It's natural for garden tools to get dirty they're made for it, in the short term. But they're not made for staying dirty! Keeping your tools clean and well maintained will lengthen their lives, providing you with many years of excellent service.
Try to get in the habit of cleaning your tools after each use, before you put them away. You'll reap a big payoff for this few minutes of effort. Even a minimal cleaning will help. Scrape off all soil from shovels, spades, and hoes. Remove leaves and debris from rakes. The easiest way to clean your tools is with the garden hose if you take time to dry them off afterwards. Spray the tools with a forceful stream of water, using a stiff brush to remove stubborn dirt. But, like a good horse, don't put them away wet. Thoroughly dry the tools before hanging them up. Note the word hanging. Don't leave tools lying on the ground or on the floor of the garage or shed. Hang them away from moisture and keep them off the concrete floor.
It's a common recommendation to use linseed oil as a preservative for the wood handles on tools. While linseed oil does help to preserve the wood, if you use it be sure to dispose of linseed oil soaked rags or paper towels safely. Linseed oil and other flammable oils, stains, and solvents produce heat as they dry and may cause rags to spontaneously combust, igniting a fire. If you decide to use linseed oil on your tools, DO NOT pile oily rags on top of each other. Immediately after use, spread oil-impregnated rags and towels out flat on an outdoor, non-flammable surface, such as a driveway, or hang on an outdoor clothesline until they are completely dry. Once dry, dispose of materials at a hazardous waste collection site. For more advice on safe disposal procedures, contact your state or local Fire Marshal.
For pruning tools, regularly remove the sap and other materials that stick to the tools. Warm water and dish detergent frequently work well. For stubborn stuff, turpentine or a solvent like nail polish remover might be needed. A nail brush or scouring pad will provide extra muscle for removing unwanted substances. If you've let any rust accumulate on your tools a little vinegar and steel wool can help remove the crust and restore the newness. As with the other tools, dry the pruning tools thoroughly after washing. Add a drop or two of a penetrating lubricant designed for pruning tools to the pivot point of the tool after drying.
Keeping tools sharp is another way to extend their useful lives. For shovels and hoes, maintain the original bevel of the cutting edge using a ten inch flat mill file. A few strokes after several uses will keep the edge in good shape. For pruning tools, a whetstone or a carbide sharpener that you'd use for knives and scissors will do the trick. Some pruner manufacturers also make sharpening devices especially designed for their tools.
With proper maintenance, your tools may not only last many years; the care may allow them to be handed down to your kids or grandkids. I have a pruning shears that still work as well as they did when they were given to me over 50 years ago and a couple of wooden handled shovels that I have used for over 30 years that are still growing strong. Perhaps they'll be helping a new generation of gardeners care for their plants decades from now!
Steve Trusty has a degree in horticulture from Iowa State University. He has been helping gardeners receive more enjoyment from their lawns and gardens for years through radio, TV, books, magazines and websites.