Right around now, many folks are looking for gifts for their favorite gardener. Last year, I was given a few that were supposed to make my life easier. This included a tomato staker, but the staples kept jamming, and it required tinkering with a screwdriver, often right in the middle of garden work.
Despite these setbacks, the one gifted tool that did come in handy was a hand sickle. No moving parts, no jamming, and incredibly practical — whether the growing season was a disaster or not.
A sickle is a very old tool. In 2016, a flint sickle that cut wild barley was found dating back 23,000 years ago. This would be before even agriculture as we know it. The archaeologists could tell what plant it cut partly due to the shine on the blade—called “sickle gloss”. All plants, in particular grasses, take up silica from the soil, which helps keep them upright and less tasty to animals. When a plant is cut and its sap rubs against the tool, the silica smooths the surface. Grasses with lower silica content, like barley, can leave microscopic clues that can distinguish them from a stiffer, high-silica plant like a reed.
Thousands of years later a hand sickle still finds a lot of use, particularly in my garden. While many folks use hand sickles for harvesting cole crops like cabbage, these tools are great for weed control. Young tree saplings like ash, maple, or honey locust usually fall with a quick pull. This goes double for grassy weeds, as they are almost designed to be cut by a sickle. Overgrown herbs like catmint are tempting targets as well, making fall or spring cleanup easier.
If I happen to have a cover crop in a small raised bed, a hand sickle can trim them down quickly and make it easier to till in the residue. Some days, if the weed trimmer is on the fritz and the mower is too bulky a hand sickle can be quite handy indeed. It really shines with keeping fast growing rye and sudangrass cover crops under control.
There are many types of hand sickle designs out there. I like to use the Japanese-style hand sickle, which does not have a huge curve to the blade and is lightweight. You might see this tool called a “usugama” or a “kama”. Often you can get a decent one for 30 dollars or less, but cheaper is not always better.
I have not been the best owner for my sickle, but the maintenance required is pretty minimal. Keep it inside during bad weather and wipe off any soil that sticks to it to avoid rust. Mine has kept its edge after about a year, but it should not be a stranger to a whetstone. Some linseed oil on the wooden shaft also might be needed after heavy use. With all these uses, in bad and good growing seasons, is it any wonder why the sickle has stuck around for so long?