Arts & Leisure

Ask a master gardener: It’s tool time!

SPRING IS A good time to clean and sharpen garden tools to keep them in working order. Photo by Suzanne Freitas

Warm days may tempt you to work in the garden and remove winter mulch, but wait a bit longer. We still could have snow and some very cold nights. Plants still need protection.
The freeze and thaw cycles of early spring can damage plants that have survived a cold winter.  While waiting for warmer weather, this is an excellent time to clean your gardening implements and make sure your tools are in good working order.
First, inspect your pots and growing containers and clean them. It’s important to disinfect plant containers that were used in the previous gardening season. Disease-harboring debris can build-up inside containers.
To disinfect pots, soak them in a solution of one part bleach to nine parts water for 10 minutes. Use a scrub brush to clear away stubborn debris. Finish by rinsing pots with clear water. Your pots are now ready.
Second, get out your weeders, cultivators and other gardening tools and inspect them.  If you discover some rust, here’s what to do to get them back in working order:

Soak in a 1:1 mixture of vinegar and water overnight.

Then scrub in a circular motion with steel wool.

Rinse in soapy water and then plain water.

Let dry thoroughly, then rub lightly with linseed or mineral oil.

Make sure tools are dried thoroughly before storing. Treating tools with linseed or mineral oil on a regular basis is the best way to keep them from getting rusty.
Third, inspect your pruners, loppers or shears. Pruners should be taken apart and deep cleaned at least once each season.

Unscrew the nut that holds them together, and wash all parts separately in soapy water.

Soak in vinegar and water, and scrub with steel wool to remove any rust.

Rinse and dry.

Then soak in bleach and water to sanitize, then rinse and dry.

Rub with boiled linseed oil and reassemble.
In addition, check the sharpness of your tools. Cutting or pruning with dull blades often results in damaged branches, so it’s important always to keep your tools sharp.
Branches that have been ripped or torn apart are more susceptible to disease. Keep your pruners and other cutting tools sharp with a specialized pruner-sharpening tool or a sharpening stone. Other tools such as hoes, shovels and knives can be kept sharp with quick touch-ups from a sharpening file, followed by a sharpening stone.
Lastly, do not forget to take care of the handles of your tools. Minor cracks can be reinforced with heavy-duty duct tape. Or you just might decide that now is the time to replace that old tool.
A highly effective tool is a spear-headed spade. The narrow, pointed head lets you dig in beds without disturbing nearby plants.
Another handy tool is a drain spade. This is a sturdy shovel, which can slice through compacted soil, roots and sod because it has sharp teeth that provide extra cutting power. 
A regular maintenance routine will keep your garden tools in good working order and will help them last longer. Tools need to be sharp but also clean and sterile.
Tools that are exposed to plants or soil with bacterial, fungal or insect infestations can spread problems throughout the garden. It only takes a few minutes after each gardening session to take care of your tools and protect your garden the next time they are used.
Suzanne Freitas is a UVM Extension Master Gardener from Jericho.

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