Learning to Grow: Taking care of garden tools

"Practice the art of tool care and your tools will last longer and always be ready for gardening," writes columnist and master gardener Sue Styer.[]

When you reach for your rake, is the handle caked with mud? Does your shovel slice through the ground like a butter knife through peanut brittle? Do your loppers crush the stems, leaving them hanging? Here are a few tips on how to care for your garden tools so they will perform at their peak.

If you only do one thing, scrape off soil from your tools before you put them away. Use a plastic spatula rather than a metal trowel so you don’t scratch the tool, which could lead to rusting. Remove any stubborn soil chunks with a stiff wire brush. If needed, wash tools with soap and water.

Disinfecting tools will help prevent the spread of disease. Many household cleaning products can corrode metal, so use either 70 percent alcohol or a disinfectant product available from horticultural supply vendors. Alcohol is inexpensive and can be sprayed or wiped on tools. Note that alcohol is flammable, so use and store away from flames.

To reduce rusting, coat all clean metal parts with oil. A quick and easy way is to spray on a silicone lubricant. Or you could make a reusable oil sock. Stuff a sock with sand and tie the end off. Dip the sock in vegetable oil, squeeze out the excess oil, and store the sock in a sealable plastic bag. Alternately, you could make an oil dip bucket. Saturate a five-gallon bucket of sand with vegetable oil and dip (or even store) your metal tools in the sand. The sand will also help to keep your tools sharp.

Before putting away tools for winter, check tool handles and replace if cracked. Fiberglass handles can be washed. Recondition wood handles by cleaning with a stiff-bristled brush and smoothing nicks or splinters with medium-grit sandpaper. Coat wooden handles with linseed or tung oil to help prevent drying and cracking.

Remove any rust on metal parts with coarse-grade steel wool. Lubricate moving joints on loppers and clippers. Sharpen shovels, hoes, shears and pruners. If you do not know how to sharpen the blades, take them to a professional who can sharpen them properly for you. Give the metal parts a heavy coating of oil and say goodbye until spring!

Practice the art of tool care and your tools will last longer and always be ready for gardening.

Sue Styer is a University of Illinois Extension master gardener for Kane County. The “Learning to Grow” column runs weekly during warmer months of the year. Call the extension office at 630-584-6166 for more information. Feedback on this column can be sent to