Gardening Tools and Care

It is an investment to buy top-quality tools – they work well and last longer – are certainly cheaper than buying new tools every couple of years. Tools seldom become obsolete, lasting decades if cared for – unless they’re poor quality. My Felco 2 by-pass pruners are 30 years old and still work great.

Bypass pruners. Image: Felco/Lee Valley Tools

But that’s only if you clean /maintain them on a regular basis. So what’s regular?  Every day, several times a day? Every year? It depends.

Tools need to be sharp and clean and sterile, especially when working with diseased trees and shrubs. When dealing with blights and fungal diseases such as Phytophthora ramorum (sudden oak death), spreading these are high risk….so clean every time. Trees are an expensive infrastructure item to replace.

Cleaning choices

The best choice of cleaners includes household products such as Listerine, regular Lysol and Pinesol which are readily available, safe and effective. They are also the least corrosive to metal.

Some websites suggest using diluted chlorine bleach – but prolonged contact with metal may cause pitting or discolouration. Bleach is an oxidizing agent so it is corrosive – plus it’s damaging to clothing (do you want to carry a bottle or rag in your pocket?) It is also damaging to your health irritating skin, eyes, nose, throat and lungs if vapours are inhaled – THEREFORE use gloves and safety glasses – BUT that’s MORE equipment to carry. And if that’s not enough – bleach is very toxic to plants and any bleach left on tool will damage the tissue of the next cut.

Rubbing Alcohol swipes – can be expensive

Alcohol dips and flaming – standard for tissue culture but not practical for outdoors

TSP (trisodium phosphate) is like bleach – corrosive to metals

Hydrogen peroxide – regular is 3% so not recommended to sterilize in greenhouses

Cleaning routine

  • First, wash the dirt off your tools with a garden hose and scrub with a wire brush. 
  • Turpentine can be used for any items that might be covered in sap.
  • Steel wool with vinegar or CLR can be used to soak items coated in rust…although these are not good disinfectants. HGTV video:
  • Dip into Lysol or use rag in pail (don’t let liquid come into contact with soil or plants so dry tools well) Note – research shows that pitted or nicked metals do not get disinfected so might need extra work.
  • Quick dips often don’t work as well as leaving in for 1 -2 minutes.

Next – conditioning

Clean metal tools by plunging in a bucket of oiled sand. To make oiled sand, pour 1 L  mineral oil (baby oil) or multi-purpose lubricating oil into a 20L bucket of sand (the sand should be damp but not moist). Push blades of tools into sand. This helps clean and condition the metal. You can store them in the sand too.

Storing tools in oil soaked sand. Image: Garden Betty


A keen edge on tools -scissors /shears is essential for making clean cuts that don’t leave ragged edges, which can leave plants vulnerable to diseases. Whenever scissors or shears become dull, quickly give them back their fine edge with a good sharpener like a carbide sharpener. My favorite is a pocket diamond sharpener from Lee Valley 

A dull hoe, edger, or shovel isn’t useless, but it does mean that you have to work a lot harder. Attach a rotary sharpener, such as a Multi-Sharp, to a drill, and put a keen edge back on these tools in a few minutes.

Sharp tools are of course more effective, but also safer and easier to use. Tools that should be sharpened include hoes, shears, scissors, knives, loppers, pruners, and of course spades, shovels and hoes (use a bastard or mill file for the last 3 – file (bastard file is next finer than coarse -traditional tool used for sharpening shovels, edgers, and hoes).

  1. To sharpen the edges, put a bit of mineral oil on the blade. Then, with a handheld whet stone, file the blade at a 20-degree angle. Sharpening – 10” flat mill or bastard file available at hardware stores – file at original angle bevel – usually 20 – 40 ° angle.
  2. To regrind the edge, slide the stone back and forth across the blade; keep the stone wet with oil as you work. After a few minutes, you will notice a little burr of shirred metal developing along the underside of the blade.
  3. When you are finished (it will take anywhere from 3 to 10 minutes, depending on the dullness of the edge), turn the tool over, and quickly file burrs off.
  4. Secure the hoe or shovel to your workbench with bungee cords or clamps.
  5. Attach the rotary sharpener to the drill, start it spinning, then lower it gently against the edge of the tool. Move the sharpener slowly back and forth along the edge until the desired sharpness is reached.
  6. Alternatively, use a bastard. Use the flat side of the file, and keep it tilted at the same angle as the tool’s beveled edge as you work. Grind the edge with long, sweeping strokes, always moving in only one direction, away from the edge. File shovels and edgers on both the front and back faces; file hoes on one side only.
  7. If the blade edge is beyond repair, it’s time to purchase a new one.
  8. For finer edge – pruners/shears use a whetstone to finish edge.

Here is a helpful video on sharpening tools.


A great way to store small spades and trowels is by keeping them in a pot filled with sand that’s been soaked with mineral oil or hang on pegs. Establish a regular schedule of maintenance. Once a month, you should sharpen blades, oil springs, and replace failing parts. Create an area for tool storage and maintenance — once you’re organized, keeping tools in pristine condition will become an easy habit.

TIP – Spray/ paint handles with a bright colour so don’t lose your tools.

Essential tools for the gardener

Trowel – fits hand, good shank with steel blade going to end   OR

Hori hori knife – for digging and planting instead of a trowel

Mattock – digger, cultivator, hoe action, digging planting rows   OR

Collinear hand hoe with blade to sharpen – weeding

Hand spring-loaded snipper for delicate pruning, tomato suckers, deadheading

Hand pruner Felco 2 cuts up to 1½ cm

Shovel lifts dirt into wheel barrow for moving

Spade cut into the ground to make a hole

Straight rake


The Informed Gardener Blooms Again by Linda Chalker Scott, University of Washington Press, 2010

HGTV How to Refresh Garden Tools