Choosing and Caring For Garden Tools

Tree and shrub pruning season is approaching. "A poor person can't afford a bargain", goes the old saw, especially true when it comes to garden cutting tools, such as pruners and shears. It pays off to spend more for high quality garden tools, especially for frequently used cutting devices such as loppers, designed for removing tree limbs up to an inch in diameter. The high quality steel, superior handles and mechanisms will help insure that the tool can last a lifetime. Experts recommend the more expensive loppers from manufacturers with a garden tool track record, such as Hickock, Felco and Corona. For their top of the line cutters, you can expect to pay $70-$90.

What tools do you need for pruning? Needle-nose shears: Made for cutting flower stems.Use hand pruners (pruning shears with a curved blade) for branches less than one-half inch thick. For slightly larger branches (the thickness of your thumb or less), use long-handled loppers. For branches over an inch thick, use a coarse-toothed pruning saw.

Proper care, though, is the key for longer lasting loppers and other garden tools. Here are some tips:

* Clean your tools after each use. I've gotten into the habit of spraying my loppers after a day of pruning with a bathroom spray cleaner. This not only disinfects the cutting surface (to prevent the possible spread of fungus diseases from tree to tree), its cleaning properties are strong enough to clean off any sap buildup. Pruning saws, shears and shovels also will last longer and work easier the next time if you clean them after use.

* Oil your loppers after a day in the garden. Some professionals use 10-40 weight oil; I like the convenience of household oils, such as Three in One.

* Take apart your loppers twice a year for a thorough cleaning and sharpening. Use a six-inch file to maintain sharpness, honing only the bevel side (the sharp, cutting edge) of the lopper. Using the round side of the file (and the lopper secured in a vice), file with parallel strokes, following the full edge of the bevel, applying even pressure from the tip to the base, on the blade side only. Don't use an up-and-down motion with the file; the blades could end up with an uneven edge or nicks.

* A quick fix for hand pruners with a broken latch: remove the old latch and run a small key ring through the latch hole to secure the two halves of the pruners when not in use.

* How to choose a good quality garden hose: look for a brass, knuckled (not round) female fitting, the end that attaches to your faucet. Generally, if the manufacturer puts quality here, the rest of the hose will be well-constructed to inhibit kinking and breakage.

Choosing shovels and spading forks:

Use a round nose shovel for digging. Use a flat nose shovel with rolled shoulders for moving, loading or unloading. Use a garden spade with a flat, sharp edge for cutting out sod, breaking apart crowded rootstocks such as agapanthus or canna lilies, or smoothing off the sides of a trench.

A quality shovel is reinforced at the junction of the handle and shovel blade. Choose a shovel with a forward-rolled foot tread, where you rest your foot. A shovel with a brightly colored handle will make it easier to find in the yard.

Shovel maintenance: apply linseed oil with a rag twice a year on wood handles. Clean the metal surfaces after every use with a wire brush, coarse steel wool or an oily rag. And keep the cutting surfaces sharp with a file.

Heavy duty spading fork or garden fork. No doubt about it, this is my favorite tool. The four, flat tines are ideal for turning the soil in the raised vegetable beds and for working in our heavy clay, rock-infested, soil.