5 simple garden tool-care tips

wash pruning shears after useI OPENED THE DOOR to the barn yesterday and could almost hear them calling out to me: “Rusty; I’m getting rusty in here, Margaret.” And: “I’m not feeling too sharp right now.” Oh, dear. I called a tool-savvy friend for a refresher course on tool-care—just five easy tips I think I can commit to this year.

My inspiration comes from Blake Schreck of Garden Tool Company, who in the low-humidity environment of Colorado (where the company’s headquartered, and has an astonishing retail store, too) doesn’t worry as much about the main enemy of most metal tools: rust. Here in the Northeast, as in the South and everywhere else but the arid zones, we do.

Too care isn’t sexy, Blake agrees. “The last thing I want to do after a day of gardening is go clean my tools,” he admits. Sound familiar?

With that in mind, we came up with this list of simple steps that don’t take too long.

linseed oil for tool heads and handles

5 can-do tool-care tips

  1. Easiest of all, maybe: Simply rinse soil off digging tools after each use, by making a pit stop at the garden hose. Dry thoroughly. A stiff brush hanging by the tap would make for even more thorough cleaning.
  2. It’s often recommended to place a bucket of sand moistened with motor oil (even used motor oil, the prescription sometimes says) inside the garage, and quickly dip tools into the abrasive, lubricating mix a few times after using them. “But then you’re going to introduce that motor-oil residue into your soil at the next use,” says Blake—as in ugh. Use linseed oil instead, he recommends.
  3. Linseed oil is likewise good for wood handles. Hang a rag near the sand bucket to give a quick wipe to wooden tool handles, too. Safety note: Do not wad up any oil-soaked rags, especially those soaked with linseed oil, or put them in an enclosed container as there is combustion risk. Allow the rag to dry in the open between uses, and when disposing, dry thoroughly first or soak with water before placing in a closed metal can. Blake adds a cautionary note: “The boiled linseed oil that is available today has a small amount of solvent added to it to keep it from hardening in the can, so after you apply it to your metal and wood, let it dry completely before using your tool, (about 24 hours). That way the solvent will have evaporated.”
  4. Most important of all: Get the tools indoors, and hang them up! Don’t lean them against the garage wall, touching the floor—even if it’s paved. Again, moisture is the enemy here.
  5. Good-quality pruning shears should last a long time—unless you let sap and other residues build up on the blades. As if they were the silverware after supper, wash them. Yes! A quick stop at the sink, with soap and a nail brush or scrubby pad, is ideal. Dry well, and replenish lubrication on the pivot point only. A drop or two of a penetrating product such as 3-in-One oil is better than a lightweight spray lube, which evaporates quicker. Use mineral spirits to remove residues, but preferably prevent them in the future with the quick-wash routine. Invest in a sharpening device meant for shears–a whetstone, or a carbide sharpener, such as you might use for knives or scissors–to complete the care regimen, giving the blades an occasional pass.

stainless steel border spadeOf course there’s always this alternative: Invest in stainless.  It doesn’t let you off the tool-care hook completely, but I have to say that I do appreciate my stainless border fork and spade, which have asked almost nothing of me in more than a decade of sturdy service.


  1. jennifer w Tanner says:

    Margaret-I love your podcast. It is informative and at the same time soothing in this crazy world we are in. I enjoyed your a way to garden book and look forward to reading more you have written ( although I read you while you were at MSL). I have gardened for years but recently moved from FL to a 1909 home in VA and feel as if I have so much to learn. I have enjoyed watching my garden for a full year before working in it. The previous long term owner truly left a gift in the many unknown bulbs and various peonies I got to see come up. The greatest thing I did was ignoring two landsape gardeners who started their spiel by saying bulldoze all, its outdated and worthless. SO not true, I am grateful at the unknown blessings that I waited to see. What a sad thing to destroy the work that was labored over for years that I now get to improve upon and enjoy, giving thanks that the previous owner planted much maybe without getting to see it come to full fruition.

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