Wise gardeners take care of their tools


All I want for Christmas this year is a good set of garden tools. . . and the good sense to use them properly.

My old hand tools are a wreck. Both the hoe and the lawn rake are broken, their handles cracked in half. You'd have thought I had used them as baseball bats. Well, I didn't. However, the garden shovel has stroked a few hits during pick-up games in the back yard. Maybe that's why there is a 2-inch gash in the blade.

I ruined the hoe a week ago, while chopping at a stump the size of Kuwait. The handle exploded in two, sending shrapnel everywhere. The good news is, I was alone at the time. The bad news is, there was no one to stop me from acting stupid.

Frankly, I've been wanting a new hoe anyway. The old hoe was giving me the creeps. It had a loose blade, and every time I used it the blade spun around in crazy circles, like Linda Blair's head in "The Exorcist." My remedy was to pound the hoe mercilessly on a slab of cement. This solved the problem for five minutes but cut 10 years off the life of the tool.

The lawn rake succumbed last month. I mourn its passing. It was a great rake, the kind with long metal teeth that stretched far beneath the shrubbery and pulled out bottle caps, gum wrappers and other bits of non-organic mulch.

My rake gave me the touch of a skilled surgeon. My rake could dislodge old sunflower seed hulls from the lawn beneath the bird feeder, without destroying the grass. My rake could skim across the yard, gathering autumn leaves while leaving the doggie piles behind.

Unfortunately, my rake balked at doing aerial chores, such as striking hornets' nests. Hornets make lousy tenants. A gang of them stung me when I brushed against the nest they had made in our pine tree. Revenge was mine. That night, I crept up to the nest and clubbed it hard in the dark. With my rake. Then I ran. The nest fell to the ground. Half of the rake landed on top of it. I didn't realize the damage until I charged into the house holding a pointed stick.

Now I am limping toward winter with a kiddie-sized rake, half of a demonic hoe and a shovel that thinks I'm George Brett. I guess I've learned my lesson.

Simple garden tools differ little in design from those used hundreds of years ago. Only the prices have changed, which is reason enough to care for your rake, hoe, shovel and trowel. Thomas Jefferson kept 18 hoes at his home in Monticello, Va., and treated them with no less respect than he did a foreign ambassador.

Wise gardeners clean their tools after each use. Not me. My shovel is still caked with dirt from the Mesozoic Era. Smart homeowners sterilize their tools by dipping them in a 10 percent bleach solution, then drying them to protect against rust. The bleach prevents the spread of soil-borne diseases to other parts of the garden.

It is easy to clean and oil your tools simultaneously. Here is the recipe: Fill an old bucket with sharp sand. Add about one quart of motor oil (recycled oil, if possible). Allow the oil to soak into the sand. Plunge each dirty tool into the bucket, immersing the blade. The sand removes the stubborn dirt; the oil helps protect the metal.

Handles and shafts also deserve special care. Before storing tools for the winter, one should sand and varnish all wooden parts. Lubricate the handles with linseed oil, the same stuff that preserves baseball gloves.

Polish metal tool parts with steel wool, and oil them to prevent rust. Remove nicks in the blade with a small flat file. Dull hoes should be sharpened, if only to save wear and tear on a gardener's back. If you don't own a grindstone, any hardware store will sharpen tools.

While you're in the store, study the tool selection for off-season sales. Don't buy cheap garden products: they give you fits and often break. Inspect the wood, particularly in long-handled tools. A good shovel is made of white ash, with visible grain lines that run the length of the handle. Avoid knotty handles and any tool whose grip has been painted. It's probably junk.

Buy a trowel made of one-piece construction, with a steel (not aluminum) blade. And don't be overwhelmed by the parade of different hoes available. There are a zillion of them: the eye hoe, grub hoe, onion hoe, scuffle hoe, swan-neck hoe, grape hoe, Italian hoe and Canterbury hoe.

These are just some of "the wonderful devices conjured up by American industry to separate gardeners from their money," says horticulturist Jeff Ball in his book, "The Self-Sufficient Suburban Gardener."

I'm partial to the old-fashioned American pattern hoe. But right now I'll take anything that will let me stand upright.


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