How to prepare garden tools for the season (including your hands)

January 13, 2017 | Doug Oster comments

Laura Schoch is holding a shovel named “Thor” in the tool room near the production greenhouses at Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Garden where she works as a display horticulturist. The point of the shovel has been worn away after decades of dutiful digging throughout the conservatory.

There are lots of tools here that have been around longer than many of the workers. One of the reasons they’ve lasted so long is proper maintenance.
Schoch is preparing for a class that teaches home gardeners how to make their tools last for generations and tune them for peak performance.

Laura Schoch, display horticulturalist at Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens poses with "Thor," a well used shovel.  She's teaching a class on getting tools in shape along with giving students some tips to stretch their hands as a way to avoid injuries.

Laura Schoch, display horticulturalist at Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens poses with “Thor,” a well used shovel. She’s teaching a class on getting tools in shape along with giving students some tips to stretch their hands as a way to avoid injuries.


Laura Schoch, display horticulturalist at Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens shows the bevel of a bypass pruner.  She's teaching a class on getting tools in shape along with giving students some tips to stretch their hands as a way to avoid injuries.

Laura Schoch, display horticulturalist at Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens shows the bevel of a bypass pruner. She’s teaching a class on getting tools in shape along with giving students some tips to stretch their hands as a way to avoid injuries.

For tools like shovels, hoes, pruners and more, she stresses cleanliness as the first step for good maintenance. A wire brush and steel wool will knock off dried dirt. The metal parts should be oiled to repel moisture.
“It’s very important to get all the rust off them and put a nice edge on the blade,” she says of the tools. It makes all of them easier to use and in turn there’s less stress on the hands.
Shovels, hoes, trowels and other larger tools can be sharpened with a file. To keep the wooden handles supple, coat them with boiled linseed oil.
“It helps condition it, keeps the wood hydrated and helps prevent water from degrading the wood any further,” she says. The handles should also be sanded occasionally to prevent splinters.
Another good trick she shares is to have a bucket of sand with some motor oil added in the tool shed. Shovels can be plunged into the container to simultaneously clean and oil them after a day in the garden.
The unmistakable red handles of Felco pruners are seen in just about every gardener’s holster at Phipps. “We like them because we can take them apart and exchange parts if needed,” Shoch says.
Laura Schoch, display horticulturalist at Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens shows how to sharpen a trowel with a file.  She's teaching a class on getting tools in shape along with giving students some tips to stretch their hands as a way to avoid injuries.

Laura Schoch, display horticulturalist at Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens shows how to sharpen a trowel with a file. She’s teaching a class on getting tools in shape along with giving students some tips to stretch their hands as a way to avoid injuries.

She teaches gardeners how to disassemble pruners and sharpen the blades too. The most important thing is to follow the existing bevel with a sharpening tool. “There’s a learning curve to this,” Schoch says. “You want to practice.”
Schoch hopes home gardeners will bring their own tools to her class so she can pass along these maintenance tips and get their tools into the best shape possible for the upcoming garden season. “It’s about keeping the tools you love in good condition,” she says.
But it’s not all about things like shovels and pruners, she says.
“One of our biggest tools we use in the garden is our hands, our back, our bodies,” she says.
After two decades as a professional gardener, she has battled carpal tunnel syndrome undergoing two surgeries to heal her hands. Her problems began with a feeling of pins and needles in her hands and progressed to nighttime pain.
“I got it because of 20 years working with my hands, a repetitive injury is what they call it,” she says. “I believe it was pruning and planting, but mostly from pruning.”
Schoch now includes stretching as a daily ritual and she’ll teach it in the upcoming class.
“I decided to add it because I think a lot of people can avoid (carpel tunnel) by stretching, it’s like yoga for your hands,” she says.
Her hand stretches:
• Hold a garden trowel in one hand, extend your arm straight out in front of your body and gently rotate your wrist from left to right.
• Use both hands to hold a shovel in front of your body and do wrist curls.
• Hold one hand out straight out as if signaling stop and gently pull the fingers back toward your body with the other hand and then switch hands and repeat.
Depending on your comfort level, the stretches can be done anywhere from four to 12 times.
She has a couple more tips for gardeners too.
All gardeners, but particularly women, need to find tools that best fit their grip. She also always wears gloves when working in the garden to avoid cuts and possible infections.
Laura Schoch’s tool selection and maintenance class, 10-11:30 a.m. Jan. 21, Phipps. Cost is $20; registration is required and space is limited. Details: 412-441-4442, ext. 3925, or phipps.conservatory.org

Doug Oster is the Tribune-Review home and garden editor. Reach him at 412-965-3278 or doster@tribweb.com. See other stories, blogs, videos and more at everybodygardens.com.