Cold weather is coming in many places, and that means winding down your gardening activity. That doesn't mean it's time to relax, though. One of the most important things you can do when the garden is getting ready to sleep is to clean and prepare your garden hand tools for next year. Trust me, when it comes time to start getting back to work in the spring, you'll be glad you took the time.
Garden hand tools are a significant investment. Keeping your tools in good shape will extend their life and give you years of good use. Cleaning, sharpening and storing your tools the right way will not only prolong their use but also gives you a jump start in the spring. As if that wasn't reason enough, dirty tools can spread soil-borne diseases, which means you'll have healthier plants if you use clean tools.
Cleaning Your Garden Tools
Shovels, Forks, Hoes, and Rakes
Garden hand tool maintenance is particularly important when it comes to the real workhorses of any garden: the long-handled tools. I don't even want to imagine working a garden without them, and they can be expensive to invest in. That's why keeping them in top shape is essential.
Step 1: Start by giving your long-handled tools a good cleaning. Things get pretty dirty – mud, manure, mulch, may all have left a trace on your tools. For long-handled tools such as shovels, hoes, and spades, use a metal brush and scrape away all the dirt from the metal parts. A grill brush works perfectly.
Use a softer household scrub brush on the wooden parts so as not to damage the wood. If you encounter stubborn dirt, soak your tool for a few minutes in clean water.
Step 2: Spray your tool off with some water and wipe with a clean cloth. Let everything dry thoroughly.
Step 3: Rub away rust with some coarse sandpaper and wipe clean with a damp cloth.
Step 4: Sharpen any tines or shovel edges. You'll be glad you did when it comes time to start spring digging.
I use a coarse file to start with and then switch to a finer file to create a nice sharp edge. Try to maintain the factory edge or bevel. To do this, use a 45-degree angle scraping in one direction, and work from the outside edge to the center of the tool.
Be sure not to move the file back and forth, or you will ruin all your hard sharpening work.
Step 5: Take a rag soaked in oil and rub the metal parts of your tool. My grandfather always used motor oil on his garden hand tools, but I like to use a vegetable oil like linseed oil. I think it works as well and is not as polluting.
Step 6: Wooden handles sometimes develop cracks or splinters during the working season. Use 100-grit sandpaper to rub them smooth. You can do this by hand or use an orbital sander to make the job go quicker.
Once you have the wood smooth and splinter-free, rub linseed oil or paste wax on the handles to preserve the wood.
Pruners and Loppers
Pruners and loppers take a beating during the growing season. It's easy not to notice how dull the blades become or when nuts and bolts that start to loosen over time. Keeping these garden hand tools in good repair will not only make your job easier, but it also helps prevent accidents.
1: Mix a little dish soap with some warm water in a bucket or bowl. Soak your garden hand tools for a few minutes to help work all the dirt and plant material free. Use a metal wire brush to scrub your tool until it is clean.
2: Rinse your tools in clean water and let them dry completely.
3: Remove rust using steel wool or a wire brush fitting on a drill. Prevent rust from coming back quickly by rubbing the blade in linseed oil, cooking oil or motor oil.
4: Sharpen the edge of your blades using a sharpener or whetstone. Move in one direction until you see clean, shiny metal.
When sharpening pruners and loppers, a whetstone is more efficient than a file and easier to fit into smaller spaces. Some whetstones need to be soaked first – hence the name.
You can also find sharpeners made for smaller garden hand tools.
5: Tighten or replace any loose bolts or springs.
6: Use a rag soaked in linseed oil or use a biodegradable spray-on lubricant to apply oil to nuts, bolts, joints, and springs to keep them opening and closing smoothly.
Weeders, Knives, Diggers, and Trowels
Smaller garden hand tools can be cleaned in a similar way to long-handled tools, with the following differences:
Dip a toothbrush in soapy water to scrub plastic handles clean.
Steel wool or a wire brush works better than sandpaper to remove rust on smaller tools.
Use a bastard file to sharpen tool edges.
My Grandfather's Secret to Garden Tool Maintenance
My grandfather grew up in an Italian immigrant family during the depression. They were lucky to have a piece of land during hard times with a big garden.
This must be why he valued his tools do much. Woe to the grandchild that left a tool outside in the field. We were taught to care for his tools.
One of my grandfather’s tricks was to have a bucket of sand that he would pour motor oil into when he changed the oil in his truck. He would then take his garden hand tools and shove the metal part into the sand up and down.
He did this during the growing season to help keep his tools clean and in good shape. It also protects them from rust. I am still using tools that he had purchased (he died in 1998), so I think he was on the right track.
Sap and Pine Resin
You can remove stubborn substances like sap from your garden hand tools using turpentine, WD-40 or hand sanitizer. Soak the sap in whatever substance you choose and then scrape the sap away.
Garden Hand Tool Storage
Now that you have clean garden hand tools you need to have a place to store them for the winter. Where you store your garden tools is going to depend a lot on where you live and what buildings you have available.
Ideally, you need a dry, clean area to store your tools. One that is easy to get in and out of and relatively close to your garden area is perfect.
Sheds and Barns
If you are like me and have a barn, then you can create a tool area.
I store my small tools like trowels and hand rakes in my workroom on a pegboard. My bigger hand tools hang from hooks on an inside back wall of the barn. I find it best to keep tools like pruners and loppers accessible in case I need to remove any broken branches from trees or bushes during the winter.
Since I use a back wall in one of my barns, I store mowers in the same area as well as wagons and wheelbarrows. That way I know where everything is.
Some people may opt for a tool shed. Tool sheds come in a variety of sizes to fit any yard. Whenever you build a new building, it can be easy to “fill it up.” That's why it helps to have a designated place for everything to help you stay organized and know where to find what tool when you need it.
No matter what the size of your space is, hanging is one of the most efficient ways to store tools. Hanging tools on the wall save space help keep things organized, and easy to find and clean.
Of course, not everyone has the perfect spot, and you may be tempted to use the exterior of a building. Hanging your garden hand tools on an outside wall may be attractive, but it is not practical. Tools exposed to the weather have a shorter lifespan and eventually will rust and crack.
If you live in the city, you need something compact. There are many types of tool organizers and cupboards that you can keep in a small corner of the yard sold at hardware stores. A tool organizer is also easy to make. If you have a small spot in the garage, you can purchase or DIY a variety of hooks and hangers. You can get ones that meet your tool needs and hang them where it is convenient.
For a small courtyard consider a garden storage bench. Several DIY options are available.
On a budget? Many stores give away the wooden shipping pallets that they receive large orders on. Use an upended pallet to store tools in. When you place the pallet vertically, you have a nice narrow trench in which to put your long-handled tools. Secure the pallet in place, and you're all set.
Now you are ready to clean and store your garden hand tools for winter. If you are like me, you are a bit sad that the season is over. But I always look forward to cold, snowy evenings, rocking in front of the wood stove with a pile of seed catalogs at my feet.