It’s so easy to simply hang your shovel on the nail when you hang up your proverbial towel at the end of the growing season, but there are a few simple practices that will help to preserve quality tools for decades of use. The following tool care steps can also be used during the growing season for routine maintenance.
Many of our garden tools such as shovels, spades, knives, clippers, etc, are constructed of a combination of materials, often metal and wood. And while I have admittedly put my tools away dirty after a tiring day in the field and have allowed metal blades to rust and wooden handles to dry out, I have learned over the years to take better care of my tools so that I spend less time struggling with rusty, dull, and brittle tools, and more time caring for my garden! There are specific ways to care for each of these components that can be done as general maintenance or as an end of the season ritual.
Caring for Your Precious Metals
While all of our garden tools are precious, the following tips are for tools that have metal components (which includes most tools).
Rust is the main issue causing damage to metal tools, but it can be easily prevented or remedied. Metal components that have come into contact with the soil or other sources of moisture should be cleaned free of dirt, dried immediately, and kept well-oiled in between uses, but especially at the end of the season. An easy recipe that many gardeners use is an oily sand mixture. Fill a 5 gallon bucket (or ideally one that will fit the metal portion of all your tools) with dry builders sand. Mix in vegetable oil until evenly distributed. While some folks prefer to clean and dry their metal tools first, others remove dirt clods by plunging the tools several times into this mixture. You can store your tools right in this sand/oil blend in a dry place during the growing season and the off-season alike. Some gardeners prefer to hose, dry and oil their blades in between uses and only use this mixture for winter hibernation. If mild rust is already an issue, you can simply use a wire brush or steel wool to scrub away the rusty surface. For heavier rust issues, try soaking the metal portion of the tool in white vinegar prior to scrubbing. Use a light oil to finish the job.
Sharpening your tools is an art…not one that I have mastered, but important nonetheless. In my opinion, a poorly sharpened tool is still better than a dull and neglected one. Even my worst attempts at sharpening still left me with a sharper blade than had I done nothing at all.
For cutting tools, such as a harvest knife, whetstones work well, without grinding away too much of your blade. Place your dry (not wet or oiled) whetstone on a flat surface such as a counter or work table with the coarse grit facing up. Hold your knife by the handle and place the blades edge on the whetstone at a 22 ½ degree angle (or best mimic the angle of the original bevel). Slide the blade forward in a long, even stroke with moderate pressure, maintaining constant contact at this angle with the whetstone. Repeat this stroke 10 times, always sharpening in the same direction whether front-to-back or back-to-front. Flip the blade and repeat 10 times more. For a super fine edge, flip your whetstone over to the fine grit and repeat this process. Rinse and wipe the blade dry to remove any metal residue.
To file the cutting edge of other tools, such as a shovel or spade, you can use a mill file. Securing the tool in a vise or clamp will help to keep a steady hold on the tool while sharpening. Hold the file at the same angle as the factory bevel (about 40 degrees for a shovel or hoe). Using long, even strokes (away from you) file the cutting edge with medium pressure. You can finish by filing the opposite side lightly so as to remove any rough edges. Wipe clean and oil. And remember to wear your safety goggles whenever sharpening or filing to avoid metal shards in the eye.
Sterilization helps to prevent the spread of disease. Tools are readily exposed diseased plant material or soil. Therefore, rather than spreading bacteria and fungus from one crop to another; dip your tool into 70-100% alcohol (isopropyl or ethanol) for approximately 1 minute in between uses. While this seems like an easy thing to do, it would take a whole lot of alcohol to submerse a shovel blade or other large tools. Another option is to use a product called OxiDate Fungicide and Bactericide, which is a hydrogen dioxide solution that is OMRI approved for organic use. It kills bacteria, fungus, algae and their spores on contact. This product is typically sold for use on your plants themselves, but can be purchased in a spray bottle and sprayed on your tools between uses.
Caring for Wooden Handled Tools
To keep tools with wooden handles, such as shovels, hoes, and wheelbarrows, from drying out and splitting or cracking, first use a fine grit sandpaper to smooth the handle. Wipe the dust from the handle and apply several layers of boiled linseed oil allowing it to sit a bit between each coating.
Store all tools in a dry environment where you can easily find them in the spring. If you’re not planning to store your tools in the sand/oil mixture, then may I advise you to hang them with their working side down so as not to take your (or someone else’s) head off if they should fall during removal. It only took me one time to learn that lesson…