I love old garden tools. They’re like the comfortable pair of shoes you’ve grown attached to, even though they’re worn around the edges.

I inherited many of my garden tools from my parents, which are the ones I gardened with as a boy. The rototiller is over 50 years old, and a hoe, cultivator and spading fork are well-past 60 years. I’ve even got a pitchfork that’s easily beyond 90 years old and still functioning well.

There’s a satisfaction in gardening with well-cared-for heirloom tools, and it even becomes part of the experience. New garden tools will become heirlooms, too, one day, if high-quality items are purchased and taken care of.

I’ll admit I don’t always scrape every bit of soil from my shovel the way I should before I return it to the shed, and sometimes the blades of my pruning shears are sticky from sap that should have been soaked clean after use. But I try as best I can to keep our tools clean, sharp and maintained, so they’ll last.

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Will our plants grow better if our garden tools are clean and sharp? Yes. A well-sharpened pruning shears makes a clean, smooth cut that seals itself quicker than a ragged, crushed stem caused by a dull tool. Spades with sharpened edges penetrate soil easer, helping us dig properly sized holes. A sharp hoe makes all the difference in weeding, as it glides readily through the soil surface.

Well-cared-for tools are more user-friendly. Smooth wooden handles cause fewer splinters and hand blisters. Well-tended tools last longer, especially important if we’ve invested in good quality that can last many decades.

Tools perform better if edges are sharpened with a metal file or electric wheel grinder. Alyssa Goelzer / The Forum
Tools perform better if edges are sharpened with a metal file or electric wheel grinder. Alyssa Goelzer / The Forum

The following are end-of-season tips for keeping garden tools in top shape.

  • Remove excess soil from tools with a stiff bristle brush, then scrub in water and dry with a towel or allow to air dry.
  • If wooden handles have weathered, or the grain is raised and rough, sand with 80-grit sandpaper, followed by 120 or 150 grit for a smooth finish.
  • Remove rust from metal parts with a wire brush, sandpaper, emery cloth or rotary wire wheel. Finish by rubbing with steel wool and vinegar, rinse in water, then towel dry.
  • If blades of pruning shears are sticky with sap, scrub with steel wool dipped in turpentine.
  • Next, sharpen tools with a metal file or electric bench grinder. Sharp edges are especially beneficial for shovels, hoes, pruning shears and lawn mower blades.
  • One of my favorite methods of preserving tools is to coat all metal and wood surfaces with a mixture of equal parts boiled linseed oil and turpentine. Linseed oil is purchased as either raw or boiled, and it’s labeled as such. You don’t boil your own, which sounds like a dangerous task. When I first read about, and used this mixture as a teenager, I didn’t realize it came pre-boiled until I went to the hardware store.
  • Apply the oil-turpentine mixture liberally to wooden handles, allow to penetrate for about 30 minutes, and then wipe dry. Apply also to metal parts, wiping off excess, while allowing a thin coating to remain to protect against rust.
  • Linseed oil is a better choice than products such as WD-40 or other petroleum-based products like motor oil, which should be avoided to prevent small amounts of contamination as the tools are used around plants or soil. Linseed oil is extracted from flaxseed, so it's more plant-friendly.
  • Some gardeners keep a container of sand into which oil has been mixed and the metal part of small hand tools can be submerged in the sand, for cleaning or storage.
  • Because oily rags are flammable, the National Fire Protection Association recommends hanging the rags outdoors or spreading them on the ground to dry, then place in a covered metal container filled with water and detergent solution, then disposed of following local guidelines.

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Don Kinzler, a lifelong gardener, is the horticulturist with North Dakota State University Extension for Cass County. Readers can reach him at donald.kinzler@ndsu.edu.