Friday, April 20, 2012

Garden Tool Care

"To dig in one's own earth, with one's own spade, does life hold anything better?"
  ~Beverly Nichols, 1898-1982, British author of
Down the Garden Path

As in any endeavor or hobby, having the right equipment in good condition makes the difference between enjoying your activity or not.

The winter months are the perfect time to get your tools cleaned and sharpened for the season ahead.  In a perfect world I’d be doing this in January, not mid April but alas…such is life, isn’t it…the best laid plans and all that? 

Imagine this, a steaming cup of your favorite beverage, jazzy tunes on the radio, all in your large garden shed complete with wood burning stove to keep you warm while the winds howl and snow swirls outside and you, cleaning, oiling, and sharpening your myriad of garden tools all neatly stowed on their proper wall hooks or in their tidy drawers…yeah I wish.  Something to aspire for but my reality is this.

No room for a wood stove but I do have the jazzy tunes going.  One wall gets all my larger tools in our little drafty garage.  A few drawers get the smaller trowels and weeding forks.  All this shared with piles of pots, bags of fertilizer, bee stuff, car stuff, bikes, oh and a car, which is why we have a Mini Cooper.  Crazy tight but it all shoe-horns in somehow.

Believe it or not, gardening tools are meant to be sharp.  Just as a dull kitchen knife makes chopping and slicing more difficult, so does a dull shovel make digging more strenuous. 

Naturally digging in the dirt, rocks and grit will dull your shovel, making you work harder.  The more you dig the more you may need to sharpen the edge.  In the case of pruners (secateurs) you could sharpen them after each full day of use or more likely on a monthly basis.  Sharpening frequency depends on how often you use the tool.  Once sharpened you should feel the difference.

Mostly people ask what edge gets sharpened?  If your new tool comes with a sharpened factory bevel right out of the package, take note of which edge and the angle of the bevel and only sharpen in the same way when you sharpen it again.  The angle of bevel will determine how sharp the tool is.  The more delicate pruner will have a sharper bevel angle than a shovel.   Also the sharper the angle the more often it will require sharpening.  A shovel is typically at a 45 degree angle on the top side of the edge.  A good average bevel for a hoe is at about 30 degrees, again on the top side of the edge. 

This is my stirrup (aka wiggle) hoe, my favorite tool for the weeding of large areas or mixing in compost or fertilizer at the soil surface.  (All organic fertilizers must be lightly mixed with your soil in order for the soil organisms to break down the fertilizer, making it available to the plants).  With a push/pull motion this hoe is designed to skim across, just under the top layer of dirt, slicing the leaves off from the stem or root of weeds.  Mine was not sharp at the point of purchase but in order for ease of use they need to be sharpened on both top edges of the flat, horizontal blade.  This one actually had blunt, squared edges so I used an electric bench grinder to get it to sharp edges.  Now that I have two beveled edges, I can just use a hand file to do the job.

I’ve tried several different ways to sharpen tools over the years.  The electric bench grinder is good for shovels and hoes.  You can get different stone grits, depending on how dull or nicked the blade is you need to sharpen, though a flat file will work well if it’s not in too bad of shape.  

For more delicate work like pruners I prefer this pocket size Corona tool.  Taking apart pruners is good practice once a year so you can really clean all the metal surfaces with steel wool and sharpen the full length of the blade.  But for the monthly touch up, I want a quick tool like the Corona tool. This is not a paid endorsement or any kind of endorsement other than I like it for its ease and pocket size.  I discovered this little handy sharpener at the greenhouse were I volunteer.  They keep several of them around.  Sharp pruners are a must.  Dull cutting edges will tear leaves and stems.  You always want a nice clean cut, otherwise pests and/or disease can enter the plants vascular system with the potential of death.  Additionally, a dull hand pruner will put added stress on your hands and wrists.

The long file shown below is too clumsy for me to use on small pruners.  The circular stone, which is inserted into a drill like a drill bit, works great but you need to take apart the pruner to get all the blade’s edge.  It works great for grass shears and the standard flat hoe. 

Don’t forget to lubricate the moving parts of your tools to keep them working well.  My favorite lubricant is a Teflon based synthetic oil lubricant, found at bicycling stores made for bike chains.  It’s slick and doesn’t attract grit.

The wooden handles need care too.  Barehanded, I rub the wooden handles of all my tools with linseed oil.  It is a natural, non toxic oil which smells wonderful.  Once it absorbs it protects the wood from drying out and leaves a nice feeling finish that water won’t penetrate.   In the kitchen linseed oil is known as flax seed oil.  The difference being the linseed oil at the hardware store is not strained enough or processed for consumption.

I prefer wooden handles for most of my tools, but I must confess to breaking two garden forks with wooden handles so for that particular tool I keep to the fiberglass handle.  One thing to note…if you live in the USA and can get to a Sears store, they still offer the life-time guarantee on their entire line of Sears Craftsman brand tools…that includes gardening tools.  I’ve broken a few wooden handles in my work and yes, I do take advantage of that guarantee.  Buying and replacing cheap brands is not frugal when you can get free replacement and a quality product.  You don’t need to keep receipts…Sears Craftsman tools have their brand name stamped on the handles.  (No endorsement here either, just good information)

Lastly, do your best to hose the dirt off your tools and let them air dry before you stow them away after use.  Rusty tools are long-lived tools. So sharpen your tools now and have a more enjoyable time in the garden this summer!

In bloom in my garden today: Alpine Strawberries, Anemone nemerosa ‘robinsoniana’, Bergenia ‘winter glow’, Brunnera macrophylla, Clematis alpina ‘jacquelin de pre’, Daphne caucasica, Daffodils, Clematis alpina ‘frankie’, Erythronium revolutum (fawn lily, trout lily, dogtooth violet), Fritillaria pallidiflora, Geranium phaeum ‘lily lovell’ (mourning widow), Hardy Geranium, Heather(Erica carnea ‘springwood white’), Hellebore, Hyacinth ‘blue jacket’,Kale, Pansy, Skimmia, Primrose (double English), Tulipa ‘gavota’

Authors photos