Speaking of Feeling Guilty…


Now that it’s fall, it’s time for the perennial Fall Garden Checklist, a staple of garden writers everywhere.  Go ahead–pick up a newspaper’s home & garden section, a gardening magazine, or visit one of those other kind of gardening websites–you know, the kind that provide actual advice or information–and tell me if they don’t just smack you over the head with the Fall Garden Checklist.  It includes such gems as:

  • Rake leaves.
  • Mulch.
  • Prune shrubs.
  • Clean and repair tools.
  • And so on.

It’s the tool thing that always gets me.  I have never, ever, not even once, cleaned or repaired a tool, and truthfully, I feel just awful about it.  My tools get tossed into their little hovel without so much as a splash of water or a swipe against my jeans to thank them for their hard work.  But you know what?  I’ve had some of these tools for a decade or more.  And they still work.

I think Martha started this "fall tool tune-up" craze.  Just look at the list at the bottom of this page, which cites Martha as the source.  It includes:

  • A stiff bristle brush will clean shovels, spades, forks, and hoes.
  • A stiff putty knife will help to clean off caked-on soil.
  • Be sure to oil all cutting blades after use and cleaning.
  • You can sharpen the blades yourself by running a Carborundum stone or file along the beveled side of the blade

And then there’s that tip about filling a bucket with sand, pouring in some motor oil, and sticking your tools in it to store them. Do you know what would happen to a bucket of sand and oil in the little laundry room closet where I store my garden stuff? It would get knocked over, and the sand and oil would get rubbed into the floor, and become a part of the floor, and the tools would go right back to sitting in a happy little dirty heap.

Is this wrong?  Does it help if I feel guilty about it?


  1. I’m terrible about that, too. A funny story about the motor-oil-in-the-sand-bucket thing—one of our local tv gardeners did that live on the air and it was a total mess. She had a five gallon bucket of sand, and she poured a whole bottle of motor oil over it, and tried her hardest to mix it all together with a shovel. It never quite mixed, and by the end of the segment she was trying to stand in front of the whole mess to hide it from view. It convinced me that it’s probably better to just let my tools stay dirty…

  2. Ha! This cracks me up because I started following this clean-your-tools advice to make sure I was “doing it right”. I must say it does makes me feel more gardeny so I keep doing it even though the tools just get dirty again the next day. I blast the sticky clay off the shovel and cultivators with the strongest jet of water my little hose attachment can muster, then I lovingly towel them dry, before lovingly rubbing them down with oil (Three In One, I think–a professional gardener I know told me about it). And I do this in the front yard, just because of space considerations. As you can imagine, I’m used to getting funny looks from the neighbors. (I actually got the funniest look when one of them saw me cleaning out my garbage can with bleach [as a favor to my partner who said it smelled bad; it didn’t].) And it’s not just fall clean-up for me; I do this all year long.

    It’s fun to be crazy.

  3. I’ve seen that tip about keeping the tools in an oily, sandy bucket…no way, no day. And Colleen, that story is hilarious.

    The whole tool clean-up thing is one area where I am particularly glad that I’m new to all this. I own exactly three tools, which makes clean-up that much easier.

    Of course, that doesn’t really say much for my ability to garden with any precision — no rototiller, no hoe — but it seems to have worked OK this year. 🙂


  4. So glad I’m not alone 🙂 My tools are lucky to make it back into the shed, crusted with lumps of dirt and all.

    Mind you, I didn’t even get the basic yard cleanup done and now it is too late. We got 6 inches of snow this weekend…

  5. All those “tips” have been around since before Martha picked up her first trowel. I’m not sure the one about motor oil is even P.C. anymore, since used motor oil has legally stipulated requirements for its disposal (at least in New York State). Many years ago I started a bucket with sand/oil, and put it on the porch. Someone moved it off the porch, and it got rain in it. It’s been down to the basement and back outside, and accumulated flotsam as it traveled lo these many years, so that I no longer care to use it for lubricating tools. As a matter of fact, it should go to the dump (oops, I mean, the county landfill), but it has to go on a hazardous waste collection day, of which there’s only two a month (only one of which is a Saturday), and you have to get there between 7:30am and 11:30am, and it’s all the way on the other side of the county. Which means one has to plan ahead, perhaps a month in advance, to get rid of an oil-and-sand filled bucket. Chuck B’s method is more sensible, except I would probably spray with WD40 instead of rub with 3-in-1 oil, and conduct the whole business once a year, before winter storage–about the same time I’m getting out the snow shovels.

  6. Buy good tools made by good tool makers that have been in the business forever. It’s all about the quality of the steel. Use vegetable oil if you have the time but buy quality in the first place.

  7. I use an old vegetable brush with natural bristles to take the dirt off the spade and the fork just to keep them from rusting, and I oil the bypass pruners occasionally for the same reason.

    I’ve cleaned up rusty tools before, so I’d rather prevent it happening again. Other than that, though, I don’t do much — to me, stuff like cleaning flowerpots is pointless. It’s just going to have dirt in it again!

  8. Mmmmmm, tools …

    It’s worth it to buy the best tools you can afford. And you’re better off buying one good one than a set of shoddy ones. Those will all need replacing within a year or two, as they bend, and split and break and rust. The one good tool will still be around for at least a decade. A square-headed border spade (not a shovel) and pruning shears would be the first tools I would buy if I had to start from scratch. Then build my collection from there.

    I do sharpen my pruner. It’s a Felco, which allows me to completely remove the blade for sharpening, and complete replacement if that’s ever needed (I had to do it once). I usually do that twice a year, fall and spring, just because that’s when I do most of my pruning and cutting. I can feel the difference in the ease of use of a sharpened blade over a dull one, and my hand doesn’t get as tired as quickly.

    I keep a plastic bristle brush around for garden scrubbing, such as cleaning out pots and planters, including getting dirt off tools if needed. They last longer than natural bristle brushes for me.

    I have never put a tool in an oily bucket of sand. Scrub it off dry and put it away.

  9. Thank you, thank you, thank you for publishing this. I’ve never cleaned, oiled, serviced or repaired a tool in my life. And my tools last decades. They’re not ever top of the line. Just stuff I picked up at the local hardware store. So glad to know that I am not the only one who “neglects” their tools!

  10. Does picking leaves out of the rake count? Because I do manage to do that. I agree with the idea of buying good tools…not necessarily top of the line but not discount store level. And I’ve had most of my tools for decades too. And now I will stop feeling guilty for never making a sand/oil bucket…I’ve been going to do that for years but you’ve all convinced me to forget about it!

  11. I do make sure my tools are all brought back in to the garage after their work is done in the garden. And I hang them up on pegboard rather than pile them in a corner. Otherwise, no special treatment here and my tools seem to be lasting just fine.

    I’ve also read that you should apply linseed oil to the wooden handles to prolong their lives. I don’t do this, either.

  12. My trowels, shears and favorite shovel are stainless steel or that heavy thick aluminum which is a good thing, because I don’t treat them as well as I should. I do try to make sure the Felcos and pruning saw are inside the garage when I’m done. They’re never really put away, though, because pruning, clipping, edging etc. never stop. The ground never freezes so there’s always something to do year round.

    Kathy’s spray-on oil suggestion also works great for cutting French or Italian bread after you’ve crisped the crust in the oven – no smushing!

    Annie at the Transplantable Rose

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