Garden Tips for Winter

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There isn’t much to do in the garden at this time of year, but after the hustle, hurry and scurry of the holidays, it is a great place to be to get away from all the noise. While actual planting and feeding activities may be on hold, there is always some clean up and prep waiting for your attention.

It’s time to think of proper cleaning and storage of all that equipment. A little preventative maintenance now can prevent frustration, expensive repair and a possible visit to the ER in the future. Proper maintenance also extends the life of tools and equipment and makes working with them easier, more efficient and safer.

Remove caked on soil or plant bits and sap from all tools using a wire brush, scraper or a strong stream of water. Old BBQ Grill wire brushes are great for this and usually include a scraper. Lubricate all tool pivot points and springs with a light oil. If you object to transferring petroleum based products into the soil from your tools, linseed oil will work fine but be sure to read and understand the linseed oil label because handled incorrectly, linseed oil soaked material can spontaneously ignite.

Sharpen hoes, shovels, pruners, loppers and saws. Pruning, camping and bow saws are typically not sharpened, because replacement blades are usually not that expensive. Typically, chain saws are the only type of saws that are sharpened due to the cost of replacement blades. Start by always wearing safety glasses and leather gloves to protect your eyes, face and hands; also always use a vise to securely clamp tools being sharpened.

Typically, garden tools should be sharpened so that their cutting edges are kept at their original angle. If you make an edge too blunt, a blade will not cut well. If you make a blade too sharp, the edge will wear out early. You can sharpen either into or away from the cutting edge. Sharpening into the edge produces a sharper edge, but the risk of cutting yourself as you sharpen goes up. For safety, face the sharp edge or your tool away from you and stroke down the slope across the cutting edge. This will make a metal burr-like rough edge on the back of the tool’s cutting edge. Remove the burr using a light flat stroke of a file, whetstone, or sandpaper along the back of the cutting edge.

Specific sharpening techniques vary depending upon the particular tool. When sharpening any saw, you will need both a cross-cut file with a rounded edge and triangular file. Be sure the size of the file matches the size of the teeth being sharpened. Sharpen teeth so that they keep their original angles.

Did you clean up the lawn mower after the last cut this year? If not, now’s the time to give it some TLC. Remove the spark plug before you start moving around under the cutting deck. Wipe the equipment to remove the collected grease, dirt and plant material under the deck. You know this should be done after each use, right? OK, nagging over. Tighten loose screws and nuts. Sharpen cutting edges and wipe with an oily rag if this wasn’t done earlier, or put on fresh blades. After you finish working on the blades, then replace the spark plug if it’s in good shape. Replace it if it is worn.

If your equipment has a four-cycle engine, change the oil by following instructions listed in your owner’s manual. Remove all gasoline from tank by running engine until it stops or remove most of the gasoline with a hand-pump siphon and run it until it stops. Do not try to siphon by sucking on an inserted tube like a straw. You may be calling 1-800-222-1222 for NC’s Poison Control at the very least, and possibly making a trip to the ER. Two-cycle engines, or engines that run with a gas and oil mixture, also should have the oil-gas mixture removed for the winter. Run the engine with the choke open to remove fuel from the lines. Replace any fuel lines or primer bulbs that are worn or damaged. Avoid storing gasoline over the winter. Old gasoline does not ignite easily, making the machines (metal and human) using it work harder.

When it comes to digging in the garden or pruning trees and shrubs, having high quality tools that are cleaned, lubricated, sharpened and properly maintained, makes any outdoor job simpler and more efficient. For more information on the right tool for the job and taking proper care of them take a look at

Minda Daughtry is Horticulture Agent for North Carolina Cooperative Extension in Lee County.