Sharpen your tools ahead of planting season – Chicago Tribune –

Before the spring gardening season begins, prepare by sharpening your garden tools. Sharp tools are safer and easier for you to use and healthier for your plants, according to Julie Janoski, Plant Clinic manager at The Morton Arboretum in Lisle.

If the blades of a cutting tool such as pruners or loppers are sharp, they will slice cleanly through a stem or root without crushing it. “That clean cut will seal up faster,” she said. “A dull tool will tear the plant tissues, making a ragged wound that is more likely to admit disease organisms.”

Tools are also easier to use if they’re sharp. Pruners with sharp blades will require less force to slice through a branch. A sharp shovel will be easier to push through soil and roots.

Many people don’t realize that shovels are intended to be sharp. “They are sold with dull blades for safety’s sake,” Janoski said. “You’re expected to sharpen a new shovel when you get it home.”

Sharpening tools does not take long once you have mastered the techniques. Begin by cleaning the tools of dirt and sap so your view of the work is not obscured.

To sharpen a digging tool such as a shovel or spade, use a medium-toothed file such as a bastard-cut mill file. If possible, clamp the tool in a vise, or have someone else hold the tool down firmly while you work. Locate the bevel — the angle at which the inner surface of the tool meets the back surface along the edge.

“Your goal is to maintain that angle, but to make the edge sharp,” she said.

Grasp the file’s handle in your stronger hand and use your other hand to steady its tip while you draw the file along the inside edge of the shovel in long, even strokes. Keep the file at the same angle as the bevel. Draw the blade in the same direction with each stroke; don’t scrub it back and forth.

For cutting tools, such as pruners and loppers, you need a smaller file. Some gardeners use a small whetstone with sharpening oil. But it’s easier to use a diamond file, made of industrial diamond particles embedded in metal. Or buy a tool for sharpening pruners, sometimes called a sharpening stick; it’s a small metal bar with a honing edge at one end.

“For safety, wear sturdy gloves and handle your pruners or loppers carefully,” Janoski said.

Most gardeners use bypass pruners, the type with a scissorlike action in which the blades move past each other. On bypass tools, you’ll sharpen only the wider top blade. Open the pruners as wide as possible and grasp the tool with one hand to hold it open. With your other hand, swipe the file along the beveled edge of the wide blade, starting at the inside and moving outward toward the tip.

As on a shovel, keep the surface of the file at the same angle as the existing bevel. Once the blade is sharp, make one or two swipes along the back side to remove any metal burrs left behind.” Janoski said.

Once your tools are sharp, disinfect them by wiping them with 70% alcohol or dipping them in a 10% bleach solution. Then dry them carefully. Lubricate the joints with lightweight household oil and wipe the tools all over with the same oil to preserve them from rust.

“You’ll be ready to begin gardening with sharp, safe tools,” Janoski said.

For tree and plant advice, contact the Plant Clinic at The Morton Arboretum (630-719-2424,, or Beth Botts is a staff writer at the Arboretum.

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