Ask a Master Gardener: What tool maintenance should I do in fall?



Good garden gear to have are, from left, a pruner, bulb digger, small leaf rake, a garden fork, and gardening gloves.


Question: After a long, good gardening season, my garden tools are looking rather worn and over-worked. Every right-handed garden glove has holes in the fingers. What would an experienced gardener do to wrap up the season, tool-wise?

Answer: Lavishing a little time and attention on your garden tools this time of year will pay off splendidly come spring.

Dirt and moisture can ruin any metal tool, and quickly, too. Take it from someone who found the pathetic remains of a cherished (and expensive) pair of Felco pruners in the compost.

Here's the order of business for hand tools:

1. Clean off all grime and dirt. An old toothbrush and soapy water work well.

2. Use steel wool to smooth and completely clean all surfaces.

3. Coat all metal with a light, penetrating oil.

4. Sharpen all tools. Use a traditional stone or get an inexpensive sharpening tool (under $15). Sharpen only the edges that were originally sharpened.

5. Spray the working parts with WD-40 to protect over the winter.

Don't store in pouches, as moisture could encourage rust.

For big tools, winterize just as you did the hand tools. If wooden handles need attention, sand and reapply varnish or paint.

With a little attention and care, garden tools can last for many years, giving you the help you need. As gardeners we all know that nothing is more frustrating than working with a dull and rusted pair of pruners or an unsharpened spade.

Q: Last year I tried forcing bulbs to give me some early blooms. I know I had to refrigerate them for a time before planting, so I bought crocuses and hyacinths and kept them in the refrigerator for six weeks. But neither produced well. What do I need to differently?

A: You didn't chill them long enough. Both crocuses and hyacinths need at least 13 weeks of chill to force successfully. Try again, and I'm sure you'll have success.

Q: I visited a friend's garden about 2 miles from my house, and it looks like fall hasn't even begun there. My garden, on the other hand, looks ready to welcome winter. Why the huge discrepancy?

A: Welcome to Bellingham's microclimates. And we aren't talking about just a few. There are literally thousands of them.

If you weren't a gardener, you might not notice them. But gardeners know all too well that any particular plant will do better in one place than in another.

Microclimates are the result of wind, rain and cold. Many of us know about the sometimes fierce Northeasters, a wind that blows down from the cold north, often causing damage to plants, trees and even buildings. It encounters no impediments -no mountains - to slow it.

Unlike rainfall, that can't be slowed or stopped, gardeners do have some recourse to wind. They can build baffles, plant hedgerows or trees, or plant behind existing buildings.

Vegetable gardeners have devised many ways to protect their prize tomatoes, eggplant and other plants that like heat. They plant them against a south-facing wall or fence. Or they use simple plastic covers over their raised beds. For sure, the experienced ones use seeds and plants that are produced for the Northwest climate.

What really is important for any gardener is to observe the garden, in all seasons, to see where the optimum location for any plant could be. Armed with that knowledge, there are many ways to help plants flourish, no matter the microclimate(s) on your property.


Ask a Master Gardener will appear in The Bellingham Herald once a month during the fall and winter. If you have a gardening question you'd like answered in the column, please email it to

Master Gardener Kathleen Bander is a resident of Bellingham and life-long gardener. For more information on Whatcom County Master Gardeners, go to

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