Garden Variety: Time to clean, sharpen garden tools

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Garden tools

Shovels, rakes, pruners and other garden tools are essential for completing many of the tasks associated with gardening. Caring for them by cleaning, sharpening and applying a protectant extends the life and ensures they remain in top-notch shape for years to come. This fall, as the gardening season winds to a close, is the perfect time to give gardening tools the attention they deserve.

Cleaning is the first step for tool care. Shovels, trowels and other digging tools are usually the dirtiest and really should be cleaned after each use. Use a paint scraper or stiff brush to loosen large clumps of soil. Then, hose them off with a steady stream of water, or dip them into a bucket of water, using a brush to remove the remainder of soil.

Rakes, forks, hoes, cultivators and similar tools that have less soil contact can be cleaned the same as shovels but will likely need it less frequently. Always use a scraper or brush to remove excess soil and wash/rinse if excess soil is present or as an annual chore.

Pruners, loppers, pruning saws and other cutting tools can be scraped or brushed as needed and rinsed or wiped down occasionally. Although they rarely come into contact with soil, sap and plant tissue can build up on the blades with use. If water is ineffective at cleaning built up plant residue, try rubbing alcohol or mineral spirits to clean the blades.

Remember to clean handles (of all kinds of tools) as well as the blades or business end of the tool.

Once tools are clean and dry, consider which ones may benefit from being sharpened. Shovels, hoes, and cutting tools are the most likely candidates.

Shovels and hoes can be sharpened by running a flat file along the edge. Place the tool in a vise or otherwise secure it to hold it stationary during the process. To use the file, place the tip of it on the edge of the shovel blade at the same angle as the original bevel, and push the file away from you. Lift the file and start again, only pushing in one direction and trying to maintain the angle. You will only need to sharpen one side of the blade.

You may need to go over the same spot to achieve a clean edge, and you will likely notice that the middle is more worn than the outside edges of the tool.

If the tool is very worn and the bevel is indiscernible, build a new edge by placing the file at 45-degree angle to the edge of the blade.

Loppers and shears with large blades may also be sharpened with a flat file, if the file fits between the blades when they are open. If not, use a whetstone in the manner described for pruners.

Pruners are easiest to sharpen with a small whetstone or sharpening stone. Open the pruners and place them in a vice or hold them in one hand with the open blades facing you and the beveled edge on top. Place the whetstone at the same angle as the original bevel and push it in single-direction strokes along the blade. Again, only one side of the blade needs sharpening.

Files and whetstones are available at most hardware stores.

For saws, clean plant residues regularly. Seek a professional for sharpening or replace the blade when it becomes dull.

Clean, sharp tools are ready for some sort of conditioner or protectant. Boiled linseed oil is an excellent protectant for blades and wooden handles alike. Use a sponge brush or cloth rag to rub the linseed oil into metal tool parts and wooden handles, let oil penetrate into the material, then use a clean cloth to wipe away any excess.

Many sources recommend filling a bucket with sand, adding oil, and dipping the tools into the oily sand. This seems like more work than necessary and you should consider the potential of introducing contaminants into the soil from oily residues on your tools. Rust-preventative sprays are also often recommended but again have the potential of introducing contaminants into the garden.

Finally, hang tools or place them in a rack that keeps the business end up instead of leaning them against the wall. Hanging them or putting them in a rack helps to keep the blades sharper longer and out of contact with moisture.

— Jennifer Smith is a former horticulture extension agent for K-State Research and Extension and horticulturist for Lawrence Parks and Recreation.


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