Winter Garden Tool Care 101

It’s a good time of year to prepare your tools for next season by repairing, sharpening, and protecting them with a lubricant to keep them rust-free.

By Thomas Christopher


Good gardening tools are hard to find these days. To obtain the quality I once took for granted in hand tools found at local hardware store I now have to special order by mail.  Fortunately, such a purchase is a long-term investment. Indeed, I still have some of the tools I was issued when I was a student at the New York Botanical Garden forty-some years ago. But then, I do take care of these old stand-bys.

        This time of year, when the tasks of the growing season have come to an end, is a good time to assess and service your tools. Get them in shape now and they’ll be ready to go when you need them again next spring.

        The first step is just general clean-up. This begins with using a bristle brush to remove caked-on dirt, and a wire brush to remove any rust.  The latter, removing the rust, is especially important, because if left in place, it will pit the tool’s blade, ruining its polish and the cutting edge.

        After cleaning the tool, if necessary I smooth away any rough spots on wooden handles with a medium-grit sandpaper. Then I wipe the handles down with boiled linseed oil, to prevent them from drying out and cracking.

        The next step is to restore the tool’s cutting edge.  This is important, because a sharp tool not only does a better, neater job, it’s also easier to use, accomplishing the task at hand with less effort.  This is particularly true of digging tools such as spades, shovels, and hoes, which are dulled by their contact with the soil and by bumping up against rocks. Sharpening them can make the difference between a pleasant hour in the garden and a botched job with a backache to boot.

        To sharpen, fix the handle of the tool in a vice or use c-clamps to secure it to a workbench; in either case, the blade’s cutting edge should be facing upward – with a shovel or a spade, this means the blade will be oriented as if it were scooping up some soil.  Pruners and other fine-edged tools should be sharpened with whetstones, both coarse and fine, or a coarse and fine diamond file, in sequence.  Rougher-edged tools such as spades and shovels you can sharpen with a 10-inch bastard mill file (available at any hardware store).

        In any case, push the file or whetstone with long, steady strokes across the tool’s cutting edge, holding it (the file or whetstone) at the same angle as the bevel to which the tool was originally ground.  In the case of a really abused spade or shovel, there may be no bevel left on its edge.   If so, hold the file at 45 degrees to the flat surface of the spade. When using a mill file, keep in mind that it cuts only on the forward stroke.  Do not apply any pressure on the file’s backstroke, as that will accomplish nothing except to dull the file.

        Continue stroking with the file or stone until the whole cutting edge is uniformly smooth and sharp.   How long this takes will depend on how badly damaged the cutting edge was; if you sharpen your tools regularly, the individual sharpenings become easier.

        When you have finished smoothing the cutting edge, you should remove the rough “burr” that will have accumulated on its back.  Do this by running the whetstone or file once or twice lightly over the back of the cutting edge, holding your sharpener flat against the blade.  Afterward, wipe the blade with a light lubricating oil or coat it with a spray lubricant such as WD-40.  This will help to keep it rust-free through the winter months and ready for use in the garden next spring.




Thomas Christopher is the co-author of “Garden Revolution” (Timber Press, 2016) and is a volunteer at Berkshire Botanical Garden.

Be-a-Better-Gardener is a community service of Berkshire Botanical Garden, one of the nation’s oldest botanical gardens in Stockbridge, MA. Its mission to provide knowledge of gardening and the environment through 25 display gardens and a diverse range of classes informs and inspires thousands of students and visitors on horticultural topics every year.  Thomas Christopher is the co-author of Garden Revolution (Timber press, 2016) and is a volunteer at Berkshire Botanical Garden.