When novice gardeners ask for advice on gardening tools, my response is always to buy the best you can afford. Shears and pruners can be found at your local discount stores, but these small hand tools are among the most abused in your garden. It’s worth the extra few bucks for tools that will last through many seasons and perform well under constant use.
Subsequently, you’ll want to take good care of them to not only protect your investment, but also reduce the chances of spreading weed seeds or soil-borne pathogens around your yard. I know — easier said than done, right?
But tool maintenance doesn’t have to be total drudgery. If you take a few minutes after every use (even every couple of uses) to care for your tools, you’ll save yourself hours of elbow grease at the end of the season.
Here are six simple tips for maintaining your gardening tools this season:
1. Make a habit of cleaning your tools after each use. It can be as simple as hosing down your shovels or wiping the sap off your pruners with a clean rag. Taking a few seconds for these little tasks will keep your tools in tip-top shape and ensure they’re ready to use the next time.
I always keep a stack of rags (usually cut-up old T-shirts or towels that have seen better days), a stiff brush, and some steel wool on hand expressly for cleaning my tools. They live in the garage next to all my gardening gear so I never have to go searching for them.
In peak gardening season, I also keep a bar of good ol’ reliable Lava Soap® by the sink for quick and easy clean-up. I’ve tried plenty of other soaps (including fancy ones and expensive ones), but nothing comes close to being able to scour the grime off my hands after digging in dirt all day. The magic ingredient in Lava Soap® is pumice, which gently scrubs off sap, grease, glue, and paint while moisturizing hands at the same time. In this house, where we constantly have a flow of projects indoors and out, it’s a must-have.
2. Store your tools in a dry and protected area, preferably hanging on a wall. I’ve been guilty of leaving my tools outside on the ground and even in the rain — and then I really pay for it when rust takes over.
Moisture is the enemy of gardening tools, so remember to bring them under cover when you’re done using them. Wet soil is the main culprit of corrosion, so it’s always good practice to rinse off any mud clinging to your tools and dry them thoroughly before storing. If you live in a particularly humid climate or receive a lot of fog, it’s a better idea to bring your tools inside a garage or shed to prolong their life.
3. Clean and oil your pruning shears (secateurs) frequently. These hard-working tools are especially prone to rust from sap and residue build-up on the blades. Use a stiff brush or scrubby pad to loosen dirt from the crevices, then wash the blades with warm soapy water and dry them thoroughly.
Apply a few drops of lubricating oil like 3-IN-ONE® Multi-Purpose Oil to the pivot joints and blades, and wipe off the excess with a towel. This is the same stuff your grandparents probably used in the tin can, only it’s now packaged in a plastic bottle. I always have a supply of it on hand for lubricating the moving parts on my various shears, dissolving rust on steel blades, and protecting tools from corrosion.
A lot of people simply use olive oil (or something similar) for this, but olive oil turns rancid and gets gummy. 3-IN-ONE® Multipurpose Oil does triply duty as a cleaner, lubricant, and protectant, and a small bottle seems to last forever! It’s my go-to for garden tool maintenance. You can also use it to coat your shovels and hoes as a rust preventative — an ultra thin layer is all you need.
In fact, if I only had time to do one thing to maintain my tools throughout the season, I’d just wipe or scrub them down with a couple drops of 3-IN-ONE® Multipurpose Oil after each use. And that leads me to my next tip…
4. For the lazy gardener’s shortcut, fill a bucket with clean sand and stir in just enough 3-IN-ONE® Multipurpose Oil to lightly dampen it. You want the sand to be slightly moist, not look like an oily mess. Place the bucket in a sheltered area near your garden.
When you’re done using your tools, brush off any debris and then stick the tools (blades or tines down) into the sand. The grains help keep the blades nice and sharp, while the oil prevents rust from forming. This is an excellent way to store tools that hibernate for the winter, but I also like it for quick and easy tune-ups of my most-used hand tools, like my pruners and hori hori knife.
For those of you thinking, But that’s why I have stainless steel tools! Know that stainless steel can still rust if not properly taken care of throughout the year. “Stainless” doesn’t necessarily mean free of stains; it merely means the metal stains less than ordinary carbon or alloy steels, and some grades of stainless steel are more prone to corrosion than others.
The sand bucket is also a good trick for keeping track of small tools, as they tend to be misplaced a lot around our yard. By making a habit of depositing the tools in the bucket every time, I always know where to find them.
5. At least once a year, give your tools a quick sharpening. Local tool shops and garden centers sometimes provide this service, but it’s just as easy to pick up a sharpening device, like a flat file, whetstone, or carbide knife sharpener, and make a few passes over the cutting edge of your blade when it’s feeling dull.
It only takes a few seconds (and three to five passes of the sharpener) to smooth out any burrs, and a carbide sharpener (like my favorite, the Speedy Sharp) is so lightweight and portable that you can keep it in your pocket or tool apron for quick tune-ups as needed.
Once sharpened, wipe down the blade with a smidge of 3-IN-ONE® Multipurpose Oil so it’s good to go.
6. Don’t neglect wooden handles. At the end of the season, inspect the handles on your loppers, spades, forks, and other gardening tools for signs of splintering. If necessary, sand them smooth. Use a clean rag to apply a finishing oil (such as tung oil or boiled linseed oil) and let it soak in for several minutes, reapplying as necessary until the wood cannot absorb anymore oil. Wipe off any excess oil before storing your tools.
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