Post-frost chore–winterizing your garden tools

We had frost in our neighborhood Saturday morning. Low spots in our lawn were sparkly white just after dawn, as was our neighbor’s hillside. But it was a light, not killing, frost. My tomatoes escaped damage, but I know that one night soon the killer frost will strike here—and your garden too.

And then what? Will you weep for tomatoes lost? Or dance with happiness that another garden year of weeding and watering has ended?

If you’re like most gardeners, instead of weeping or dancing, you probably will be just resigned to your garden’s frosty fate. Tomatoes are here today, gone tomorrow. After cleaning up your gardens, you’ll celebrate “the end” by gathering up your garden tools and stacking them in a corner of your garage to gather dust and to rust until next spring.

Well, I’m usually a tool stacker too. But this year I’m already engaged in one of my New Year 2011 Resolutions: I’m winterizing my garden tools.

Winterizing my shovels, rakes, hoes, and pruners takes a little effort, but not much. If I winterize each tool when I finish using it for the season, the job may take 5 minutes. If I do three or four tools at a time, the job may take 20 minutes. If I do all my tools at one time, I suppose it would take an hour at most. I’ll confess: I winterize my tools when I think I’m done with them—one today, three or four next week.

Here’s how I winterize my tools.

I begin by cleaning my simplest tools—those without moving parts, such as my shovel, spade, hoe, and rake. If any tool is extremely dirty, I hose it off first and wipe it dry with an old rag. Then I use a wire brush with a scraper—available wherever paint is sold—to remove any remaining soil. If any metal is rusted, I bring it to a shine with steel wool and some WD-40 plus some elbow grease. If the handle is wooden and seems “rough” to my feel, I sand it with fine sandpaper.

When the metal parts are clean and the wooden handles smooth, I spray the metal parts with some WD-40 and wipe them down with an old rag. I wipe wooden handles with a mixture of boiled linseed oil diluted with a mineral spirits or turpentine, which improves penetration and drying. I eyeball the mix so it’s about one part linseed oil and two parts mineral spirits. On the Internet I’ve read recommendations to use vegetable oil on the metal and paste wax on the wooden handles, but I’ve never tried them.

And then I pay special attention to tools with moving parts—clippers, shears, scissors, things like that. I clean all the sap and other gunk that has built up on the blades and which I should have removed periodically during the growing season, but didn’t. Lazy Bob. A little mineral spirits or WD-40 on a rag or piece of fine steel wool usually finishes the job in short order.

I’ve not taken the time to figure out how to sharpen such tools, so I don’t do that, though I know I should. If you know how, please post a Comment telling us how you do it. Sharp tools are efficient because they cut and don’t crush.

Last week I winterized three of my tools: a small “tomato spade,” a large garden spade, and a hoe, each of which had metal and wooden parts. I didn’t have a stop watch, but I probably did the job in 20 minutes max.

The first photo shows the small tomato spade before I cleaned it and the cleaning aides I used. The second photo shows the cleaned tomato spade. It was my grandfather’s spade, and he died in 1946. But with an occasional cleaning and oiling, the spade carries its age—70 years or more—quite well, don’t you think? My grandfather used it to replace tomato transplants that had not survived their first week in his tomato field. I use it for edging and other miscellaneous chores, and when I do I always remember those who gardened with it before me, Poppy in his bib-jeans and Dad in his work khakis and plaid shirt.

Gardening moral: Buy quality tools and take care of them. They’ll last a lifetime or two and you’ll have the satisfaction of handing them on to the next generation of your family’s gardeners, who will have fond memories when they use your heirloom tools.

Post-frost garden cleaned up? Yes.

Gardening tools winterized? Yes.

Now bring on the hard freeze and the 2011 seed catalogs.

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