Since the beginning of time man has been fascinated with inventing, improving, and using tools. Vegetable gardeners are no different. Having the right garden tool for the job can make gardening a snap, not to mention more enjoyable. Having a dull, or inadequate garden tool, can turn the simplest tasks into back-breaking misery.

Every vegetable gardener has their own methods for doing things. Some gardeners can even get down-right superstitious about certain tasks in the garden. But one thing is universal - take care of your garden tools and they take care of you.

There is something about really good tools that makes any hobby, or project, more enjoyable and far more efficient. For instance, most chefs know that high quality knives are not only more comfortable to use, but are better balanced and retain their edge longer.

Clean Hand Tools After Each Use

The same can be said for garden tools. Garden tools with sharp, forged blades take out weeds painlessly, cultivate effortlessly, and are a pleasure to use. Such tools require regular care to hold their edge and retain their value. I know I have certain garden tools in my shed that I could not live without, and over the years have become constant gardening companions.

One thing that I have found paramount during my gardening experience; the biggest value I have learned is that buying the higher quality tools is the only tool to buy. As the saying goes - you get what you pay for. This rings true for gardening tools as well. If you buy a cheap tool, you will get a cheap tool that may not even last one season. One thing to pay attention to is a high price tag does not necessarily mean higher quality.

Examine Tools Before Purchasing

Thoroughly examine the tool before purchasing. Ask yourself some questions while looking for garden tools.

For example:
  • is it metal or plastic?
  • does it bend easily?
  • will it rust?
  • how much will I use this tool?
If you were purchasing a car, you wouldn't just grab the first car with the cheapest price tag would you? I hope not. Treat your garden tool purchases the same way.

The best thing I have found that helps to determine a good tool or a piece of junk - do research. Ask fellow gardeners about the tools they recommend, search the internet, ask the fine folks at your local garden center what they recommend. The best way to find out if a garden tool is worth the purchase is by asking those that have used it in the real world.

Thoroughly Inspect Garden Tools Before Use

Since it is now time to begin preparing the vegetable garden, let's take a minute to prepare our tools.

Wood Parts

Wood handles on long and short tools need to be sanded and oiled at regular intervals, usually once a year is enough. Wipe off the handle to clean, and use little if any water. Use fine sand paper to smooth the surface. Remove the dust and rub linseed oil into the handle. Let it soak in. Use as much as it takes until it doesn't absorb any more. Wait about a half hour, then dry off any remaining on the surface.

Fiberglass Parts

Wash with soap and water, then hang up to dry. Check handles for any cracks or splintering. You don't want to put a lot of force on a tool with a cracked handle. If it were to break while using the item, you could end up on the ground wondering what happened - or worse.

Metal Surfaces

Store metal tools like shovels in a 5-gallon bucket filled with coarse sand to which oil (motor oil, vegetable oil, or WD-40 works well) has been added. You can store tools in the winter in the sand or remove and wipe off. Alternately, you can use a smaller bucket of sand and oil as a cleaning step. Each time you use your tools, clean as much dirt as you can, then dig the tool up and down in the sand a few times to clean off remaining dirt and coat the head with oil. The oil coating removes rust from the tool and prevents it from recurring.

Let Hand Tools Dry Before Storing

Once a year, clean metal surfaces with a wire brush to remove dirt and light rust.

If the rust is a bit worse, you can sometimes remove it by soaking the tool in white vinegar; otherwise use steel wool. The extent of the rust determines what grade to use. Start with the least coarse grade you can to remove the rust. Once the rust is removed and the entire surface is clean, you can apply a rust-proofing primer. Steel wool and repaint any rough areas.

File the cutting edge of your metal tools to keep the blade sharp. Practice makes perfect. Even a badly sharpened tool is easier to use that a dull tool. To make short work of your filing projects, install a bench vise on your workbench. With the tool securely gripped by this second set of "hands" you'll be able to quickly and safely file the business end of your tool. If you regularly file your tools, it will take but a few strokes to keep a fine sharp edge.

To file, use a Mill file. Start with the top edge of the tool. File away from you, using long even strokes at the same angle as the original bevel. Lift the tool between strokes. File the opposite side lightly just to remove roughness or burrs for a clean, sharp edge.

Always hose off and dry your tools after use to keep them sharp and prevent rust. Use a general purpose oil to quickly wipe blades and metal surfaces to condition between uses.

Pruning tools

Clean the tool and its blades each time you use it. Use WD-40 to keep moving parts working freely.

Pruners may need to be disassembled first. Use a whetstone to sharpen blades. Many vegetable gardeners color the blade to be sharpened with a black felt tip marker and sharpen evenly until all traces of the marker have been removed.

Sharpen only beveled edges and always shape blades to maintain the original shape of the bevel.

Carefully Sharpen Blades and Edges Once a Year or As Needed

For very expensive pruners, have them professionally sharpened or invest in a specialty tool to make sure you can sharpen them correctly.
Final note

You can condition and sharpen tools yourself, or find a professional to sharpen them for you. Regardless of which direction you decide to go, your tools will last for years and give you decades of easy use.

Remember to always use safety glasses when working with files, or power tools. One metal splinter can cause a heck of a lot of damage if it gets in your eye.

Using good maintenance practices for your garden tools is not very difficult, but not doing it could make your vegetable gardening much less pleasant. So take the little bit of time required to care for your garden tools before and after each use.

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