. Hoes are lightweight compared to mechanized tools, so when carrying a hoe, workers will not fatigue as quickly as if they were carrying heavier equipment such as a string trimmer. Similar benefits exist in terrain that is difficult to walk through, such as on slopes or unstable soils, where carrying a lightweight general-use tool is more useful and safer than carrying a heavier or sharp-bladed tool especially in the early- and mid-growing season.
This tool can be used effectively on many weed species with little personnel training in many situations, with little risk to adjacent workers. It can be a reliable tool for organizers of volunteer weed removal events. There are few, if any, public perception issues with using this tool; in fact, weeding is often associated with hoeing.
There are few if any variations on how a stirrup hoe is used—it is pushed and pulled to remove weeds, and for precision weeding the blade can be held at an angle. Some stirrup hoes have a wide blade to increase the amount of area worked with each stroke and have small variations in the curvature of the lowest part of the blade from rounded to flat to better work softer or harder soils, respectively. Flat-bladed “dutch” hoes must be pushed, not pulled.
Optimal Conditions for Use
The stirrup hoe works best early in the season when weeds are small, in soils without rocks or cobbles, and in flat to moderately sloped areas. The stirrup hoe may be a tool of choice if traveling long distances to a work site since the tool is lightweight, easy to carry, and has a small blade that is relatively small with a low risk of injury.
A stirrup hoe can be used in arid regions quite effectively as long as the soil remains loose enough to work. If the soil is hard, the tool can be still effective if severing the weed at ground level is sufficient to avoid resprouting.
When using a stirrup hoe, workers must be able to identify the target species in the seedling stage through the vegetative stage before flowers or other diagnostic features are present. Detectability must also be high since treatments are successful when cutting an entire individual plant or a small clump. A stirrup hoe will not control the weed population if seeds on target plants have matured, or will mature after cutting.
In hard, dry ground where the hoe cannot penetrate the top layer of soil, this technique may have limited effectiveness on plants that resprout when the stem is cut too high (such as short pod mustard or flax-leaved horseweed (Erigeron bonariensis).
Hoeing disturbs soil surfaces and is relatively non-selective. It may impact desirable plants and stimulate flushes of weed seeds exposed to light by disturbance.
Potential Hazards to Humans, Environment, and Cultural Resources
Human. Low risk. The stirrup hoe is a low risk tool to use, with the main hazard being injury from being struck with the tool blade or shaft. Since the stirrup hoe is not lifted when used, this risk should be minimal. Closed-toed shoes or boots and pants may prevent or lessen injury if struck on the foot or leg with a stirrup hoe. Repeated pushing and pulling could lead to fatigue and sore muscles and joints. If used too aggressively, users may get blisters on their hands or may get fatigued quickly. Stooping can be an issue with a stirrup hoe and users should keep their back straight. If the handle is not sized properly, workers may bend too much at the waist when attempting to use the tool causing back strain. Longer handles may be purchased and fitted into the tool to alleviate this problem.
Cultural resources. Moderate risk. Since a stirrup hoe can potentially damage objects belowground it should be used with caution in culturally important areas.
Habitat. Low-moderate risk. Using a stirrup hoe can disturb patches of soil creating conditions where some weeds thrive, especially in high light environments. This tool can also disturb biological soil crusts in a wildland setting.
Sensitive species. Low-moderate risk. A hoe may damage the burrow of small animals.
Erosion. Low-moderate risk. Erosion would become a risk if a large group of people were intensively hoeing a single area, especially if the site was sloped, near a streambank that could erode, or on highly erodible soils.
Consider Combining with the Following Non-Chemical Methods
The stirrup hoe pairs well with a grub hoe in the early and middle stages of the growing season in sites that are highly disturbed. This pairing works well because each tool is slightly more efficient at different growth stages and sizes of weeds. The grub hoe more effectively and easily chops larger and more fibrous weeds (see Grubbing with Hoes BMP), while a stirrup hoe is more effective on smaller thinner weeds and seedlings. In areas with woody weeds, hand tools that can treat woody weeds, such as weed pullers, saws and cutting tools (see BMP’s for those sections) provide an effective pairing. For sites with a mix of annuals and weeds with a large taproot, a dandelion fork may be paired with a stirrup hoe.
Don’t Use This Technique When/For
A scuffle hoe is not effective on weeds that have underground storage structures, such as nutlets, bulbs or tubers. The top of these plants will be removed, but the plant will grow back. In addition, a stirrup hoe should be used with caution when weeds form stolons or rhizomes or both, such as bermuda grass (Cynodon dactylon). The stirrup hoe will cut the top of the plant and some of the shallow roots may die, but fragments of these plants may re-root and grow again, potentially creating many small plants where a few large individuals were initially growing. This tool is also ineffective at killing vines, such as field bindweed (Convolvulus arvensis) or Cape ivy (Delairea odorata), which may resprout or re-root from plant fragments. A stirrup hoe is not intended to cut through woody weeds, except for small woody seedlings.
A scuffle hoe does not work on rocky, cobbly or gravely soils and works poorly on steep slopes. The stirrup hoe can be used up to the edge of boulders to sever weeds, especially because it is not swung (in contrast to a grub hoe). The scuffle hoe is also not effective in thick muddy soils, such as silty clays or clays. The tool cannot be pushed and pulled through a thick soil without significant force. It may not be an effective tool in most wet locations because many wetland or riparian weeds can resprout once cut, and a different technique may be required.
DiTomaso J.M. et al. 2013. Weed Control in Natural Areas in the Western United States. UC Weed Research and Information Center: Davis, CA. 544 pp.
Holloran, P., A. Mackenzie, S. Farrell and D. Johnson. 2004. The Weed Workers Handbook a Guide to Techniques for Removing Bay Area Weeds. The Watershed Project, California Invasive Plant Council: Richmond, CA. 120 pp.
Hussain, M., S. Farooq, C. Merfield, and K. Jabran. 2018. Mechanical Weed Control. In (Eds) K. Jabran, B.S. Chauhan, Non-Chemical Weed Control. Academic Press, London, UK. 178 pp.
Williams, A. 2017. The hoe isn’t the only thing scuffling: Testing non-chemical control techniques for Brachyposium distachyon in serpentine and non-serpentine grasslands. Presentation at Cal-IPC Symposium. https://www.cal-ipc.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/2017-Symposium-Testing-non-chem-control-Brachypodium-Andrea-Williams.pdf.
Authors and Credit
Lead Author: Christopher McDonald, University of California Extension Weed Specialist, UC ANR
Shani Pynn, Senior Plant Restoration Ecologist, Riverside
Corona Resource Conservation District
Tom Reyes, Integrated Pest Management Coordinator, Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District
Henry DiRocco, Integrated Vegetation
Management Specialist, Laguna Canyon Foundation
Phillip Cramer, Revegetation Specialist, Caltrans
|Winter / Spring||Excellent|
|Spring / Summer||Excellent|
|Plant||Plant Growth Form|
|Low (<1000/square meter)||Excellent|
|Moderate (1000–10,000/square meter)||Good|
|High (>10,000/square meter)||Fair|
|Plant||Rate of Spread|
|High (doubling in <10 year)||Good|
|Moderate (50–75% increase in 10 years)||Excellent|
|Slow Rate (25% increase in 10 years)||Excellent|
|Plant||Resprouting / Regenerative Capacity|
|Short (≤3 years)||Excellent|
|Moderate (4–10 years)||Good|
|Long (>10 years)||Good|
|Plant||Type of Reproduction|
|Seed & Vegetative||Poor|
|Plant||Type of Vegetative Reproduction|
|Rhizome / Stolon / Stem||Poor|
|Bulb / Corm / Tuber||Ineffective|
|Root sprout / Sucker / Crown sprout||Ineffective|
|Site||Existing Desirable Plant Cover|
|Marsh / Wetland||Poor|
|Woodland / Forest||Excellent|
|Site||Level of Tolerable Disturbance|
|<40 square feet||Excellent|
|Site||Targeted Invasive Plant Cover|
|<100 feet from road||Excellent|
|100–1000 feet from road||Excellent|
|>1000 feet from road||Fair|