University of Vermont Extension
Department of Plant and Soil Science
CLEANING GARDEN TOOLS
Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension
University of Vermont
Cleaning your garden tools regularly
after use is ideal, but at the least they should be cleaned before
away for winter. Clean tools work more
effectively, so are easier to use, and they last longer.
Keeping blades sharp improves
cutting, which is easier on you and the plants.
Keeping tools used in soil cleaned keeps their edges sharper too,
preventing rust from forming, and removes possible disease-laden
particles. Cleaning tools even more
often when working on infected plants is essential to prevent
disease spread. If pruning diseased limbs from trees, keep a
container of rubbing alcohol, bleach (one part to 9 parts water), or
disinfectant (such as Lysol) handy to dip blades in between pruning
to avoid spreading disease.
For tools such as shovels, hoes and
garden forks that are used in soil, wash them after use with a
of water from the hose. For stubborn
soils such as clay, use a wire-bristle brush or dull implement if
dry tools with a rag. For blades of saws
and pruners that end up with sticky plant sap, such as from
spruces and the like), use some paint thinner to remove the sap
with a rag.
Even after cleaning, the worn metal
can rust, even more so if higher grade steel.
To prevent this, wipe tools or spray with a very light coat of motor
oil. Some dilute this with kerosene, 2
parts oil to one of kerosene. Others
recycle their old oil from mowers for this use. You can wipe the oil
on with an
old rag or paper towel, spray it on with a hand sprayer, or make a
mix of the
soil with sand to push tools into after each use. The latter is
easy, quick, and the sand helps
provide some abrasion to remove soil in the process. The oil breaks
down rapidly in the soil, and
little is used, so you shouldn’t have any negative soil effects.
For hand tools, some use a strong
black tea. Brew up enough in a pan or
kettle to cover the tools, then let them, or blades at least, soak
for a few
hours after the tea is cooled. Rust
should wipe off easily with a rag. If
tools aren’t very dirty or rusty, a balled up handful of wax paper
surfaces may be sufficient—both cleaning and leaving some protective
If tools have gotten severely
rusted, you may need to use rough sandpaper, and even perhaps a wire
brush. For the most rusted, you may need
to use a drill with wire brush attachment.
For the latter in particular, make sure to wear safety glasses. Then
make sure to wipe and coat with oil.
Sharpen tools too, at least at the
end of the season. Best is to sharpen them regularly as used during
season. This is more important if tools
have rusted. For dull large tools such
as shovels, axes, and spades, you can use a hand file available from
or home stores. If very dull, you may
need a high speed grinding stone or drill attachment. As with
cleaning, make sure to wear eye
protection if using a high-speed grinder.
If using a grinder made for this
purpose, as some do with lawn mower blades, it is easy to get
away. If the metal heats up too much it
can lose its “temper”, meaning it won’t hold an edge well again. If
grinding, keep the metal from heating by
dipping in cold water. It should remain
cool to the touch. Improper sharpening
of mower blades can make them out of balance, which can harm the
mower motor as
it turns at high speeds.
For finer tools such as pruners and
loppers, an oil stone or honing stone is what many gardeners use. I
spend a bit more for a good quality
handfile, such as with cut diamond or carbon surface, to make the
job go much
better and more quickly.
Whatever sharpener you use, follow
any directions so they work properly. If
using a stone, slide the blade along the stone in one direction,
repeatedly until sharper. If using a file, such as
“mill file” from a hardware store, get one with a handle so you can
more easily. Draw the cutting teeth of
the blade along the edge of the tool in one direction. Keep the
file at an angle to the edge of the
tool surface you’re sharpening.
So how sharp is enough? Anything of course helps. Tools such as
shovels and hoes don’t need to
be as sharp, and pruners should be more sharp.
You can feel the sharpness with fingers (be
careful if sharp knives or pruners), or just look at the “bevel” and
angle. The bevel is the sharpened edge,
the angle is between the two edges or bevels.
Duller tools have a shorter edge or bevel, and generally wider
angle—perhaps 30 degrees between the sides or bevels. Sharper tools
have a longer bevel, and more
narrow angle between each side—perhaps 15 degrees or so.
Many tools now have plastic handles,
but if you have one with wood, treat it as well for longest life.
Rub wooden handles with a rag, slightly
moistened with linseed oil or other wood protection oil product.
Once tools are cleaned and sharpened,
store them properly in a closet, garage, or shed out of the
weather. Keeping them off the floor helps prevent any
moisture and rust, and dulling. I like
to hang mine by the handles. If straight
handles, I hang upside down with ten-penny nails used to hold the
tool itself. When buying new tools consider stainless steel
ones, if available, that are easier to keep clean.