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Garden Guru: Treat tools to TLC for winter storage

By John Porter
John Porter
Garden tools need to be cleaned, sharpened and oiled before storing for the winter.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Many folks stow away their garden tools at the end of the season with little thought.They put away the shovels and the hoes, the rakes and the mowers, and all the others crusted with dirt and grime from the gardening season. Out of sight and out of mind, the tools sit alone, crusted in crud, waiting longingly to feel your embrace again in the spring.Then, when spring rolls around, you pull out the tools and put them straight to work with little thought for their care. They're just tools, after all.What if I told you that your tools will last much longer and work much better if you take care of them and give them a little TLC before you put them away in the fall? The end of the season is the ideal time to do it, too. I bet that when you run out to the tool shed after that first sign of spring, you are so intent on gardening that you pay little attention to the state of your tools. Go ahead, admit it. I won't judge you (well, maybe just a little).Clean, inspect, sharpenThose tools have taken care of your garden needs all season, so it's a nice turnabout to take care of your tools. It could almost be like a tool's day at the spa.The first, and actually most important, step in preparing your tools for storage is the cleanup. You'll want to remove any dirt and debris from the tools to make sure that you don't infect next year's garden with diseases or pests that happen to be hitching a ride. Dirt on tools can also hold moisture, which in turn leads to rusting. Clean hand tools with a steady spray of water from the garden hose, or wash with soapy water if necessary. Be sure to let the tools air dry or dry them with a cloth before storage.
If tools are rusty, remove the rust with a stiff-bristled wire brush or sandpaper. Rust can spread and can eat through some tools, making them weak. After cleaning and rust removal, all metal tools should be oiled to prevent rusting over the winter. A mineral oil or WD-40 works best, but vegetable oil also works.You can combine the cleaning and oiling step for small hand tools by making a cleaning bucket. To do this, fill a 5-gallon bucket nearly full with play sand and pour about a half-gallon of mineral oil or vegetable oil over the sand. The oil will soak in, and all you have to do is poke your trowels and small shovels into the sand a few times to clean and oil them. Your bucket can last for several years.If you have any tools with wooden handles, you'll want to oil those too. Here you'll want to use linseed oil. Linseed oil soaks into the wood and solidifies. It doesn't provide protection from water, but helps to keep the wood from drying out. This, in turn, keeps the handle from drying out and cracking when used.You'll also want to think about sharpening the tools you use to cut through soil. You don't usually think about it, but shovels, hoes and metal trowels are blades. Take a close look at an edge and you will see that there is actually a bevel. To make the tool easier to use, you'll want to sharpen it. Simply use a hand file to file the edge, filing in one direction to create the desired beveled edge.What about power tools?You'll want to do some of the same things for those gas-powered and electric tools as well. Clean grass off of lawn mowers, soil from tillers and debris from trimmers, shears etc. You'll also want to take the added step of draining the gasoline from your gas-powered tools and performing routine maintenance on all the moving parts and filters, and make sure everything is oiled and ready for storage.You'll also want to take a look at sharpening your lawn mower blades and tiller/cultivator tines. Sharpening lawn mower blades takes a little more precision, so you may want to take it to a service center or hardware store for that step. Also, don't forget to add a fuel stabilizer to gasoline you are storing in cans over winter.John Porter is the WVU Extension Service agent for agriculture and natural resources in Kanawha County. He may be reached at or at 304-720-9573. Twitter: @WVgardenguru.
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