Cleaning and Sharpening Your Garden Tools

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By William Moss

There's usually not much gardening to do in February because in many parts of the country the ground is frozen. Winter is a time for gardeners' minds to wander through seed catalogs and for their feet to meander through flower shows.

But for those of you whose hands are itching for work, there is a task you can do now that will pay big dividends in the garden later: cleaning and sharpening your tools. Tools should be cleaned regularly throughout the year, but many of us are so busy using them that we don't make time for maintenance during the gardening season. With the garden at rest, you have the chance to get tools in good working order.

There are many benefits, and the most important one is economic. Maintaining your tools will help them last many more years. Plus, if the tool looks new and shiny, you are more likely to treat it better and use it longer before buying a new one. You'll earn double green points by saving money and conserving resources.

Secondly, sharp tools help prevent disease. The blades of mowers, pruners, and shovels often cut through plant leaves, twigs, and roots. Dull tools tear or rip the plants, leaving ragged wounds. We know from our own personal experiences that rips and tears are easier to infect and take longer to heal than clean cuts. Dull lawn mower blades leave thousands of ragged wounds in the turf, all of which are more susceptible to diseases like dollar spot and rust.

Finally, cleaned and sharpened tools are much more efficient and effective. A sharpened shovel moves through garden soil like a hot knife through butter! And sharpened pruners make quick work of cutting through tough fibrous bark and leaving neat cuts. It is like the difference between cutting a turkey with a sharp carving knife and a butter knife. If you haven't sharpened your tools in a while, you are going to be surprised at the difference.

It's easier to sharpen pruners if you take them apart.


Here are a few things you will need:

  • Cloths, rags, and/or sponges
  • Wire brush, scrub brushes, and/or scouring pads
  • Cleaning oil, sharpening oil, and/or wood oil
  • Metal file or sharpening stone
  • Dull and dirty shovels, trowels, pruners, mower blades, spades, shears, and loppers

Ready, Set, Sharpen

1. Clean all dirt and grime off the blades and handles. For large blades like shovels or shears, place them on a sturdy table or preferably a vice for leverage. Your goal is to sharpen and smooth the angle on the edge of the blade called the bevel.

2. Hold the file firmly against the beveled edge and, starting at the handle, push the file away from you as you move it down the dull edge. Try to keep your file at the same angle as you make your sharpening strokes. After a couple of strokes, it should be visibly sharper. Turn the blade over and repeat. (This is where video would be very helpful; we are working on it for this year.)

3. Once the blade is sharpened, oil it to help it keep its edge. If the handles are wooden, use wood oil to help preserve them, too. Your tool should now be clean, sharp, sparkling, and ready to use in the garden.

I encourage gardeners to get together to sharpen their tools. Work always goes faster when shared among friends. Plus it's a good way to swap stories and techniques. (If you are having so much fun that you need some extra tools to sharpen, just let me know.)

Although perhaps not as exciting as planting or pruning, maintaining your tools is an excellent way to prepare for the season. Happy filing.

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