TOOLS: I Always Carry a Knife In My Belt

I should probably elaborate on that title. It would be more accurate to say, I always carry a garden knife in my work belt. When it comes to tools of the trade, my hands down, all time favorite is the hori hori. With great style, form and durability—not to mention a fascinating history—this tool is as valuable as gold in the garden.

Origin story

Let’s get into the weeds on the origins of this wonderful tool (pun intended). Hori (pronounced with a soft “r” that almost sounds like a “d”) is a variation on the Japanese term horu which means “Dig”. Hori hori is an onomatopoeia for the sound made when the tool is plunged into the soil. Try it: the first syllable is very short (ho). The second (ri) gets the emphasis. Now, say it two times fast. Do you hear it? Pretty cool, as far as names go, right?

Back in the Meiji period (late 1800’s), the era of the samurai and katana (sword) was gradually being eliminated. People were no longer permitted to carry their weapon in public. Because of this, two groups faced a big problem. Farmers who normally carried their katana needed an alternative, and the Toko, or sword craftsman, needed a new product to fabricate and sell. Thus, tools such as the hori hori became a perfect match for each.

Today, in modern day Anyplace, we get to reap the benefit of this rich history. I like to imagine myself wielding my mini-katana against a raging clump of Pennisetum or driving it into some hard-packed clay!

What is it? How does it work?

Also referred to as a garden knife the hori hori is typically between 11” – 12” in total length, and although the blade ranges from 6”-7.25” I’ve seen some as long as 8” but I don’t recommend these longer ones as they tend to have less stability and sturdiness. They certainly have their uses but are less versatile than the blades we’re talking about here.

Traditionally, a hori hori has a wooden handle which braces a steel knife-shaped blade with two rivets. Some manufacturers will have a fairly sharp point at the tip, and others will be slightly more blunt. It’s sharp along one side and serrated on the other. Although the blade itself is straight like a knife it’s lightly concave which is great for removing soil. Most of them also have measurements etched on the blade in both inches and millimeters for ease in judging planting depth and spacing. Most come with a leather sheath that can be attached to your belt, although personally I use a multi-tool belt and give my hori hori its own special compartment.

Choosing a Hori Hori

Hori horis have gained popularity over the past few years and now, there are a great many to choose from. The most significant difference is construction, and handle material—wood, composite or plastic. Here is a list of the considerations you should have in mind when choosing your tool:

  • Handle: Wood will provide the best, non-sweaty grip but is harder to clean. Plastic breaks more quickly but rinses off nicely. Watch out for ones with ridges. They will tear up your hands!
  • Blade: Should be a single monolithic piece of stainless steel the full length of the tool and encased in the the wooden (or other material) handle. If not, you’ll find that the blade becomes loose and unstable.
  • Blade: A heavy sturdy blade is best. Thinner, lighter blades will bend. Stainless steel is most common, steel is typically heavier but you must care for it in order to prevent rust.
  • Blade: You want tight sharp serrations which are best for everything from opening compost bags to dividing a Phormium.

My opinion

Personally, I’m a traditionalist, and I happen to be living in Japan so, my preferred brand is Nisaku which has been around for ages and their products are made here in Japan. They can also be found on Amazon or at Home Depot. I’ve had mine for nearly 6 years now and it’s as solid today as the day I first took it out of it’s sheath.

Taking care of a Hori Hori

Some people want low maintenance gardens, some want low maintenance tools. This is one of them. Be sure to wipe it down and dry it after each use. Keep it protected from rain or constant moisture. If you have a wooden handle, a rub down once a year with linseed oil will keep it nice. Having the blade sharpened once a year will also keep you loving it for many many years. That’s pretty much it!

An excellent quality hori hori will last a decade or so. In my 25 year career I’ve only had to replace mine once, and that was because my first one found it’s way into someone else’s tool belt.

What you can do with a Hori Hori

Okay, now you know all about the tool itself let’s look at all the things it can do! Why would I carry one with me at all times in the garden, even above my clippers? Here’s a quick-fire rundown:

  • Weeding
  • Sheering grasses and other strappy plants
  • Removing root vegetables (slides right down the side of a carrot)
  • Transplanting any plants up to a 5 gallon container
  • Lifting up netafim drip irrigation tubing (watch out not to puncture it)
  • Cutting sod
  • Planting seeds (you can measure the depth)
  • Planting anything
  • Adding soil amendments in a targeted and efficient manner such as in pots
  • Cutting roots
  • Cutting small limbs or branches
  • Dividing clumps of plant material
  • Removing succulent pups and replanting them
  • Loosening soil
  • Opening the screw on an irrigation valve when I’ve forgotten my screwdriver
  • Cutting open bags of amendments
  • Digging up or rolling rocks

And that’s just what I used it for last week! If you’re already a hori hori user, I bet you can add to my list. And if not, I really hope that you’ll give one a try. I don’t think you’ll regret it.

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