It's Gardening Season: Here's How to Clean Your Garden Tools

Plants and garden tools on front porch.

Ali Harper/Stocksy

After a long gardening day of pulling weeds and trimming bushes, odds are cleaning shovels and shears isn't your preferred way to unwind. Unfortunately, neglected garden tools can become dull and rusty and may require replacement parts, or worse, sooner than if you'd cared for them properly.

If you want your tools to be ready next time you're up for planting and pruning, take a few minutes after each use to clean them. Here are five simple steps to keep your garden tools in tip-top shape for years to come.

How Often Should You Clean Garden Tools?

Ideally, it's best to clean your shovels, shears, and such right after each use, but this won't be practical for every gardener. With that said, be sure to thoroughly clean your tools twice each year at the very least, once at the beginning of your gardening season and once more at the end.

In the following circumstances, however, you'll want to give your tools a quick clean right away:

  • If you used the tool on a diseased plant
  • If you notice some rust build-up
  • If your tool has any residue from sap or insects

To help your tools last longer, spray or scrape off as much dirt and grime as you can after each use, then store them in a 3- or 5-gallon bucket of sand mixed with 1 cup of vegetable oil (handle-side sticking up). This will prevent corrosion and keep your blades from growing dull.

Things You'll Need:

  • Putty knife
  • Garden sprayer
  • Wash rags
  • Steel wool
  • One 3- or 5-gallon bucket
  • Sand
  • Vegetable oil
  • Lighter fluid
  • Dishwashing soap
  • Rubbing alcohol or chlorine bleach
  • Multi-purpose oil

Set up a cleaning station to make this process a little simpler. Store all of your cleaning supplies in a bin and keep it near your garden tools for easy access.

Rack of gardening supplies and plants.

Rikki Snyder

Step 1: Spray and Scrape Off Dirt

First things first, get rid of any soil and dirt clinging to your shovels and trowels.

A garden hose fitted with a spray nozzle may do the trick, but if your tools have clumps of mud that just won't budge, use a putty knife to scrape off the gunk. Give your tools a good rinse before wiping them down with a towel and moving on to the next step.

Step 2: Remove Rust and Sap

Once you've tackled the dirt, it's time to rid your garden tools of any additional, stubborn grime. Depending on the age of your tools and how they've been stored, they may have rust or sap built up. Both issues can prevent your tools from operating efficiently and should be remedied right away.

Here are a few simple methods for removing rust:

  • Scrub rusty sections with steel wool. Rinse with soapy water and pat dry.
  • Soak your tools in a vinegar bath overnight. You can use all vinegar or a mixture of half water and half vinegar. In the morning, scrub or simply wipe away the leftover rust, then rinse with soapy water and pat dry.
  • Coat the tool in a thin layer of vegetable oil and scrub rusty sections with steel wool.

Here's how to rid your garden tools of sticky sap residue:

  • Dip a clean rag in some lighter fluid, then rub away the residue.
  • Use Goo Gone on a clean cloth to wipe away residue.
  • Use a multi-purpose oil to loosen and remove sap, as well as prevent corrosion.

Step 3: Give Your Tools a Good Soak

After you've addressed the bulk of the gunk and grime stuck on your garden tools, wash off any leftover residue and cleaning solution in a soapy bath.

Drizzle a teaspoon or two of dishwashing soap in the bottom of your 3- or 5-gallon bucket, then fill it with hot water. Once the bucket is full enough to submerge your garden tools, toss the tools in. Let everything sit for 15-30 minutes, before scrubbing away any remaining residue. Once they're sparkly clean, rinse and pat dry.

Step 4: Disinfect and Sanitize

Unhealthy plants can carry fungi and bacteria, and your pruners and shears can spread those diseases throughout your garden—unless you nip them in the bud first.

If you've used your tools to care for any unhealthy plants, be sure to disinfect and sanitize them before moving on to a different section of your garden. Empty your bucket of soapy water from the previous step, then fill it with a mixture of 2 cups of chlorine bleach and one gallon of water. Let your tools soak in the solution for 10 minutes before rinsing and cleaning with a dry cloth.

You can also use a clean washrag with rubbing alcohol instead of the chlorine bleach mixture. Again, be sure to rinse and dry once you're finished.

Next time you head out in the garden to work on your unhealthy plants, take a handful of disinfectant wipes with you. Before you move on to a new plant, wipe off your shears and shovels, then rinse with a little water and pat dry.

Shovel in pot of herbs.

Ursula Carmona of Home Made by Carmona

Step 5: Rinse, Dry, and Store

Before you stow your garden tools, make sure they're completely dry. Rust emerges when moisture, oxygen, and metal mix, so any time you store damp tools, you're inviting rust to tag along. You've already gone through the trouble of deep cleaning your trowels, shovels, and shears, so make sure you dry each tool thoroughly with a clean towel—do not air dry—before putting them all away.

Where you keep your tools is also important for longevity. As mentioned previously, storing them in a 3- or 5-bucket of sand and 1 cup of vegetable oil is an effective and simple way to prevent rust. You can also hang larger tools to prevent warping and rust. Be sure to keep all your equipment in a clean, dry environment with ample airflow.

Tips to Keep Your Garden Tools Clean Longer

At the bare minimum, every gardener should clean their tools twice each year—once at the start of the gardening season and once more at the end. However, more frequent cleaning and care can help your garden tools stay spotless all season long.

When possible, set aside time for deep cleaning your tools after each use. And if you really want your tools to last, add the following steps to your cleaning regimen:

  • Sharpen your blades: Any tool you use to plow through dirt should be sharpened at least once a year (at the end of the gardening season), and you can use a simple, all-purpose file to get the job done. Hold your tool at the handle and run your file along the bevel at a 45-degree angle, sweeping away from yourself from the base of the tool to the tip. Run the file across the edge a few times (more for tools like pruners that require a sharper edge) before wiping down with a clean cloth and returning to storage.
  • Wipe moving parts with oil: Frequent oiling will help your tools stay functional and rust-free for years, especially for tools like pruners and snips which rely on a hinge to operate. Place a few drops of multi-purpose oil in the tool's hinge and use a clean cloth to wipe oil alongside any remaining metal components. At the end of the gardening season, take these tools apart to oil hard-to-reach areas like screws and bolts.
  • Sand and oil wooden handles: If any of your garden tools have wooden handles, they'll need some special care to prevent cracking. At the beginning and end of each gardening season, sand down the handle with some medium-grit sandpaper. Wipe it down with some linseed oil on a clean rag, then bring the tool indoors to dry completely before storing.