Ask a (local) master gardener about cleaning and oiling tools

  • Old and rusty tools on rack in rustic tool shed wall Natalie Board—Getty Images/iStockphoto

For the Gazette
Published: 11/8/2018 2:12:36 PM

Q: My tools are so dirty and rusty now after using them hard all season. How do I clean them? Do I really need to? I am ready to just stay inside and read a book with some hot cider! – C.T. Florence 


A: I have to admit that I have been known to put away the occasional dirty shovel and rusty hoe at the end of the season after coming in from chilly clean up chores and just wanting to get warm already, The next spring, though, when I was eager to get gardening, I wasted time cleaning and grumblingly vowed: Never again!  

Cleaning tools is, in fact, a necessary and important task. It is also very rewarding. You know that feeling when you cut a stem with freshly oiled and sharpened pruners? It is almost blissful. A key reason to clean tools such as shovels and hoes is it extends their life by removing moisture holding, rust enhancing soil from their steel surfaces.

To clean off clinging dirt, spray them with a strong spray from the garden hose and brush them off with a stiff bristle or wire brush. This will quickly take care of the dirt. Be sure to dry them off with a dry towel afterwards to help prevent rust. Tools that do not come in contact with soil, such as pruners and lopers, should be wiped down with a heavy cotton cloth. An application of oil on all moving parts will help keep them cutting smoothly.

Steel tool heads, such as shovels and forks, are also susceptible to rust when exposed to oxygen, so it is good to apply a thin coat of vegetable-based oil (I prefer non-petroleum based ones for this task, though they can be used) on their blade or fork after they are washed off. The oil insulates the steel and prevents it from oxidizing. It can be wiped onto the steel surface with a clean, cotton cloth or sprayed on. Store any oil away from heat and dispose of it as you would any motor oil  Light coatings of rust can be removed with 80-grit sandpaper while a stiff wire brush is good on moderate ones.

Cleaning is also essential to keeping fungi, bacteria, viruses, insect eggs, and weed seeds from spreading in the garden. Any blade that came in contact with a diseased plant should be dipped in a diluted bleach solution of 1 part bleach to 9 parts water. Leave it in for as long as 30 minutes, then rinse it off with plain water and dry it. Dispose of the remaining bleach solution by pouring it down a household drain, not in the soil. Another option is to wipe blades with 90% isopropyl alcohol (available at local area pharmacies).Ideally, gardeners should wipe down cutting tools after each use, particularly when pruning trees or working in a vegetable garden. 

These suggestions should help get you started on the path to well-maintained tools and the joy they bring. Good luck and thanks for asking a master gardener!  

Have a gardening dilemma? Please send questions, along with your name/initials and community, to the Western Massachusetts Master Gardener Association at One question will be selected and answered per week.

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