Ask A Master Gardener – Proper Cleaning & Storage of Garden Tools

Authored by: Carol Shirk

A chill is in the air, gardens are dwindling, and it is time to close things up for the season.  Ideally, gardeners would clean tools every time they used them.  Realistically, it just does not happen, but gardeners should clean, sharpen, and store tools properly in the fall.  Keeping your tools in good, sharp working order is an excellent step in making them efficient at the job they were designed to do.

Tools are an investment that can be passed along to future gardening generations.  Therefore, it is wise to invest in the best ones you can afford and maintain the ones you have.  They require attention to retain their working value.  A good tool needs to be sharp, clean, and sterile to perform at peak ability and not spread disease.

The first thing to do when storing tools is to clean them.  Dirty tools can spread disease from year to year, from garden to garden and wreak havoc.  A strong steady stream of water will dislodge the larger particles of debris from tools like shovels, hoes, forks, and spades.  A wire brush will finish the job nicely.  Allow the tool to dry thoroughly.

Although not often considered, it is a good idea to occasionally sharpen shovels and, especially hoes.  Putting a nice edge on these tools will help them slice through the soil and make your job easier.  If you do not own and are experienced in the use of a grinder, obtain a ten-inch mill file and use it instead.  Tutoring guides are available online to guide you through how to put the proper edge on your tool, which should have about a thirty-degree bevel.  Always use gloves and proper eye protection, and securely hold the tool in a vise.

Once you have cleaned and sharpened your tools, disinfect them.  You can use a 10% bleach solution; however, this is corrosive and is not the best option.  Instead, use a spray disinfectant containing at least 70% alcohol.  Once the surface is completely dry, treat it with a rust inhibitor like WD-40, oil, or silicone spray.

Do not neglect the handles of your tools, especially if they are wood.  Clean them thoroughly and sand any rough spots.  Rub the wooden handles with a rag moistened with linseed oil to preserve the wood.

Store the tools properly.  Do not let them stand on concrete where moisture will cause the edge to rust.  Instead, hang them up.  If you do not have the space to hang them, put them in a heavy-duty utility bin, handles down.

Smaller tools like pruners and loppers require the same general care.  Clean them first.  If there is sticky residue from tree sap, use soapy water or turpentine to remove it.  If there is rust, steel wool will be very effective in removing it.

Sharpening these tools is also important.  Use a file or whet stone and in this case, because you want a sharper edge, a fifteen-degree bevel.  If your pruners have two edges, both need to be sharpened.

Disinfect these tools as well, using the same 70% alcohol spray disinfectant.  Tighten up any loose screws, oil as necessary, and store properly.

Complete these tasks in the fall and you will be ready to roll when spring comes around.

Carol Shirk

Certified Master Gardener

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