What Does Having a "Hard Row to Hoe" Mean?

Malcolm Tatum

Sometimes stated as "a tough row to hoe," "a hard row to hoe" is one of several English phrases that is used to identify a situation that will require a significant amount of work and dedication to successfully accomplish. The imagery that is connected with this particular idiom has to do with the process of gardening, and draws on the visualization of someone who is using a garden hoe to till the rows of plants in a manner that will hopefully result in a rich harvest at a later date. In order to reap that harvest, the gardener must possess qualities such as persistence, consistency and a dedication to doing whatever is necessary to ultimately reach the goal.

Using hoes to tend gardens can be difficult work.
Using hoes to tend gardens can be difficult work.

In common usage, to take on a hard row to hoe means to assume responsibility for a task that will not be particularly easy to manage. At times, the taking on of this hard task comes about due to difficult situations that may not be the fault of the person suffering. For example, a young person who has no money for college expenses and does not qualify for much in the way of financial aid may have to balance working with attending classes. That individual is said to have a hard row to hoe, in that he or she will find completing a college education somewhat more difficult than students who do not have to be concerned about how the costs are covered.

At times, a hard row to hoe is sometimes related to situations in which people have made poor decisions in the past and must now work through the consequences of those actions in order to put them in the past. This would mean that an individual who wronged a loved one may have to put forth a great deal of effort in order to receive forgiveness for those past actions and eventually be able to restore some good feeling between the two persons. Depending on the nature of the infraction, this process may take years and a great deal of effort to accomplish.

Even a company can choose a course that is seen as a hard or tough row to hoe. Should a business choose to pursue a new course of action that ultimately alienates its core client base and does not capture new customers to replace that base, it may be necessary to change strategies and attempt to recapture that formerly loyal base. Finding ways to regain the trust of those former customers may constitute a hard row to hoe, in that those clients may have begun to do business with competitors and be leery of making another change. In this scenario, the company may not face only a tough or hard row, but also a long row to hoe.

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Discussion Comments


I hear this idiom a lot during sports events like the Olympics. A star athlete turns out to be from a poor family and couldn't afford the right equipment or training as a child. He or she had to overcome a lot of obstacles and setbacks in order to become an elite competitor. The story will almost always start with "Jane Smith may look like any other gymnast, but she's had a hard row to hoe most of her life..."

There are some English idioms and phrases that don't translate very well into other languages or cultures, but I think most people in the world can understand what it means to have a long row to hoe. The pains and challenges of growing a garden are practically universal.


I've never heard this idiom used as a negative. Usually when someone says another person has had a hard row to hoe, it generates sympathy or understanding. A lot of self-made people have had long rows to hoe, and it's that struggle that makes them even stronger than people who've had things handed to them or have gotten lucky breaks.

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