How to Clean Your Garden Tools

One of the last garden tasks to do in fall (and often one that is put off!) is to clean your garden tools and store them for winter. It’s really not that hard, especially if you rinse or wipe off your tools from time to time during the season.

cleaned garden tools

Well-used and loved tools are cleaned and ready for storage for the winter.

To clean garden tools that are not rusty, here’s my approach. First, I wipe or rinse off any dirt on the tool. A stiff brush is a good tool to use as you clean your garden tools and it is easier to get the gunk off if you do it after the dirt has dried. Once I’ve brushed the tools off, I rinse or soak them and scrub them with a scouring pad or steel wool. A spritz with some foaming bathroom cleaner may also be necessary to remove stains or stuck on dirt. Then, rinse them again, dry them thoroughly with an old bath towel and apply a little 3-in-1 oil to the metal parts and mechanisms. If they have wood handles, you can also rub the handle with a little linseed oil to keep it moist and smooth. In winter, I store most of my garden tools in the basement, but a garage, shed or other place that keeps them out of the elements is fine.

Dealing with Rust

If you accidentally leave a tool out (guilty!) or maybe lose it and don’t clean it for a year, you could end up dealing with rust and a thick layer of grime. For that, vinegar and baking soda is a good option. Our DIY columnist Eric Johnson explained this method in full in a column two years ago. Basically, you soak your rusty tools in a vinegar-infused rag for anywhere from two hours to overnight. The acid in the vinegar works to loosen the rust, then you rinse it off and and use baking soda as an abrasive to remove the rest of the rust. A toothbrush or other small brush works really well for getting into the crevices of the tools. If the tool is really rusty and grimy, take it apart so you can get at all the tight spots. This method works really well, but it’s important to use the baking soda rub with the vinegar to balance the acidity and prevent corrosion.

Sharpening Tools

Some tools benefit from sharpening from time to time. Clean the tool, then use a file and run it across the bevel on the blade a few times at a 45 degree angle. Among your garden tools that need sharpening are shovels, pruners and loppers. It’s easier to show how to sharpen tools than explain it, so below is a video on sharpening tools that you might find helpful.

With the colder-than-usual October and November we’ve had, this week may be a good time to get your tools cleaned and button up the garden for winter.


  1. Nancy on January 8, 2022 at 12:55 am

    What kind of file is that small one for pruners?

    • Mary Lahr Schier on January 10, 2022 at 9:32 pm

      It’s called a pocket blade sharpener.

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