The Cutting Edge: Getting tools ready for the season

Allyn Walsh – Halton Master Gardeners

At this time of year, we are all getting busy in our gardens: the blooms, the pollinators, the scents and the sounds. Few of us consider the tools in our sheds and basement until we suddenly need to use them. However, for the healthiest garden as well as the most beautiful, it’s never too late to take stock of our tools and ensure they are ready for the hard use they’ll receive.

Image: kryzhov / Shutterstock.

Shine ‘em up!

Well, perhaps that is an exaggeration. Certainly the shininess is long gone from my secateurs, spades, and hoes. In an ideal world, we all would have attended to regular tool cleaning, particularly when storing them in the fall. If that’s the case for you, then just give the tools a quick wipe with disinfectant this spring. For those of us who last used our tools on a damp fall day and then left them on the shelf for the winter, there is likely more than a hint of dried soil and garden debris stuck to the blades. Begin by getting out the hose, along with a scrub brush (wire ones are great). Clean and scrub until there’s no sign of debris before disinfecting them.


It is important to use a disinfectant solution. It will eliminate pathogens clinging to tools thus avoiding spreading disease from one plant to another. At the time of writing, disinfectant solutions  were hard to come by, including the commonly recommended isopropyl alcohol as well as disinfectant prepared wipes or sprays such as Lysol. The advantage of a 70% alcohol solution is that the solution is stable and doesn’t corrode metal tools. It can be wiped on with a clean cloth. Soaking is not required. Listerine is an alternative disinfectant. During this pandemic emergency, most of us may only be able to access household bleach. Do NOT use at full strength. Preparing a batch of 1 part bleach to 9 parts water is easy and inexpensive (NOTE: this solution is considerably stronger than the formula we have been using to disinfect our houses during the COVID emergency). Unfortunately bleach can cause corrosion and tools must be well rinsed after a 30-minute soak. This solution also degrades rapidly and can’t be stored for future use. A new batch must be made each time it is needed.

Lookin’ sharp

At minimum, tools need to be sharpened at the start of every season. Dull blades and badly mended tools may allow disease entry and damage both plants and gardener! The ease of using sharp tools compared to those which have been allowed to become dull is nothing short of astounding.  Many gardeners are intimidated when it comes to sharpening tools and are concerned they may do more harm than good. In fact it is quite easy, as many online videos demonstrate. A metal file or sharpening stone slid along the edges of the blade angled according to the bevel will quickly sharpen the cutting edge. It is possible to purchase sharpening tools designed to make this job even easier and there are usually videos to accompany them. Examples include the AccuShap Garden Sharp tool and Speedy Sharp. Generally, shovels, spades and hoes benefit from sharpening using a hand file. Most of us have appropriate files or whetstone lurking in the workshop already.

Instructional Videos

  • How to sharpen tools – This video shows how easy tool sharpening is:
  • Restoring garden shears – This one demonstrates how to easily restore a pair of garden shears which are in even worse shape than the pair I inherited from my father. Maybe I’ll give it a try after all.

Maintain, maintain, maintain

Make the regular cleaning and disinfecting easy and convenient, and you are much more likely to do it after each use. The garden hose is a standby for rinsing tools after using, but also keep a clean rag and brush near to hand to facilitate thorough cleaning and prevent rust. A spray bottle of disinfectant will ease a quick wipe down after each use. A look at the internet demonstrates that there are diverse opinions about how to keep garden tools oiled. One method that is accepted by many gardeners is to keep a bucket of coarse builder’s sand with 400-500 ml of vegetable oil mixed in, near your tool storage area. Each time you’re finished with the tool, plunge the blade in 4 or 5 times. This not only cleans the blade of debris but leaves a coating of oil as a protective layer, preventing rust. Silicone spray is also suggested.  Household oil in small amounts can be dropped into the mechanism of secateurs or shears. Wooden handles can benefit from beeswax or linseed oil. When tool parts start to become lose, tighten them before damage occurs, either to the tool – or to the user.  Finally, store tools safely and appropriately. They should be put away clean and dry, to prevent rusting and hung up to avoid damage.

Further reading

Tool maintenance review from Fine Gardening

Excellent review from U. Wisconsin

Laidback Gardener – Sand and Oil for Garden Tools

Cover Image: HOervin56

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