After 38 years of gardening, and several working as a professional landscaper, I have worked out what are the most essential tools you might need for your gardening efforts. Part two to the equation is how best to maintain your gardening tools, no matter which you prefer. Basically, you are maintaining metal and wood products that routinely come in contact with the elements that are the most damaging – dirt, moisture, and heat or cold.
First, the essential tools:
- Hand-held pruning shears – or as I like to call them “dead-headers.” The best way to keep your garden looking clean, tidy, and healthy is to be sure to regularly remove all dead or decaying plant material. It’s also helpful to remove developing seed pods once a flower head has dropped off by itself, such as with petunias.
- Forget the hoe if you can find a swoe. They are a bit more expensive, between $45 and $70, but its money well spent. A swoe glides beneath the surface of the soil and cuts off weed roots. You can work much more closely to the plants, breaking up soil tension and providing green manure in the form of the decaying tiny weeds (if you maintain your garden regularly). Swoes come in both long and short-handled versions.
- Shovel, both long-handled and hand-held. Self-explanatory.
- Edging tool. Unless you have raised beds or your garden is otherwise has other strong boundaries, an edging tool helps keep out grass encroachment and keeps your beds looking sharp.
- Hand-held scythe. When it comes time for clearing and cutting back larger quantities of plant material, nothing beats a hand scythe for reducing time and energy. Wear gloves, especially in colder weather. It’s easy to cut yourself with a good, sharp scythe, and I have the scarred knuckles to prove it.
Naturally, for other types of yard work there are a myriad of tools you can use, but for flower and vegetable gardening, these are all you really need.
Second, tips on garden tool upkeep:
Garden tool upkeep basically falls into three categories of care, cleaning, sharpening, and storage.
- Cleaning: After use, always clean your tools, or at least do a weekly clean-up. Use a wire brush and cloths to get off all the dirt. Keep your tools well-oiled. You can either use WD-40, non-detergent 30W motor oil, or mineral oil on a cloth to rub down the metal parts of your tools. A handy trick is to keep small tools in a bucket of oiled sand or use the bucket of oiled sand when cleaning larger tools such as shovels. You want to avoid having any rust on your tools as they will last longer and function better. Keeping your wooden handles clean is just as important. After washing down, apply a coat of vegetable oil to keep the wood nourished. Dry wood becomes brittle and will break more easily.
- Sharpening: Sharp tools make your work go easier and prolong the life of the tool as well. Using one of the above-mentioned oils, rub down or spray the metal parts of the tool and using a whet stone or file, file the blade at about a 20-degree angle. You may want to secure your tools with clamps, especially larger tools, while sharpening for better ease and safety.
- Storage: Keep tools in a clean, dry environment and preferably off the floor. Hang the larger tools (you can drill a hole in handles if need be) and use a pegboard for the smaller ones.
- One last tool maintenance tip: If your handles are starting to show cracks or wear, sand them down gently and apply a coat of varnish.