How to keep garden tools in top shape

Remember the three S’s of tool maintenance: scrub, sharpen and sanitize.|

Advice to Grow By: Sonoma County Master Gardeners

Question: What should I do to keep my garden tools in good working order and prepare them for the spring?

Answer: Winter is a great time of the year to give your garden tools some tender loving care. Garden chores have wound down and the holidays have passed, giving you time to inspect, clean, protect, repair and properly store your garden tools so they are ready to use in the spring, when you’ll be anxious to work in the garden again.

Chefs consistently maintain and sharpen their knives to work more quickly, cut more cleanly, prevent injury to hands and fingers and to last longer. The same is true for garden tools.

Sharp garden tools make better cuts on foliage, which allows the plant tissue to heal properly. Smoother cuts on foliage mean less torque on your hands, wrists and arms. Clean tools help to prevent the transmission of plant diseases. Maintained tools will last longer and are safer to use when they operate easily. Good maintenance protects your investment in your tools.

Remember the 3 S’s

The three S’s of maintaining garden tools are scrub, sharpen and sanitize, then lubricate. As you perform these steps, check for missing or broken parts, check the attachment points of tool heads and tighten if they are loose. Be careful not to over-tighten or you might crack the tool head. Inspect the handles to ensure they are secure and splinter free.

Scrub: Hand tools such as weeders, pruning shears, spades, rakes and saws should first be thoroughly scrubbed of grit and debris, then dried. Scrub with soap, water and a gentle scrubbing pad.

Sharpen: To sharpen flat blades, use a flat-edge file, a sharpening stone or a flat mill bastard file. Using a vise to hold the tool will make the sharpening easier and safer. Take tools with serrated edges, such as a pruning saw, to a professional for sharpening.

Sanitize: To sanitize, use alcohol wipes or a disinfectant spray. The active ingredients in Lysol, for instance, are less corrosive to metal than a bleach solution.

Lubricate: Lubricate any blades or metal parts with a nontoxic oil to protect them from rust. You can oil smaller hand tools by using an “oil sock.” Stuff a sock with sand or wadded rags. Tie a knot, and apply vegetable oil. Vegetable oil is less toxic to the garden than a crude oil. Rub the sock along your tool to apply the oil. Store the sock in a zip-lock plastic bag.

Finally, inspect wood handles and replace them if they are broken or cracked. To condition wood handles and prevent cracking on tools like spades, forks and picks, lightly sand them with medium-grit sandpaper and use a drying oil like boiled linseed oil. For a thorough treatment, apply it liberally, allow it to sit 15 minutes and wipe off the excess with a dry cloth. Carefully read and follow the directions for using linseed oil, as used rags can combust if stored or disposed of incorrectly. Wear gloves to protect your hands. Nitrile-coated gloves provide great defense against oils and can be hand-washed or tossed in the washer and line-dried.

Store your tools in a dry, covered area and preferably hang your tools to protect the sharp blades. It’s important to keep your tools as dry as possible, so don’t let them touch the ground, where they could get wet and develop rust. Ideally, your storage will be a solid, roomy dry shed or garage.

Power tool tips

Tools that have engines such as gas trimmers, chain saws and mowers take more time to winterize.

Start by cleaning the tool of dirt and dust. Drain the fuel, then idle the tool for a short time to ensure the tank is dry. Drain the used engine oil and fill with fresh oil so the engine does not remain dry for the winter. Dispose fuel and oil according to local ordinances.

Unscrew spark plugs, clean out any soot and put them back in place so debris doesn’t enter the combustion chamber. Check all filters and replace them if needed. Ideally, store the tool hanging on a wall or sturdy shelf.

If your tools are electric, remove the battery, clean the terminals with a baking soda paste and brush and recharge the battery.

This is also a good time to check your garden hoses for leaks and check couplings, which may need new washers. Your wheelbarrow may need air in the tires, new handles or both.

Now that your tools have been maintained, you can look forward to getting a jump start on your spring garden with like-new tools.

Gardening and tool care information can be found in the Garden Tips section of the Sonoma County Master Gardener website,

Contributors to this week’s column were Fay Mark, Tim Coyne and Rob Williams. The UC Master Gardener Program of Sonoma County,, provides environmentally sustainable, science-based horticultural information to Sonoma County home gardeners. Send your gardening questions to You will receive answers to your questions either in this newspaper or from our Information Desk. You can contact the Information Desk directly at 707-565-2608 or

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