Gardening Tool Maintenance

Before you wrap up the gardening season and head indoors to take a well-deserved rest, make sure that all of your gardening tools are properly cleaned and stored for the winter. As with all relationships, the more attention and effort you put into it, the longer and better the relationship. Don’t be caught off guard next spring when you grab your shovel, pruning shears, or garden fork only to find that it’s rusted, splintered, and dull!

Fall is the best time to assess the condition of your gardening tools. Some may only need a good cleaning, but others may need some maintenance or repair before being put away for the winter.

Of course, it’s not always easy to find the time (or energy!) to do everything you “should” do. So here are the things you must do each fall if you want your tools to last, as well as a few should-dos and some nice-to-dos.

Must Do

Clean and Dry Your Tools

clean gardening toolsThis is the easiest thing you can do to keep your tools in good working order – but it’s probably the task that most of us don’t do on a regular basis. So before you put your gardening tools away for the winter, make sure that they’re as clean as you can get them. Why? Because there are elements in soil that can corrode metal and rot wood.

For tools that come in contact with soil, remove all the dirt from the blade or tines. A strong jet of water from a hose should do the trick. For clay or caked on dirt, use a stiff-bristled brush and a bit of elbow grease. A toothbrush works well for smaller tools. Wipe down the shaft and handle as well.

For cutting tools (such as loppers, pruners, shears, and saws), make sure you remove any sap from the blades. Turpentine works well for this or you can buy a solvent specifically developed for use on cutting tools (I like the ARS Tool Cleaner). Be careful of those sharp blades as you clean them!

Finally, dry everything thoroughly. An old towel or cotton cloth is perfect for this.


One way to prevent rust build-up on garden tools is to plunge them into a bucket filled with sand and oil after each use. The sand scrapes dirt and rust off the metal surface and the oil protects it from oxidation.

  1. Fill a large bucket or pail (plastic is best) with coarse sand, such as builder’s sand or playground sand, and place it in a protected area where it won’t get wet (a shed or garage works well).
  2. Moisten the sand with oil. Make sure all of the sand is lightly coated in oil right down to the bottom of the bucket. Most people recommend motor oil (you can even use the oil drained from your power tools) but I prefer to use boiled linseed oil; either will work.
  3. After using your tools (and before storing them for the winter), dip the metal parts into the sand/oil mixture. Move the tool up and down several times to remove dust and rust.
  4. Store your tools in a dry place.

Remove Any Rust

As you clean your tools, make note of any rust that isn’t easily removed – these areas will need special attention. Use steel wool or a wire brush to take off any visible rust. For heavily rusted tools, you may want to try a wire brush attached to a drill bit– it’ll make quick work of removing rust from a large area, such as a shovel blade.  Always be sure to wear safety glasses as bits of wire will often fly off the brush!

To prevent rust from returning, coat metal parts with a thin layer of oil. There are many options here, such as WD-40 or a similar aerosol lubricant, motor oil, cooking oil, and linseed oil. I prefer not to use petrochemical-based oils so I use boiled linseed oil, but any of these options would work.

Warning: Don’t wad up an oil-soaked rag and toss it in the trash; it could go up in flames! Leave it in the open to dry to prevent the risk of combustion.

Clean and Protect Wood Parts

repair wooden handles

Don’t let your wooden handles look like the one on the left.

Cold winter air can dry out wooden handles and shafts, leading to splinters and even cracks.

After cleaning and drying your garden tools, give the wooden parts a light sanding with fine to medium sandpaper to remove any splinters. Then wipe down the surface with boiled linseed oil (apply it with a rag) to prevent the wood from drying out. Use enough oil to thoroughly coat all surfaces.

While you’re doing this, check for any cracks in wooden handles or shafts. Consider replacing any damaged handles now so your garden tools will be ready in the spring.

Winterize Watering Equipment

Cold weather causes water to freeze and expand. If there’s water inside the enclosed part of a hose, watering wand, or sprinkler, it could burst, split, or crack. So before freezing temperatures set in, drain all the water from your watering tools and store them in a dry location out of the sun (sunlight can degrade hoses).

Coil your hose (avoid any kinks or folds) and store it neatly. If you hang it on the wall, use a hose storage reel or two large hooks; don’t drape it over a single hook as that will cause the hose to kink and possibly crack.

Store All Tools in a Dry Place

After all of your work to clean and protect your gardening tools, proper storage is an absolute must. A shed, garage, basement, etc. will do – just make sure it’s dry. And to ensure that no moisture will harm your tools, hang or place everything off the ground.

Should Do

This could be a long list (there’s always something that you should be doing!) but in the end it comes down to those things that must be done before you start gardening in spring. You can do them now, over the winter, or when spring arrives.

  • Sharpen all your tools
  • Oil or grease moving parts
  • Replace anything that’s worn out, broken, or useless (and let’s face it, we all have garden tools that we don’t use!)