Now’s the Time to Get Your Garden Tools Ready for Spring
Raking leaves and cleaning out the garden are part of most gardeners’ fall routine. Fall is also a good time for tool cleaning and maintenance, and with a little advance organization, it doesn’t have to take a lot of time. Next spring you’ll be glad to find your tools in good condition and ready for another season!
To summarize, these are the materials you may need for fall tool cleaning and maintenance,
A five-gallon plastic pail if you plan to dip tools in soapy water or in 10% bleach solution
Rubber gloves to protect your hands
One or more disinfecting solutions
Read on to learn why!
Why it’s important to clean garden tools
Cleaning and other maintenance such as removing rust, oiling steel and wood, and sharpening blades can help extend the life of your garden tools and make them easier to use. Going one step further and disinfecting tools, especially after working with a diseased plant, can help reduce the spread of viruses, bacteria and fungi between plants. In other words, using disinfected tools can help keep your plants healthy and productive.
How to clean and disinfect garden tools
It’s important to clean tools before disinfecting them. First, remove dirt and sticky sap with a hard blast of water or by soaking the tool in a pail of soapy water, then scrub the tool with a stiff brush or wipe down with a clean rag. Next, apply an appropriate disinfectant, always following package safety instructions (see below). Let the tool dry completely, then remove any rust with steel wool and apply linseed oil using a clean rag. Sand rough wooden handles and rub smooth with linseed oil.
Choose the right disinfectant for your tools
10% bleach solution (mix 1 part bleach to 9 parts water) A 10% bleach solution can be used for shovels, spades, rakes, stakes, tomato cages and simple trellises; a bleach solution is not recommended for tools that require a smooth edge, like pruners, as the bleach can create pits and nicks in the metal. You can dip tools in a bucket filled with 10% bleach solution for one minute, or spray tools and wait one minute before wiping the solution off. When you dispose of leftover bleach solution, pour it down the sink and not into the garden, grass or street. Never combine bleach with anything other than water or laundry detergent.
70% or higher concentration rubbing alcohol (isopropyl alcohol) Concentrated rubbing alcohol can be used to disinfect pruners and other small hand tools, without the risk of causing pits and nicks in the steel. Dip, wipe or spray tools with the alcohol.
Off-the-shelf solution with 0.1% alkyl dimethyl benzyl ammonium active ingredient (one example is Lysol® All-Purpose Cleaner) This disinfecting solution can work well for hard-to-reach areas, like the tines on a rake, and for small tools like shears, pruners, loppers and trowels. Dip or spray tools with the solution.
Keep your tools sharp
Sharp blades make cutting and digging faster and easier, with less stress on your joints. Fall is a good time to sharpen your tools, especially if you’re already doing other tool maintenance or if you expect to do some winter or early spring pruning. Many hardware stores and garden centers sharpen garden tools for a fee (expect to drop the tool off and pick it up another day). You can also do it yourself. For more information on sharpening digging and cutting tools at home, check out this video and these written instructions.
Store garden tools properly
Did you know that storing a shovel blade-down on a concrete garage floor can cause the blade to rust? Leaving tools outdoors also causes them to rust and age prematurely. Find places to hang tools indoors so the blades and handles don’t come into contact with moisture.
Clean and disinfect gardening tools and containers, University of Minnesota Extension
Proper Cleaning & Storage of Garden Tools, University of Wisconsin Extension
Tool Care, Colorado State University Extension
How to Clean and Sharpen Garden Tools, Kansas State University Extension
About the Author
Ellen Tveit is a traveler and urban gardener. She has been with the Ramsey Country Master Gardener Volunteer Program since 2021.