How to clean and sharpen your garden tools for growing season

May 8, 2024

And Why I Still Can’t Put Garden Tools Away Dirty!

This is not just my advice. I thought about how people in our family keep their, valuable garden tools ready to work. (We are the second generation to use some of these tools.) What I wanted to do was investigate, for your edification and perhaps amusement, and learn what other gardeners do to keep the tools in working order. Immediately I found a guy using third-generation tools! Are you using any ancestral garden tools?

Why did I want to do this? Well, I just updated a big piece on preparing to plant in springtime. “Discover The 7 Steps To Your Perfect Spring Garden.” This made me want to articulate more on extending the life of our tools. The major reason, however, had to do with my upbringing.

My maternal grandfather was a farmer in the true New England Yankee tradition. He embodied everything you expect. High energy, diligent, thrifty, and attuned to the natural world. We learned more about life in the forest, going out with him and his coon hounds than anywhere else! I learned to listen for wildlife and for that subtle, almost taciturn humor where you worked for the joke.

On our farm, I loved my horses. One day after riding for hours, grooming, cleaning, and feeding (a great effort in my own mind) I hung up the forks and shovels with whisps of straw and debris on them.

Granddad entered the barn, where he would give the horses some carrots and admire our work. He looked around the polished stable and walked out saying this.

“It is a poor farmer who puts his tools away dirty”

Now today I let a lot of things slip that I should not. But I never forgot that, and I cannot go back to the house with unwashed tools!

Care For Your Tools

How We Do It

I keep them clean, but my husband does the sharpening and developed the method for steriliizing the sharp end of tools.

Sterilizing The Blades

Lots of things can fly into the garden; diseases can spread and kill your plants. But, killing them yourself with dirty cutting tools is both dumb and avoidable.

Sterilize the blades between every use. (We don’t do it for every plant, but certainly every day).

Pete’s Favorite Formula

The active ingredient is TSP (trisodium phosphate) or rubbing alcohol. He mixes up a batch in a jar which makes it easy to clean every tool every day. Ensuring regular care means making the job simple. By the time you put the tools away for the day you are tired-don’t make it hard!

Bleach in water solution is very effective, cheap, and always available. Here is the problem, Bleach reacts to compounds in steel and can blacken steel tools.

Sharpening The tools

For big tools he uses a power grinder. For small tools, a sharpening tool.

What Other Gardeners Do

Techniques and materials vary widely. People swear by special soap mixes and specific sharpening tools. The basics have a lot in common, however. Here it goes.

The garden website “The Impatient Gardener” has a very specific list of steps for tool care. Blogging since 2009 and working in chilly zone 5 Southeastern Wisconsin, she shows with text and photos her methods. Here is how to read her report.

One valuable point that Erin makes; like many gardeners she cleans and preserves the wooden tool handles with boiled linseed oil, using oil-soaked rags as everyone does. She carefully points out that the stored rags are highly flammable. She suggests storing the reusable rags in a closed paint can. A good idea. Read her post, I found It helpful.

Then I watched one of the great videos by Laura at Garden Answers. She emphasizes that late fall, the end of the season is the time to prepare the tools for next year. So right! and as a washing material, she uses a wire brush and scrubbing bubbles. I use water and bleach, but her idea is less damaging, more convenient, and should work! I am going to try that.

Then I watched a video made by Pittsburg gardener, Doug Oster, at DougOster.com. He is the guy still using tools purchased by his granddad in the 1930s! So far the champion. His you-tube videos discuss cleaning and sharpening tools. He can also take you on an international garden tour, and teach you how to plant a Pittsburg Steelers garden in black and yellow! This won’t help me in the ‘Bucks’ backyard but you might use it.

Sharpening Tools With Only A File

If you do not use power tools and want to care for your tools yourself you might like to read this. This article is from Popular Mechanics and shows you how to sharpen a wide variety of garden tools with only a handheld file.