Winter is upon us, and unless homeowners condition their gardening equipment, they may find the equipment rusty and recalcitrant next spring, says Ron Crocheron, a merchandizer for the Hechinger Co.

He observes that most people just put their tools away when winter comes. When they take it out in the spring, it breaks down. Then it takes a long wait to get it repaired because other people are doing the same thing."

The first step before mothballing a gasoline-powered engine is to drain out the fuel, he said. This can be done by either unscrewing the drain plug, if the mower is equipped with one, or by tilting the mower after removing the gas tank cap. Failure to drain a mower may result in a gummy substance that may clog the carburator.

Then run the engine with the choke open. When the motor sputters, that indicates all remaining gas has been run out. If there is a carburetor bowl at the side of the carburetor, wipeit out and spray it and the carburetor with a carburetor cleaner. Failure to follow these steps may result in a clogged carburetor.

Next remove and regap the spark plug. This is done with a small gapping tool. The proper gap is indicated in the manufacturer's instructions. Put about 15 drops of lubricating oil into the spark plug hole. Then crank the engine several times to distribute the lubricant throughout the engine. Replace the plug.

Four-cycle engines have separate containers for gas and oil. Two-cycle models use a mix of gas and oil in one compartment. Both models must be drained of the oil or the oil-gas mixture. Normally, there is an oil plug underneath the carburetor. Unscrew it, drain the oil in the four-cycle engine and replace with fresh oil. The two-cycle engine mixture should not be replaced until springtime.

All draining should be done outdoors, considering the volatilty of gas fumes.

Disconnect the ignition cable from the spark plug. Inspect the mower blade for nicks and dirt. Then hose out, try and spray with a light household oil such as 3-in-1. If sharpening is needed don't wait until springtime.

Remove any grass clippings and dirt from the underside of the deck. Grass forms an acid that corrodes metal. Hose out the deck, dry and apply a silicone spray. The spray will help prevent grass from adhering when the mower is used again and, by providing a slippey surface, will cause the cut grass to shoot easily into the grass-catcher or out the side of the mower when in use.

While gasoline mowers may be left outside if wrapped -- preferably in canvas -- electric mowers must be kept indoors. If water gets into the shroud covering the engine, the user may be jolted by an electric shook.