BY ANN M. EVANS
Organized gardeners know that winter is the time to clean, sterilize, oil, sharpen and restore your hand-powered garden tools so they will be ready for use come spring. Sharp tools make the job easier, clean tools reduce disease infestation and proper storage increases longevity. If you yearn to be more organized come springtime, read on.
I keep a five-gallon bucket filled with coarse sand by the door inside the shed. I dip shovels and spades in the sand throughout the year to remove clods of dirt. Even so, by January, the shed is a mess and my tools need care.
After clearing and out and cleaning the shed so I can see what I have, I put back whatever is useful for next year, minus the tools. I recommend cleaning the long-handled tools first. If they are really dirty, wash them in water and rub them dry with a chamois. Scrub down any rough parts on the metal with steel wool and use a cloth dipped in vegetable oil to further clean the metal. Sand the tool handle with medium-grade sandpaper. Then, with a cloth, rub boiled linseed oil into the exposed wood grain.
Remove this rag from the tool shed when you are finished, as it may combust. Spread the rag out to dry on concrete. Once it is completely dry, throw it away.
To sharpen shovels and hoes, use an eight- or 10-inch mill file to file from the side that maintains the most contact with the ground. On the shovel, that is the backside. File toward the front side. As you face the hoe, file from the backside toward you. Store the sharpened tools back in the shed.
Short-handled tools—saws, pruners, loppers and trowels—also get cleaned, but not in water. Use a rag dipped in vegetable oil. If there is a bit of rust that won't clean off, use steel wool or 250 grit sandpaper or, failing that, naval jelly, a rust dissolver which can be purchased at a hardware store. Rub it on the rusted iron or steel part, let it sit for 5-10 minutes, then wipe off the naval jelly with a cloth.
I sharpen bladed tools inside at the kitchen table covered with newspaper. To sharpen the blades, use files, whetstones or a carbide blade. Wear protective eyewear and gloves. Always sharpen a tool with motions away from yourself. If sap is present on blades, start with a spray disinfectant foaming bathroom cleaner product, and then scrape off any material with a paint scraper or sharp chisel.
To get into the tight areas on hand-held pruners, use a 4-inch Diafold® diamond flat file. Working at a 20° to 25° angle, apply light, even strokes, going from the tip to the base on the forward stroke with even pressure. The blade will gradually become shiny. For hand-held pruners and loppers, sharpen one blade only; this is called the bevel. When sharp, put some "3-in-1" oil on the hinge of the pruner and work it into the tool.
After cleaning, put the short-handled tools back in the shed, or a place where they will stay dry and rust free throughout the winter. I hang my long-handled tools and loppers on nails. Small trowels go together in a box with the dibbers. Hand pruners go together with knives and small pruning saws.
When the garden shed and tools are clean, I pore over my old Smith & Hawken tome, The Tool Book, by William Bryant Logan (Workman Publishing, 1997.) The text and illustrations of every kind of garden tool intrigue me and often inspire me to select a new tool for the coming year. The book has a small section on cleaning tools, as do most University Extension Master Gardener program publications. Ask your local garden center if they offer tool and knife sharpening as a paid service if you don't want to do this yourself— though proper care and storage of tools is a satisfying winter weekend activity.