By Bonnie Orr
The leaves are off the trees and most of them have been raked into piles for kids to jump in or have been ground up by the lawnmower to mulch the vegetable garden and flowerbeds.
So now it must be time to get out those books you have been thinking about reading and spend some time on the couch. Not so fast. You still need to take care of your tools. You know the old adage: if you take care of your tools, they will take care of you.
The three magic words are clean, dry and sharp.
Hand tools such as trowels, pruners, loppers and all types of shovels have metal blades. Take a bit of soapy water and a piece of 000 steel wool and clean all the metal parts of dirt and rust. Rinse with hot water so the hot tool dries quickly.
Hand tools, including trowels, should be sharpened with a file or a stone to remove burs and little nicks. (The person who sharpens your knives can most likely sharpen dull hand tools.) Wipe them with an old towel and spray the metal parts with a little WD-40 or light machine oil. Check for worn and broken parts. If a blade is chipped or badly dented or worn, consider replacement. Replacement parts are available for many tools.
Then clean all the handles. If they are wood, the wood needs to be conditioned to prevent splinters. I lightly sand the older handles, which are getting rough, to prevent the cracking that causes splinters.
Taking care of the wood leaves a tool safe and comfortable, and it is so much more attractive than covering the split wood with duct-tape. Apply some type of protection such as linseed oil, or furniture or wood floor polish. Cutting the linseed oil or tung oil up to 50 percent with paint thinner will give better penetration and make it last longer. It will have time to dry on the handles over the winter to create a solid and not slippery surface.
Have you created a dry spot to store your tools to prevent more rust or wood damage? Five-gallon buckets with some rocks in the bottom will hold the tools upright and tidy. Put them in handle down. If necessary, the bucket can be strapped to a wall. I prefer hanging brackets for the tools I use most often.
Saws stay sharper if they are stored hanging up and not piled in with other tools. I like the little folding saws for light pruning because the teeth are protected from bending and scraping, and my hands don’t get punctured. Clean and oil the saw’s teeth to remove pitch and sawdust. There are people in North Central Washington who specialize in sharpening saws; a sharp saw is a safe saw.
The underside of the lawnmower’s platform needs to be free of grass and mud, and before storing this tool, the top of the mower should be cleaned of dirt and oil and dried gas and oil. This cutting blade can also be sharpened to prevent the fringe-cut lawn next year.
Master Gardener and tool guru Orv Vanderlin reminded me that if you own a gasoline-engine lawnmower, tiller or any other tool, run the engine dry for winter storage to prevent the carburetor and other parts from gunking up while sitting over winter. Tools with electric motors should be wiped down, but not flushed off with water, as water will damage electric motors. The cutting bar on electric hedge shears should be cleaned with soap and water, being careful not to get the soap and water into the motor.
Garden stakes are another tool. What a mess they can become. Clean off all the ties and the labels and arrange stakes by height in 2- or 3-inch diameter PVC pipes cut into two or three foot lengths. Now, here is a use for duct tape. Stand all the pipes upright and bind them together so all the stakes are organized in one place and by height. This is so much better than trying to pull them out of a messy pile in the spring!
So, when all these tasks are done, you can read that novel. But even better, your tools are ready to help you as soon as the urge to garden hits next spring.
Bonnie Orr is a WSU Master Gardener in the Wenatchee valley of Washington state. Master Gardeners have completed a university course that covers topics such as botany, weed identification, soils, lawn care, pruning, pesticides and insect management, plant pathology and plant problem diagnosis.