Tooling up for spring


A simple wall with metal hooks keeps a collection of garden tools in order. (Barbara Damrosch)
March 20, 2013

Any good, experienced gardener knows that fall is the proper time to get the tools in order. With the garden put to bed, all the shovels, spades and hoes are rounded up, cleaned, oiled, sharpened and stored in the right place so they’ll be ready for spring. Why am I telling you this now? Because if you are like many good, experienced gardeners, you have once again let this timely regimen lapse, and you begin spring wondering where your tools are.

Some are in the tool shed, so only part of the morning must be spent searching through the raspberry canes for the hand pruners, or around the compost pile for the lawn rake. Maybe you should paint all the handles blue, the only color that stands out in nature at any time of year.

Maybe your tool storage needs rethinking. A wall with lots of large plastic-covered metal hooks, designed for tool-hanging, encourages order. But even a metal garbage can into which you can stick all long-handle implements, working end up, is a decent solution.

Lubricating the tools’ wooden handles with boiled linseed oil is the best way to preserve them. By penetrating the wood, the oil displaces moisture, discouraging rot, and keeps the wood “lively,” as my husband would say. Tools with well-kept handles have a springier feel.

Cleaning the metal parts after use not only prevents rust but also helps keep them sharp. I once saw a drawing, in one of painter Eric Sloane’s books, of a tool called a “man.” (I’ve also heard it called a “wood man.”) It was just a block of wood with a handle, and the tip cut at an angle to make a wedge — effective for scraping the most encrusted mud off shovels and spades. I’d say a good man is hard to find, but in fact it might be impossible. I haven’t seen this tool for sale anywhere since the early Smith & Hawken days. It wouldn’t be hard to make one, though. Stubborn plant sap residue might require hot water and steel wool. After a final hosing-down, dry the tools with a rag.

Sharpening tools dulled by work is very important. It gives power to a tool, and it’s easier than you might think. Get yourself a “mill bastard file,” a common type of flat, medium-coarse metal file, with a handle. Look closely at the edge of the tool to observe the angle of the edge and whether it is double-edged or single. Then slide the file forward across the edge repeatedly with long strokes at the proper angle. The edge will start to look a bit shiny. For small tools such as pruners, use an oilstone designed for sharpening knives — or have it done by a pro.

Now you’re all ready to go, except for one last thing. Find the snow shovel. If it’s not by the front door, try the mailbox. Remove the grime, rub it clean and oil the handle if it’s made of wood. Sharpen the blade, if dented. Put it where it belongs. You know how to do that.

Damrosch’s latest book is “The Four Season Farm Gardener’s Cookbook.”

Tip of the week

Winter weeds are in flower, offering a final chance for the gardener to destroy them before they produce seeds for next year. Hoe or pull henbit, bittercress, chickweed, speedwell and annual bluegrass.

— Adrian Higgins

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