P aradoxically, a cheap garden tool is expensive because it will wear out faster. When you buy garden tools, buy good quality, well-made tools. The metal will have a good "temper," and it will lend itself to repeated sharpenings. For garden tools, try www.gardeners.com (888-833-1412), www.duluthtrading.com (800-505-8888), www.lehmans.com (888-780-4975), and www.smithandhawken.com (800-940-1170).
Caring for Garden Tools -- You can add years to the life of good garden tools by storing them indoors and out of the rain, keeping them clean and oiling their wooden handles.
When you bring in a muddy tool, clean the worst of the dirt off with a piece of wood that is wedge-shaped. Keep the piece of wood handy by drilling a hole near the top and hanging it on a string by the door of your garage or tool shed. The best way to keep the blades of garden tools clean is to keep a small sandbox -- a sturdy wooden box filled with sand and a little bit of old vegetable oil--inside the door of your tool shed. Whenever you bring a tool into the shed, plunge the blade into the sandbox several times until the dirt has been worn off and the blade is once again preserved with the rust-inhibiting oil.
Once a year, coat the wooden handles of your garden tools with boiled linseed oil. Found in most hardware stores, it can be applied with a brush or rag. Oiling the wooden parts of your tools is a good winter project that will add years of life to your tools. Make it an annual habit.
Sharpening Garden Tools -- Kitchen knives, axes, hatchets and pruning shears are not the only tools that should be kept sharp. Hoes and shovels should also have an edge. Using a blunt hoe or shovel is a complete waste of time, not to mention frustrating. When using a hoe, you might make as many as 1,000 strokes in the course of an hour's work. Even a moderately dull edge cuts efficiency in half. And remember that the best way of weeding is to prevent weeds from seeding. A dull hoe will only promote procrastination.
The easiest way to sharpen a hoe or shovel is with a vise and a file. Mount a vise, waist-high, in your shed somewhere along a workbench. Plan on needing plenty of room--the length of your handles -- on both sides. Once it's clamped into place, you can bear down with your file and sharpen your tools quickly and routinely. You might think a grindstone is faster, but the heat generated can take the temper out of the metal, making it permanently soft. If your tools are sharpened routinely, it isn't difficult to keep a "hair-shaving" edge on them. Before sharpening the edge, examine the shape of the edge and check for scars and notches -- places where you've hit a rock when digging or hoeing. Always keep to the original angle of the edge of the blade. If you find a nick that is deep you might have to get dramatic with your file by first using it to blunt the entire edge of the tool in order to get an even edge again. Afterwards, use the file to create an angled sharp edge. If your filing has been dramatic, you might have a burr on the backside. Simply pass the file a few times -- without much pressure -- over the backside of the edge. As you work, tap the metal shavings from the file onto your workbench. That way, you'll freshen your file's shaving and sculpting ability.
Sharpening a Scythe -- In happy contrast to a noisy, smelly gas-powered string weeder, a scythe is a meditative way to cut tall grasses and weeds. A hand scythe can perform a moderate-size task in less time than it takes to fire up, maintain and repair its mechanical substitute. But keeping a scythe sharp is an art and requires special tools. The blade is kept sharp by "hammering" the bevel to reshape or "thin" the blade and then using a whetstone to sharpen or "hone" it. For scythes, scythe-sharpening tools and in-depth sharpening instructions, contact the Marugg Company in Tracy City, Tenn. (931-592-5042)
Keeping your tools clean, sharp and well-oiled will bring you a lifetime of gardening pleasure.