Maintaining Garden Tools: A Necessity Lost In My Garden

By Bonnie Grant | November 19, 2020
Image by AVolke
by Bonnie Grant
November 19, 2020

I come from people who grew up on farms. My paternal grandparents, especially, were both farm kids and brought their love of gardening into their urban setting. Their garden was lush, diverse, and included a few chickens. But it seems to be a family failing in that we never take care of garden tools. After a day of use, it is not uncommon to see them outside for days. They are also often prominently coated in snow, as they were forgotten over the winter. Rusty tools were a common sight in my childhood too.

Gardening Tool Neglect Runs in the Family

I am forever losing my old garden tools. Either I inadvertently throw them in my yard waste bags, or I just set them down somewhere and don’t find them for months. Even the bigger items, like a hoe, tend to be leaning against the fence, getting watered on, until I need them again. This all leads to rather rusty, dull tools. Because of this, maintaining garden tools due to neglect is a shameful, but necessary, part of the spring ramp up to gardening – or even during fall cleanup.

I get this trait honestly, from my family. We all adore our tools, yet somehow have a capricious attitude towards them. They are not babied but are used hard. As a reward for their hard work, we neglect them. Old garden forks with a tine rusted off or a blunted shovel, broken, rotting wooden handles are all common sights from my childhood to now. Not too long ago, the metal foot on my dandelion weeder simply popped off, probably because it had rusted through. So it appears I carry the family tradition forward, paying little attention to those items most necessary for yard maintenance. Speaking of, where is that leaf rake hiding?

Care of Garden Tools

I try to take care of my old garden tools, but it is often too little too late. In spring, I use a rasp to try to get an edge back on them and rub linseed oil on the wooden handles. I can change the spark plug in my mower, and clean the baked-on dead grass from my weed-wacker. The little tools often reveal themselves after the first round of weeding, lying neglected for the last 6 months in a pile of composting debris. These will get similar treatment.

Maintaining garden tools wouldn’t have to be such a chore if I would just remember to put them away, but what can I tell you? I’m a work in progress. I know it would certainly make my seasonal gardening tasks a little easier too.

My grandparents were paragons of gardening, but not so much on their yard paraphernalia. I’m sure they tried, as they were frugal people that didn’t ever overspend. I do know that grandpa had a mass of handles to replace those that had become too damaged to use. He also always had a grinder, ready to try to hone shovels, hoes and other items that had lost their edge. The relaxed attitude and assumption that all items would be operational after neglect was slightly delusional, but also charmingly naive.

Flash to today, and my early impressions of garden items that still worked even though not in tip-top shape, persists. Old garden tools are the workhorses of the garden. They should be carefully tended to and enjoy a long, productive life. But in my world, they are lucky to survive very long, which is why I now get my gardening tools from garage sales. A lifetime of neglect has taught me to never buy new, but rely on another’s better maintenance to get me by for a few years.

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  • Jennifer
    Comment added January 4, 2021Reply

    This hits home. I've never taken good care of my wooden handled tools, but 9 years ago my very elderly uncle died, and I brought home most of his old garden tools. I'm not going to say they looked like they were bought yesterday, but the handles were in perfect shape, dark with age, and smooth. I don't know if he oiled the handles or just kept them inside when they weren't being used (probably both, knowing him), but these tools were all probably over 50 years old. Think about that: In perfect shape after 50 years. Anyway, it lit a fire under me to try and keep better care of my tools, and for sure, the ones that came from him. Every year now I use linseed oil on the handles and try my best to keep the ones I use in the garden under cover. By the way, those old tools are much higher quality than what you can buy today.

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