A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the importance of sharpening cutting tools before doing any pruning. But there’s more than just sharpening blades to keep cutting tools in tip-top condition.

Removing built-up sap and rust on the cutting blades are also part of good maintenance. Sticky sap impacts the ability to get a clean cut and picks up disease spores that can be transported from plant to plant.

Metal tools are less likely to rust over the winter if they were cleaned and oiled before storing.  In Michigan, dampness is an issue in garden sheds and garages, so  tools just tossed in a bucket when the temps dropped in fall may need some serious attention.

If you have rusty tools to clean, rather than use commercial rust removers that are usually caustic and expensive, try a good old white household vinegar for the job. The downside is it takes longer, but that time is spent soaking rather than scouring and that’s my kind of cleaning. 

And, you may find badly rusted metal tools, such as those left out in the garden for weeks at a time, may not be a lost cause. Soaking them in undiluted plain vinegar for several hours or more and then a good scrubbing with a stiff brush, steel wool or a Scotch Bright scouring pad does a surprisingly good job of removing rust with very little effort.  Use a glass or plastic container to hold the tools while soaking.

 A large glass baking dish, plastic shoe box or a plastic dishpan works nicely. Be sure to rinse them well and wash with soap and water to remove any vinegar residue. When finished, let them dry completely and then oil the blades with a fine coating of 3 and 1 oil. Those who garden organically can use canola oil.

Cleaning built-up sap on the blades of cutting tools can be a pain and regular dish soap doesn’t do the job. My product of choice for this and most other crummy cleaning jobs is Krud Cutter concentrated cleaner/degreaser and stain remover that I buy by the gallon at the big box stores.  It’s both bio-degradable and non-toxic. You may need to do a bit of scrubbing with steel wool as sap hardens over time.

While cleaning your garden tools, don’t overlook other hand tools. Any with metal blades should be cleaned, edges sharpened and wooden handles oiled. Even though they don’t have moving parts, a well-cared for tool just seems to work better, making gardening easier.

Nancy Szerlag is a master gardener and Metro Detroit freelance writer. Her column appears Fridays in Homestyle. To ask her a question go to and click on Ask Nancy. You can also read her previous columns at

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