A 4-Step Guide to Caring for Your Handheld Garden Tools
Keeping pruners, weeders, shears, loppers, shovels, and all your other garden tools clean may feel like an unnecessary task, since you use them to dig in the dirt. But if you follow a few simple steps to restore each tool, you can extend the longevity of the piece and improve the long-term health of your garden.
"Generally, because you're dealing with living things, you want to keep the tools clean to minimize disease issues," says Steve Piskor, a master gardener at Penn State Extension. "The biggest part about keeping a tool clean is minimizing contamination to living organisms, whether it's a tree, a shrub, a perennial, the ground, or the microbes in the soil."
1. Clean and dry your garden tools.
While you don't have to clean every tool after each use, you should clear them of dirt and debris on a regular basis to minimize the transfer of bacteria or rust, which can impair your plants' health. Piskor recommends using Lava soap ($5.69, amazon.com) to clean your pieces. "The pumice in the soap does a really nice job of cleaning, though Dawn ($4.99, target.com) or another liquid detergent will also do the job," he says.
Apply the detergent with a soft or medium bristle scrub brush for extra grit. "When you're done cleaning your tools, make sure to dry them thoroughly," Piskor says. Tools made of carbon steel (like many pruners) can rust when exposed to moisture for too long.
2. Sharpen each piece.
It's important to keep your essential tools sharp so that they're easier and safer to use. Do so and you'll find that your cuts are smoother, resulting in less pressure on your arms, hands, and wrists. "When you're cutting living tissue such as branches, sharp tools also give a very clean cut and allow the branches to heal quickly," Piskor says.
Depending on the tool, you'll need different sharpening equipment: a hand-held file, rasp, or a honing stone, which work on shears, shovels, and more, are all useful options to have. You'll know when to sharpen a tool if the metal has folded back or it or if it's not cutting well. Tools with serrated edges, such as pruning saws, should be maintained by a professional.
3. Apply oil.
"Oil all parts of the tool, especially the metal components," says Piskor. "Put a light coat of oil on any part of the tool that moves." Be sure to oil the ratchets and pins that allow blades to open and any exposed crevices.
4. Keep your tools disinfected.
Using the same tools on multiple branches without disinfecting them can spread disease from unhealthy plants to healthy ones, but Piskor warns against using often-recommended bleaches to during the sanitization process.
"That's a no-no," he says. "Bleach is very hard on metal and if it stays on the tool, it will cause the tool's metal to rust very quickly." Instead, he recommends rubbing alcohol or disinfecting wipes—they make for quick cleanup and are handy to remove sap, bacteria, and fungus.