If you take your gardening seriously, you probably don't cut corners when buying hand tools, such a shovels, hoes and pruning tools. That's good, because quality tools can last years longer than run-of-the-mill ones, but only if you maintain them properly. Maintaining your tools also keeps them free of harmful organisms, and that's good for all the plants in your garden, too.
After Each Use
Daily maintenance keeps your tools clean and ready for each use.
Remove all the soil from your digging tools before you put them away -- you can usually do this by spraying them with a hose, but if you have to knock off heavy dirt and clay, do it with a screwdriver or a wooden stake. Dry the digging blade with a cloth -- never put it away wet -- and rub on a thin coat of mineral or motor oil to prevent rust.
Fill a 5-gallon bucket with sand and pour in a quart of motor oil. After washing most of the dirt off your shovel, push it up and down in the sand to clean and lubricate the blade at the same time. The sand even sharpens the blade a little.
Wash the cutting blades with soap and water to remove all plant material, and rub off resin and sap with a solvent that dissolves them -- preferably a 70 percent or higher concentration of isopropyl alcohol. Alcohol also disinfects the cutting blades; if you don't have any, use a household product that contains alcohol, such as mouthwash or disinfectant cleaner. You can also use chlorine bleach. Wipe the blades dry and oil them, then put a drop of penetrating oil on the nut that joins them to keep your shears or trimmers working smoothly.
Even if you perform regular maintenance on your garden tools, rust can still develop, particularly in humid conditions. The most effective way to control it is to physically remove it with sandpaper, steel wool or a wire brush. If you find a severely rusted tool in the back of your shed, immerse it in vinegar or lemon juice or rub it with a potato to help loosen rust. You can even do the job by brewing a pot of strong black tea.
Sharpening Your Tools
It's important to sharpen all your garden tools -- not just those you use for pruning. A sharp blade on your hoe or shovel improves its digging ability, which means less energy expenditure on your part. The number of times you sharpen the blades of a tool depends on how often you use it -- with regular usage, once every month or so is a good average.
Shovels and Hoes
Because you don't need to hone a knife edge on your digging tools, you can do the job with a 10-inch mill file, which is readily available at hardware stores. After cleaning the blade and removing rust, stroke the file along the bevel on the top of the blade to remove pits and gouges and generally clean the cutting edge. Turn the blade over and do the other side if it has a double bevel. Finish off by deburring and smoothing the edge and oiling the blade.
Pruning Tools and Axes
Cutting tools need sharper blades, and a file may be too coarse for homing them; many gardeners use a sharpening stone instead. You'll get the best results if you secure the blade in a vise after first disassembling the tool -- if possible. Wear gloves to protect your hands and draw or rub the stone along the blade bevel. Don't overdo it; it probably won't take many more than 10 passes to restore the edge. Oil the blade and lubricate the tool when you're done.