(Author’s note: Marjorie and I are on vacation this week, traveling west through New England into New York, then south for a visit to Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, then on to East Flat Rock, North Carolina, to visit relatives. The North Carolina Arboretum in Asheville, North Carolina, is also on our schedule. Reluctant to leave my faithful readers wanting, I have brushed off the following column, one that I have rewritten three times in the past nine years yet always feel is welcomed, particularly by new readers.)
Through the garden season, our garden tools hang out in the garden, rain or shine. When not in use, garden rakes and scuffle hoes lean against spades or digging forks, each waiting its turn. A pitch fork, when not in use, resides at the back of the vegetable garden, its tines embedded in one of the the three compost piles. Wooden handles become rough and cracked, working ends stay caked with soil and composted manure.
Beginning in late October, after the last squash vines are tossed on the compost pile, I atone for summer sins by cleaning and restoring each tool before putting it away. Despite the spring and summer abuse, the following approach has kept our tools in service for years.
To clean the working end of a digging fork, shovel, trowel, rake, or hoe, first remove all soil and other debris with soap and water. A stiff wire brush and/or putty knife will help remove stubborn caked-on soil and much of the rust. Much of the remaining rust can be removed by rubbing with course steel wool. Finally, give the tool head a thorough wiping down with a dry cloth.
When all of the dirt and rust that can be removed has been dealt with, coat the metal parts with a light oil to prevent further rust formation. Many gardeners apply this oil by rubbing the metal with an “oil sock”, an old sock filled with sand and soaked in fresh engine oil, then squeezed out and stored in a zip-lock bag when not in use. Other gardeners prefer to use a large pot or wooden box filled with oil-saturated sand (again, fresh engine oil). The cleaned tools are coated with oil by plunging their heads into the sand. Some gardeners store their digging tools through winter with the metal ends buried in the sand. Either way, the oil-soaked sand will last “forever” if you use it only for clean tools.
Don’t forget to recondition the handles of your tools. If a handle is loose, tighten the essential screws and bolts. More than once I have had to replace a screw or nut lost in the garden – scuffle hoes are particularly needy in this way.
If the handle is broken, replace it. Handles can be purchased at most hardware stores, but you may have to reshape the replacement handle to fit your tool’s head. This can be done with a wood rasp or sanding machine.
Clean each handle with a stiff brush, then sand away nicks and splinters with medium-grade sandpaper. Finally, slowly rub the handle with a rag soaked in boiled linseed oil. Repeat the application several times, allowing time for the oil to be absorbed into the wood between applications.
When it comes to cleaning and sharpening pruners and loppers, I defer to Marjorie’s time-tested methods; she has never had to replace a blade on her pruning tools. To keep them clean, she regularly wipes the blades with rubbing alcohol, a solvent that will dissolve pitch while removing rust.
For sharpening a bypass pruner, the type that cuts like a pair of scissors, you should sharpen only the side of the cutting blade with a beveled edge. For an anvil pruner, the type with a cutting blade that strikes an anvil-like surface, both sides of the cutting blade should be sharpened. For either type, sharpening is done by holding the open pruner firmly in hand and slowly passing the sharpening stone across the blade, following the contour of the blade as if your were removing a thin layer of metal from the blade surface.
Marjorie recommends sharpening with a DiaSharp Diamond Mini-Hone Kit, available from on-line retailers. The kit contains three stones in extra fine, fine, and course grits and can be purchased from any of several on-line retailers.
Clean and sharpen your pruning tools at the end of the year. Before putting them away, oil the moving parts of each tool with 3-in-1 Multi-purpose Oil.
If, like me, you often work the soil with a digging fork, you have probably experienced the frustration of bending one of the tines on a buried root or rock. To straighten the bent tine, often first noticed when cleaning and putting the fork away for the winter, I use a long galvanized one-inch pipe driven into the ground with about 12 inches left above ground. Sticking the bent tine into the end of the pipe, I can usually straighten it as good as new, or nearly so. This works well for pitch forks, too.
With freezing temperatures imminent, be sure to keep your garden hoses drained when not in use; there is nothing more frustrating that trying to use a hose filled with ice. When you no longer need hoses in the garden, let them drain completely, then coil them for storage in the garage or basement. If you have several hoses scattered about the garden, you may want to label each one by location.
In May, when you take your favorite digging tool down and feel the smoothness of its handle in your palm for the first time in months, the time invested in cleaning and sharpening your tools will be rewarded.