Wow — how’d we get to December?!

Questions from fellow Dirtfolks seem to be appreciated by far more than the questioner. Here’s a good example:

“How do you clean garden tools? I missed that info somewhere along the line, and have lost some implements by not taking care of them. I’m assuming you wipe them with an oil product, but which one, etc.” — ‘mssandandy’, Greeneville

Tools are really important in allowing us to get our “dirt fix” aren’t they? And it is so easy to take them for granted and not service them after a season’s work-out.

Wooden handles are most vulnerable, I think. Start with some extra-fine steel wool or sandpaper; go over the entire wood parts to remove snags/splinters. This will clean it as well. Metal parts will also benefit from this same treatment. It’ll remove rust and clean. Tighten screws and inspect movable parts for looseness or wear. This is a good time to replace broken handles/parts.

Now ... the oiling. A 5-gallon bucket of sand is an efficient, quick way to sharpen and oil at the same time. Why? Because you add about a quart of used motor oil over the sand the day before you need to do the procedure. If no used motor oil is available, use any vegetable oil.

The oil will penetrate/inoculate the sand in readiness for blades of shovels, spades, hoes, even shears. Plunge the tool in and out of the oily sand several times, until you see the tool is clean, shiny and sharp. Now it’s ready to put away. The oily sand is good for several seasons. When it’s worn out, I use the sand along fence rows to kill weeds; if it has vegetable oil, I’ve used it to help break clay soils down.

Hoses also benefit from being rubbed down with an oily cloth before they’re hung up for the winter. This can be any kind of oil, spray or otherwise. Keep in mind that some oils will get sticky as they age so try to use ones that don’t. It’ll clean as well as enhance flexibility, extending the life of your hoses. Don’t forget to oil inside the two ends, especially the washers.

Lawn mowers need to be winterized too. Clean under the deck, scraping out all the old grass/debris. If you can get it completely clean, all the way to the metal, once again, oiling is helpful. I like to use spray cooking oil, coating the entire underdeck. Wipe the body down with an oily rag. Sharpen and oil blades, check/replace filters and belts. Remember, all mechanical parts benefit from oil.

As far as the fuel tank, if there’s anything remaining in it, either run it until it’s completely dry and drain the lines, or put a winterizer fuel additive into the fuel/tank (read the directions).

Unless you use 100 percent ethanol-free gas in your equipment, it’s pretty common for fuel lines to gunk up over winter and not want to run next season. The ethanol gas turns to a varnish-like substance, clogging the whole system. I learned the hard way! Several times we’ve had to take the mower to the repair shop because of careless fuel practices. It’s not cheap! In general, get all mowers in ready-to-use condition before putting them away for the winter.

While we’re at it, let’s talk about outside pots/containers. If they’re concrete or have no drainage holes, turn them upside-down or put them in the garage. This includes birdbaths. Winter will crack them. I turn mine upside-down next to the foundation on my patio.

Any pots with soil in them that also have drainage holes should be fine. My draining containers are also my annual pots. Now that the freeze has killed the annuals, I’ll clip off mature seed-heads, save some for next year and sprinkle some over the soil they grew in — also for next year. I cover them with a light layer of fresh soil and mulch. Now I’m ready for them to refresh themselves in the spring.

If you’re doing double-duty with your annual pots, clip off and save the seeds, then pull up/remove/compost the plants and plant your pansies, cabbages, etc.

I appreciate our readers and love your questions!

Sherrie “The Dirt Girl” Ottinger is a dedicated ecologist, speaker, writer and lifetime Tennessean. All comments and questions should be emailed to