by Henry Homeyer
CORNISH FLAT, N.H. – Everyone I know is thinking about spring – despite the fact that we could still see snow and sub-zero temperatures before we see tulips. This might be a good time to take an inventory of your tools to see if you have everything you need and buy the ones you need. This is also a good time to clean up, sharpen and oil the tools you have.
First, a list of the basic tools all gardeners need:
Garden fork. This is a straight-handled tool with 4 flat tines that can be used to loosen the soil for planting, or to dig out things like a clump of daylilies. These come with either fiberglass or wood handles, and I always choose wood. Both handles can splinter over time, but an oiled and well-maintained wood handle will out-last fiberglass. I have some wood-handled tools still in great shape after over 50 years of regular use.
Also needed is a pointed shovel. I like the short D-handle shovel better than those with a long straight handle, but that is for you to decide. The short handle model is lighter weight and has a nice grip. A pointed shovel digs into the soil more easily than a straight-blade spade.
It’s good to have a garden rake. This is the rake that has short tines space an inch or so apart. It is good for smoothing the soil or forming raised beds. Also, make sure to have a lawn rake. There are a dozen different styles, and all will do the job. The old-fashioned bamboo rake is nice, but the tines do break after a while. Plastic rakes are light-weight, but also break after a few years. I prefer those with metal tines.
I also like to have a drain spade. This is a shovel that has a blade that is long and narrow (16 inches long, five inches wide). It is great for transplanting; it can get all the way under a plant to help you pop it out of the ground.
Finally, you’ll need a hand tool for weeding. There are plenty, but I like the CobraHead Weeder best. It is a hand tool shaped like a curved finger and can loosen roots from below while you give a gentle tug from above. I use it to loosen the soil for planting, too. Available at garden centers or CobraHead.com.
Tools require some maintenance, and this is the time to sharpen, clean and oil them if you didn’t do it last fall. Fiberglass handles generally require no maintenance, though I suppose you could take off any rough spots with steel wool or sandpaper.
Wood-handled tools should never be left outdoors, but most of us forget occasionally; strong sun or rain will damage them and give them a rough surface. If the handle is very rough, use a piece of sandpaper and lightly sand the handle, tip to stern. Wipe it well with a rag before applying oil. For less damaged handles, rub with fine steel wool. Don’t sand a handle that has a urethane finish unless you intend to take it all off – but you can use steel wool on it.
Next, apply a coat of boiled linseed oil. I like to heat the oil until hot before applying as this is a fairly thick oil, and heating it will help it to penetrate the wood. I use a paint brush or a rag to apply the oil.
Let the oil sink into the wood, which might take overnight or just a few minutes, depending on the grain and how dry the wood is. Never try to oil a wet handle. Apply a second coat and let dry. Then rub it down with a fine steel wool, labeled 000 or 0000. This will take off any bits that are raised up by oiling and burnish the wood.
Next, look at the steel of your tool. If it has crusted soil on it, clean it first with a stiff brush – either a wire brush or even a stiff bristle brush. If it is rusty, clean off the rust with your steel wool.
If you have a well-used shovel, it is probably dull. It is easy to sharpen it, but you will need a good 8- to12-inch file, either a rough or medium file, often called a mill bastard. Be sure to get one with a handle, as some only come with a short pointy part and require you to add a handle.
Shovels should only be sharpened on one side, the side that faces into the hole as you dig. The back side will stay flat. Push your file across the shovel blade in only one direction, away from you. You may wish to clamp the shovel to a sawhorse or bench so it stays in place as you work, or push it down on the bench and file with one hand.
Go from the edge of the curve to the middle in one long stroke of your file, and repeat, keeping count of your strokes. Turn the shovel around and do the opposing edge, using the same number of strokes. Keep your file at the angle set by the manufacturer if that is evident. If not, an angle of about 45 degrees is good. That will make a sharp cutting edge, but not be so thin that it will get dull quickly. You don’t need to sharpen the sides. And don’t worry: You can’t ruin your shovel even if you have never done this before. Just keep at it and stay consistent.
When you have the shovel sharp, turn it over and you probably will be able to feel burrs on the back side – little bits of sharp metal. Clean those off with a few flat strokes of your file.
Finally, I take a rag with linseed oil and wipe the shovel blade. Some people use machine oil to oil their tools, but I don’t want petroleum products in my soil, even a little bit.
Every gardener has her own favorite tools. If you’re a rookie, visit a good gardener and ask for a tour of tools. Then go buy what you need. And remember: sharp tools work better than dull ones.
The CobraHead weeder is my favorite weeding tool.