How To Clean And Disinfect Your Garden Tools For Healthier Plants

January 27, 2024

Reducing Fungi, Virus And Bacteria In Your Plants

Here is how to avoid a self-induced failure in the garden, spreading disease to your plants through your own tools!

There is no bigger disappointment in the garden than having a disease destroy a valued plant; unless it is when we discover it was due to our own error.

Here are simple ways to clean and disinfect your garden tools and planters to avoid spreading diseases among your plants. There are also specific gardening tasks to perform with special care because they bear risks.

How We Can Spread Plant Diseases Ourselves

trowel with soil on it

Plant pathogens, such as viruses, fungi, and bacteria, will cause diseases that can kill our valuable plants. It is easy to do. Little bits of soil on a shovel, or sap on a cutting blade can transfer disease from one plant to another.

Damaging your plants can be that simple!

The solution is basic good house cleaning, you don’t need special skills and there are no Latin words involved. These are the steps to do regularly.

  • Clean tools, pots, and planters to remove, soil, foliage, and sap.
  • Disinfect them with your choice of the following cleaners, each one has its pros and cons.
  • Be consistent with the process.

When To Clean And Disinfect Your Garden Tools

  • Clean and disinfect tools at the season’s end or when you store individual tools.
  • Always clean and disinfect after working with damaged plants.
  • Use only disinfected tools on rare, valuable plants and plants susceptible to disease.
  • Clean and disinfect when taking tools from one garden to another.
  • Always clean tools before putting them away for the day.
  • During major pruning projects.
  • When taking cuttings or other forms of propagation.

Cleaning Garden Tools

Clean your items before putting them away or disinfecting them. Everyone develops a personal procedure; we like to use a strong spray from the garden hose. Wipe them dry and use steel wool or a wire brush to remove rust. You can finish by oiling them with materials like tung oil, linseed oil, or mineral oil that will not damage plants. This is particularly effective if the tools will be stored seasonally.

Why? Any dirt or organic material on the plants will reduce the effectiveness of disinfection. What to use? There are many favorite disinfecting solutions, each one has pros and cons. I have shown the most common below.

Remember when you read this, that most of the research on disinfecting tools and materials has been done for the benefit of large-scale agriculture. Our needs are simpler, for example, the greenhouse industry has a hand-washing protocol. When our fingernails are dirty and our needs are muddy we don’t see things the same way, but we face the same problems on a lesser scale.

When working with plant material that has a known threatening disease such as hosta virus X, HVX, wash your hands and consider disposable gloves.

Rust Removal

In addition to using steel wool and a brush, I found the following recommendations:

Make a paste of baking soda and water, paint it on the affected areas, let it sit, scrub off with a brush, rinse, and dry.

Home Depot

Is Cleaning Garden Tools Enough?

Wash garden tools with a strong spray of water

The tools look well-washed and shiny, but it’s not enough if you aim to protect your plants from transmissible diseases. It’s just a good start.

Our tools, by definition, move from plant to plant in the garden, if diseases are present our tools will meet them. It’s a two-step process, clean then disinfect.

Disinfecting Garden Tools

Once the tools are cleaned, disinfect them to reduce the chance of accidentally spreading pathogens that can spread fatal diseases among your garden plants. Plant pathogens are microscopic, your clean tools will look ready to go but the dangerous microorganisms may still be on your blade and ready to perform.

What To Clean

Cutting blades, shovels, and related tools are obvious but do not forget work surfaces, planters, and supports like tomato cages.

Clean the tools by spraying, dipping, or dousing the tool surface in the disinfectant you choose using the list below.

How To Use Disinfectants

  • Is the product a disinfectant? Read the labels to ensure the product can eliminate germs.
  • Use the label to understand what the product can kill, fungi, bacteria, and viruses.
  • Follow the instructions for the length of time to soak your items. Don’t wipe the material off unless the instructions say to.
  • Use gloves, the products may cause skin irritation.
  • Do not mix chemicals, especially bleach and hydrogen peroxide.
  • Store the chemicals in a cool and dry place, cover them tightly, and discard them after their expiration date.
  • Always work in a well-ventilated place.

Disinfecting Products

These are a variety of liquid disinfecting products, if the surface of your tool is rough in places, keep the disinfectant on longer. The decision on products to use has to do with comparing these issues:

  • How effective the product is
  • How convenient it is to use
  • What it costs, you will use a good bit.
  • Related problems, damage from accidental spillage, disposal, etc.

(Phytotoxic is damaging to plants)

The Choices Of Disinfecting Products

Household Disinfectants

Disinfecting with household disinfectants

Disinfect with Common Household Disinfectants

Chlorine Bleach

Disinfecting with Chlorine Bleach

Disinfect With Chlorine Bleach

Isopropyl Alchohol

Disinfect garden tools with isopropyl alcohol

Disinfect With Isopropyl alcohol

Trisodium Phosphate

Disinfect garden tools with Trisodium phosphate

Disinfecting With TSP

Disinfect garden tools with Pine oil products

Disinfect With Pine Oil Products

Hydrogen Peroxide

disinfect with hydrogen peroxide

Disinfect With Hydrogen Peroxide

Other Methods Of Disinfecting You May Not Have Thought Of

  • Boiling Water: place the tools in boiling water for 10 minutes. Let them cool down. This should work for metal tools and does not require throwing out anything but water.
  • Heat: bake the tools in an oven for 30 minutes at 160 degrees.
  • UV-C Light: this method can kill viruses, fungi, and bacteria quickly. You buy a special light and put your tools inside it.

Tool Storage

Store tools in a clean, dry place when not in use. Good tools should serve you for a long time.

Cleaning And Disinfecting Pots And Planters

When repotting plant material, include these steps in the process. Also, keep your recycled nursery pots ready to start new plants with the same steps.

  • Wash the emptied pots with a strong water spray to remove heavy dirt and debris.
  • Using a large tub, utility sink, or wheelbarrow, brush and soak the containers in soapy water and your choice of disinfecting solution. (See above.)
  • Turn the pots as needed and scrub.
  • Rinse completely and sun-dry.

I have long done this with inexpensive and readily available bleach, however disposal is always a challenge! If you research the process, you will notice that a 9:1 bleach solution is the most common recommendation for cleaning planters. We continue to reuse the weakened solution on concrete areas, continuing to dilute it.

If You Are Pressed For Time

In an ideal garden, you would disinfect garden tools between every cut. In our world we need to create a reasonable procedure we can all live with. With serious time constraints, I would keep a package of disinfectant wipes at hand. It is a very convenient solution.

Special Situations

Dividing Perennials

Special situations are those jobs in the garden that present greater than usual opportunities to spread disease.

Separating perennials, a necessary and beneficial task, is a prime example.

Splitting, or dividing perennial plants every few years will prevent root crowding and help the plants perform better. However, in separating the roots both the plant you are digging and its neighbors will inevitably be cut. This is a prime opportunity to spread diseases from plant to plant. Remove any dirt and sap from the tools and soak them to disinfect in the media of your choice.

This article by the Delaware Valley Hosta Society discusses separating hostas while protecting the plants from a serious virus.

This article discusses 20 varieties of perennials with different root systems and how to divide them.

Maintaining Orchids

Collection of blooming orchids

Orchid growing instructions are filled with growers’ personal views on disinfecting tools as the subject is of overwhelming importance to orchid fanciers. You will find many instructions. Here is an example.

Cleaning and disinfecting orchid tools.

Summary,

Success with keeping our garden tools and equipment safe for our plants is a combination of good husbandry and keeping tools clean along with using a method that is strong enough to disinfect the tools. If we do this on a regular basis we should be minimizing the risk of damaging our plants.

The Future Of Disinfection

Keeping clean tools for our gardens, is certainly possible but we can clearly see that the system is imperfect.

  • Chemical-based solutions can be toxic.
  • Otherwise useful procedures don’t work if we make mistakes with quantities, mixtures, and timing.
  • Disposal can be problematic.
  • Ongoing supply chain issues are making some products hard to find.
  • The cleaning industry, horticultural, medical, household, or industrial needs to find new methods.

Watch for new ideas such as UV disinfection. I don’t know when newer tools will reach the home gardener, but it will be interesting to see what will arrive.

Resources You Can Use

‘The Tools You Need If You Want to Love Gardening’

Pruning Shears, Better Homes and Gardens

University of Minnesota Extension

University of Washington

An Argument Against Bleach-I use bleach and find it superior for cleaning planters, but these arguments are true.