In the Garden:
Pacific Northwest
September, 2008
Regional Report

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Routine cleaning takes just a few minutes and keeps my favorite tools in tip-top shape.

End-of-Season Tool Care

When I began gardening, it didn't occur to me that I needed to know how to care for tools. I wanted to garden, not spend my time cleaning and sharpening pruning shears and shovels. Besides, why would I want to bother caring for tools when new ones were inexpensive and readily available?

Since then I've learned that good tools are worth preserving. They're not cheap and sometimes not so easy to find. Over the years I've gone through a lot of gardening tools. It has taken a long time for me to find cutting and digging tools that are comfortable to use. Now that I've found tools with just the right fit, I don't want to have to replace them, so I've learned to take good care of them.

Cleaning and Oiling
Dirty, rusty tools make gardening more difficult. When pruning shears and loppers get gummed up with sap, or shovels get caked with mud, they are slow to cut through stems, soil, or roots. When tools perform poorly, you have to work harder.

You can save irritation and extra effort if you clean your tools every time you use them. Usually, it's a simple process: wash off the dirt and dry the tool with a clean rag, then wipe the metal parts with a rust-inhibiting lubricant, such as 3-in-1 oil or WD-40. This same process helps remove sap from pruning shears, loppers, and saws; it just takes a little more effort.

To clean dried mud from shovels and spades, I use a stiff brush and a stream of water from the hose, wiping the metal parts dry with a rag and finishing with a coat of lubricant.

Wooden handles need care, too. If moisture works its way into the wood, it can cause splitting and splintering. I wipe off wooden handles with a dry cloth after each use. At the end of the season, I treat wooden handles by wiping them with a rag dipped in boiled linseed oil and polishing off the excess. This helps seal them against moisture.

Keeping a Sharp Edge
Loppers and pruning shears make cleaner cuts when they're sharp. I use a three-sided ceramic whetstone to keep the blades in tip-top shape. To sharpen a blade, I hold the ceramic stone at a slight angle to the cutting edge and push it away from the blade, repeating this one-way motion all along the blade. Sharpening one side of a blade creates a small ridge of metal on the other side. This burr can be removed with a few light passes of the stone held almost flat to the blade.

Salvaging Neglected Tools
Neglected tools can often be salvaged. You can renew rusted and pitted shovels or hoes with a wire brush or a sanding disc attachment on a power drill. Use a coarse sandpaper, such as 80-grit, to remove as much of the rust as possible, and finish up with a finer sandpaper to polish the steel. If the metal is corroded or nicked beyond repair, you may be able to buy replacement parts from a garden center or hardware store. Replacement handles may also be available.

The heads of some tools are attached to the handle by a tang, an extension of the steel head that fits inside the wood. If the wood shrinks away from the tang, the head can spin around or even fall off the handle. I use epoxy glue to put these parts back together. This method of repair works best on trowels or cultivators. Hoes, forks, and garden spades usually need additional reinforcement or regular repair to help keep their heads firmly attached.

Given proper care, well-made tools make gardening easier, and they can last for decades. I'd say that's a great return on an investment!


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