Spring Cleaning – Tool Maintenance and Care

Reiman gardens intern digging in the dirt with plants around her

The growing season is upon us at last! This month, new growth starts to appear in earnest and many of our favorite bulbs flower and fade. As exciting as this is, it also means that there is a lot of work to do to prepare for the rest of the season. One of the most important things that can be done in April is to sharpen and sterilize garden tools. The most common garden tools that need regular care are shovels, hoes, pruners, shears, loppers, and knives. Taking care of these tools makes them safer and easier to use, and they will last longer.

The first step to taking care of these tools is to clean them. Clean small, handheld tools with a damp paper towel or a soft-bristled brush. On larger tools, use a putty knife to get rid of caked-on dirt and a hose to rinse of the remainder. Rust can be removed from steel tools by soaking them overnight in white vinegar and scrubbing them with steel wool.

Next, disinfect the tools to prevent any overwintering plant pathogens from spreading. There are several options for horticultural disinfectants, including isopropyl and ethanol alcohol, pine oil, and chlorine bleach. All of these methods have pros and cons. Bleach is corrosive, so tools need to be rinsed with clean water after soaking in the solution of 10% bleach for 5-10 minutes. A 25% pine oil solution is not as corrosive, but it is not as effective against as many pathogens either. Alcohol works more quickly and comprehensively – no soaking required – but needs to be in a 70-100% solution, a fire hazard if stored near open flame.

Sharpening is often the most time consuming part of tool preparation. Use a clamp or vice to hold the tool in place. Apply a bit of oil to the blade. Push a whetstone, coarse file, or hand grinder forward in even passes for the entire length of the blade. The angle used should be the same as the original blades angle – often 45° for shovels and hoes and 20° for pruners and shears. Sharpen away from the edge of the blade to prevent cutting yourself. Eventually a shiny beveled edge should be visible. When this happens, make only a few more light strokes with the file for final sharpening. Repeat on the opposite side of the blade for tools with a double edge.

Of course, the best way to take care of gardening tools is to perform a bit of maintenance each time they are used during the growing season.

  • Always remove caked-on dirt and debris from blades and hinges.
  • Hang tools up or lay them sideways to prevent dulling the sharpened edge.
  • Apply disinfectant after you work with diseased plant material.
  • Apply a small amount of oil to springs and hinges to keep things moving smoothly.

These small steps will make working in the garden easier and more enjoyable.

Prepared by Lindsey Smith, Collections Curator