The leaves fall, the plants wither, and the earth prepares for its winter’s rest. By this point in time, most gardeners will have all the planting done, perhaps save for a few last minute spring-flowering bulbs. While most gardeners go on hiatus (or at least a big slow-down) during the winter months, it is important to remember that your garden tools are also taking a hiatus.
Think of your garden tools as an investment. You want to do everything you can to take care of them.
First things first, it is important to remove any caked-on dirt or debris from tools. Particulate matter stuck on a tool can attract moisture, leading to rust spots, which will eventually weaken or damage the tool. You also have to be concerned about the spread of diseases from soil-borne pathogens and diseased plant debris.
To remove dirt and debris, use a dry brush to scrub the tool, then wipe clean with a dry cloth. For tougher dirt, you may need to use a damp brush and cloth. Many sources recommend against cleaning with water, since it may be hard to get the tool dry for storage. If you do need to clean with water, be sure to get all parts of the tool dry before you proceed. If rust is present, use a wire brush, sandpaper or steel wool to remove it.
You can use mineral oil, or even a vegetable oil to provide a protective layer to keep moisture away from metal surfaces. You can use an oiled cloth to apply the oil to the surfaces.
While you are at it, don’t forget to oil the wooden handles of your tools. Use mineral or tung oil on the handles to keep them from drying out. Many tool handles succumb to drying out, resulting in cracking and breaking.
Some gardeners will do the cleaning and oiling of tools in one step by keeping an oiled sand bucket handy. To do this, just fill a bucket full of clean, dry sand, and saturate it with mineral or vegetable oil. To clean and oil your shovels, spades, etc. just shove the tool in and out of the bucket a few times. The bucket can be stored out of the way and last for many years.
Another task to think about while you are taking care of your tools is sharpening blades.
There are the blades that you often think about — pruners, axes, hatchets and those that you don’t — shovels.
Most people don’t think of shovels as a sharpened blade, but many are. Sharpening your shovel can make it much easier to use. Just be careful, because it can make it much easier to remove toes, as well.
To sharpen a tool, I would suggest a flat hand file, or mill file, will work best. Leave the power tools, such as hand sharpeners and rotary tools to the professionals, as you can create uneven surfaces very easily. You could also use a whet stone for cutting tools.
Axes and hatchets should be sharpened to a point of about 35 to 40 degrees. Shovels should be sharpened to a bevel of 40 to 75 degrees. Be sure to keep with the angle the tool came with for best effect.
Most people regard their pruners, especially if they are high-end ones, with the same regard many quilters regard their scissors (as the child of a quilter, I can vouch for the fact that quilting scissors should never be used to cut paper, or popsicles). I have a sharpening tool much like one used for knives or scissors for my pruners. I would suggest against using a file, whet stone, or power tool to do the job. If you are really worried about ruining your good pruners, many local hardware stores offer pruner sharpening services for a nominal fee.
Remember to oil pruner blades to prevent rust, as well as apply a lubricant such as WD-40 to the joint to keep them moving freely.
After your tools are clean and oiled, store them in a cool, dry place off of the ground or floor.