The winter is the perfect time to assess your garden tools, give them a thorough cleaning, and replace any broken ones you might have.
Winter weather is just around the corner in many parts of the country, making this the ideal time to clean and repair your garden tools so they'll be good as new come springtime. Keeping them well-maintained guarantees that they’ll be in good condition when you need them most. By caring for your tools now, you’ll give yourself plenty of time to repair the broken ones and replace the ones that are beyond saving.
Cleaning Your Tools
It all begins with bucket of water and a garden hose. Thoroughly wash your garden tools by using the high-pressure setting on your hose to blast away any caked-on dirt and clay. Use a butter knife, steel wool, or a stiff brush to scrub away the particularly stubborn clumps. Keep scrubbing away until the tools are clean.
To clean tools that are caked with sap, pitch, or other sticky debris, use a rag dipped in paint thinner. Listen to your favorite music or podcast to help pass the time while you clean. Once you’ve rinsed your tools off, let them air-dry outside on a towel in the sun.
Keep Your Blades Sharp
The more often you use your blades, the more often you’ll need to sharpen them. Most hobby gardeners will only need to sharpen the blades on their tools once a year. You'll want to sharpen soft metals, like the metal of your shovels, to a 45-degree angle using a metal file (a few long strokes should do the trick). Only sharpen your tools after they've dried completely.
For hard metals, like those on your pruners and other cutting tools, use a whetstone. Before you start, look at the blade to note its angle and determine the best place to begin filing. Wet the whetstone before you start the sharpening process, and make sure it stays damp throughout. Once you’ve finished sharpening your blades, clear all the metal bits and debris off with a stiff brush.
Unless you rinse off your tools and hang them to air-dry after every use, you’ll most likely have to deal with rust. Luckily, there are many ways to deal with it. While some gardeners swear by treating tools with linseed oil or soaking them in a weak vinegar solution, others recommend soaking them in a three-percent citric acid solution for 24 hours. Others still say soaking tools in a strong black tea is the best way to remove rust. Whichever method you use, be sure to wipe the tools off after you soak them, and use steel wool to remove rust deposits. Be sure to scrape in circular motions.
After you’ve removed the rust, apply linseed oil to the moving parts of your tools to ensure they stay in working condition for next year.
Keep Wooden Handles Looking Like New
If your tools have unpainted wooden handles, sand them using medium grit (80 to 120) sandpaper to remove dirt and smooth their finishes. Use a new rag to rub linseed oil on each handle to protect the wood from future wear. If the handle is dry, you may need to use quite a bit of oil, as the wood will soak it up quickly. Keep an eye on the handles over a 24-hour period and apply more oil as needed. Wipe any excess oil off the handles the next day. If you don’t have linseed oil, you may be able to substitute flaxseed oil.
Once you’ve applied the oil, let the rag dry between uses. You may want to permanently hang it near your tools, so you can apply the oil as needed next year during the growing season. While you’re treating the wood, assess your tools for wear and tear and consider replacing broken or split handles. You can often find replacement parts at your local hardware store or garden shop.
If the handles of your tools are painted, give them a touch-up using a water-based varnish or paint. Or, sand the paint off and oil the wood with linseed oil, then repaint them.
Keep Your Tools in Good Condition All Year Long
Ben Franklin famously said: “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” By the same token, it’s often less work to clean your garden tools at the end of the year if you’ve taken steps during the growing season to care for them.
Don’t Wait to Clean Them
Pass your tools under the garden hose when you’ve finished using them to prevent dirt from building up. Wipe them off afterward, or let them dry in a sunny spot. Keep a stiff brush near your tools to make it easier to scrub away dirt and clay before they stick to them. This will also prevent your tools from rusting.
Store Tools Smarter
Hanging tools or storing them upright in a dry environment away from the elements will allow air to circulate around them and prevent rust and grime buildup. You can also store tools in a bucket of sand and mineral oil to ensure they stay rust-free after cleaning them. Store cutting tools with their sharp ends facing toward the ground, and keep their blades covered when they're not in use.
Clean Cutting Tools Frequently
Wash your cutting tools in soapy water and use a stiff or nail brush to clear debris off of them. Prevent diseases from spreading from plant to plant by wiping your blades down with a 10-percent bleach solution, a commercial household disinfectant, or a 70-percent isopropyl alcohol solution.
Keep Your Tools Sharp
Sharp tools inflict less damage than dull ones. If you do a lot of cutting in your garden, sharpen your tools frequently with a whetstone or another sharpening device. It’ll create less work for you in the long run and cause less damage to your plants.