Garden Basics: Tool Time

"If it ain't broke, don't fix it" is a motto that does not apply to power equipment and hand tools. Annual maintenance at the end of the garden season can extend their lives to a ripe old age. With the season winding down and cooler, fall temperatures ahead, it's a great time to prepare tools for winter storage.

First let's talk about servicing gasoline engine machines. Most large machines such as lawn mowers, tillers, and chipper/ shredders are four cycle engines. This type of engine burns pure gasoline and uses oil in a separate chamber to lubricate moving parts. Before servicing any engine disconnect the spark plug cable from the spark plug. Drain oil according to the owner's manual and take it to a service center that recycles oil. Please do not dispose of oil or gasoline onto the ground! I reuse the oil for cleaning hand tools. Fill the engine with fresh oil.

Cleaning or replacing the air filter is also vital. A dirty filter hinders performance by limiting air to the carburetor. Foam filters contain oil and can be washed in warm soapy water. Rinse and squeeze dry. To re-oil the filter, place it a plastic bag and add about three tablespoons of motor oil and knead the filter until it is saturated. Blot the filter to remove excess oil and reinstall. Paper filters should be replaced with a new one. It's also a good idea to replace the spark plug every year.

Other things to check for are clogged mufflers and chutes, cracked fuel lines, frayed starting cords, electric cords as well as any extensions cords. Sharpen or replace blades, clean and charge batteries on engines with electric starters, and brush the engine free of dirt and debris. Finish by lubricating all moving parts with a few drops of motor oil or spray lubricant and wiping down the exterior with a damp cloth. Then connect the spark plug and run the engine for a few minutes to distribute the fresh oil. This will provide the engine with a protective coating.

Now is the time to either drain the fuel tank or add a fuel stabilizer. Gasoline that is allowed to stand for more than eight weeks can go stale, clogging fuel lines and the carburetor with a gummy residue. Two cycle engines, such as chainsaws and string trimmers, have no separate oil reservoir. Gasoline and a special oil is mixed in specific proportions and added to the fuel tank. Servicing is simpler and oil changes are eliminated but they are harder to keep running smoothly because oil mixed with gas can clog and corrode small engines. It is essential to drain the tank if the engine will not be used within two or three weeks. Refer to the owner's manual when servicing equipment as they have extensive guidance, checklists, and instructions.

On the other hand, probably the most neglected tools in the servicing department are the hand tools. Routine care should include cleaning after each use. After pruning diseased and infected plants, tools should be cleaned in a 1:10 bleach/water solution. Brush off any excess dirt and dip the metal blade into a bucket of sharp builder's sand several times to clean thoroughly. This is where I recycle the used motor oil-mix it into fee sand -it gives fee metal a protective coating and keeps it from rusting. Handles can get worn down-sand and apply a coating of linseed oil. If cracked buy a new replacement handle or re-tape with hockey tape.

Sharp tools will perform efficiently and effortlessly but only if they are kept sharp. A standard flat file will do the job or have your tools professionally sharpened.

Declare a tool time weekend and service your tools. You'll feel better and both you and your equipment will be ready for the warm, sunny spring days ahead.

Cheri Melton
November, 1997