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From a Master Gardener: Right tools makes garden tasks a pleasure

Posted by erika.d.johnson | September 6, 2018

Home enthusiasts need a handful of well-chosen gadgets

By John Moore and Jack Bernhardsen, WSU master gardeners. Published: August 30, 2018, 6:02 AM

It seems that a gardener’s work is never done. Our hobby is not a passive one, and we should always be on the lookout for ways to reduce our workload.

One way to keep the workload under control and maximize your gardening enjoyment is to choose the right tool for the particular job at hand, use it properly, and then take proper care of it so it’s ready to perform the job the next time around.

Typical tasks

When you think about the tasks we do in the garden, it may seem that we need an awful lot of tools. But if we make a list of our tasks, put them into groups or categories, make a few thoughtful compromises, just a few well-chosen tools will be needed. In the home garden, common tasks that require a proper tool are: digging and tilling, planting and weeding, and cutting and pruning.

Right tool for the job

Digging and tilling require shovels, rakes and hoes. We’re generally standing for these tasks so tools should fit the user. The handle should be long enough so the user is not working at an odd angle, inviting back stress. In general, the handle should be as tall as the gardener.

Planting and weeding are aided by trowels, weeders and soil knives. These tasks are done with a short-handled tool that should fit the user’s hand for comfort, efficiency and safety. Tools should be sturdy enough to stand up to heavy use without being too weighty for the gardener. Avoid flimsy materials that will chip and rust easily. Stainless steel is a good choice for many of these items.

Cutting and pruning tools include loppers, saws and hand pruners. In choosing these tools, keep the maximum capacity in mind. Using an undersized tool can damage the plant, the tool and the user. There are many features available and a huge variety of price points. It’s not necessary to break the bank, just make sure that the tool is the right size for the job, fits your hand, and will take a sharp edge.

Keep tools sharp

Sharp tools are important to ensure that you get a clean cut, reduce fatigue, and avoid accidents that stem from overstressing the tool and your body. Most garden tools can be kept sharp with frequent use of a bastard file — so-named for the coarseness of the file’s cut, which is a medium one. Only use pressure on the forward stroke or your file won’t last long. Try to imitate the manufacturer’s bevel. Large tools, such as hoes and shovels, are fine with a large angle up to 45 degrees. Cutters such as pruners and loppers need to be very sharp. Use a narrower angle in the range of 20-30 degrees.

Cleaning saves time

Cleaning and disinfecting can save a lot of trouble in the long run. Cleaning keeps rust away and disinfecting prevents spreading disease from plant to plant.

A rag and wire brush can take care of cleaning, but disinfecting is another story. There are many methods to accomplish this task, but none of them is perfect. The effectiveness of products varies, and many of the solutions are corrosive to metal. Suffice it to say that there are plenty of over-the-counter household disinfectants that will work fine for the home gardener. After researching the issue, we learned that chlorine bleach can damage plants and is corrosive to metal. Steer away from it.

Lysol is a favorite because it’s generally effective, fast acting and noncorrosive.

Lubricate to preserve

Lubricating and preserving are critical tasks. However, there’s no consensus on the best way to accomplish them. A good oil such as linseed or tung, or furniture wax will work for wooden handles. Metal parts need an oil coating to inhibit rust keep operation smooth. Personally, we would never follow commonly suggested methods such as storing tools in sand soaked in used motor oil — these tools work in your garden! Use products with the least toxicity like linseed and mineral oil.

The authors would like to acknowledge and thank Bob Denman of the Red Pig Garden Tools in Boring, Ore. His presentation to the Master Gardener Foundation of Clark County inspired our deeper journey into the world of tools and tool care.

If you would like to dig deeper into the subject, please join us at 10 a.m. on Sept. 22 for a Tool Talk workshop at the Pacific Park Natural Garden demonstration site.

At this 90-minute workshop aimed at saving time, effort and money on your gardening adventure, our “Tool Guy,” Master Gardener Jack Berhardsen, will provide the answer to important questions like, “what’s the difference between a spade and a shovel” and “why should I care?’ We’ll also discuss how to cut down your workload, prevent the spread of disease, and how to care for your gardening arsenal.

So, whether you’re just beginning your gardening journey, or you’re needing to expand an already robust tool collection, join us. Everyone is welcome.

Bring a lawn chair and your work clothes. We’ll do some maintenance in the demo garden after the workshop.

This workshop is put on in conjunction with Clark County Public Health – Solid Waste Outreach. Information is at 564-397-5738 or Visit us online at