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Tool Hygiene

A gardener’s tools can make or break even the most mundane tasks. If tools are kept in good condition, they will make tasks easier and not cause other trouble down the road. Most people realize that a sharp tool with a solid handle will do the job better than a rusty tool with a loose or rotting handle. But some gardeners don’t think about the tool as a vector for diseases and pathogenic organisms.

Much like doing the dishes, cleaning tools after working in the garden is hardly a favorite task. I tend to toss my tools back into my garage when I am through, sometimes in their correct location but often just placed where convenient. Tools in my garage stay covered in dirt and sap. There are several reasons why this is not ideal.

Soil and sap can harbor diseases, viruses, and pest organisms. Rinse off soil and use soapy water to remove sap and residues. For stubborn grime, employ a brush. Hardened sap may be removed with turpentine. However, cleaning off tools is not enough to ensure you won’t potentially spread a problem from plant to plant. Disinfection is necessary to protect the next plant that the tool will contact. A 10% chlorine solution is often recommended. Unfortunately, chlorine can corrode tools and bleach clothes. Household disinfectants like Lysol and Pine-Sol are good alternatives. Follow the product instructions for disinfecting hard surfaces when using household cleaners to disinfect your tools.

Some tools, like this garden fork, have grooves that hold soil. Stephanie Turner, ©2021, Clemson Extension

Some tools, like this garden fork, have grooves that hold soil.
Stephanie Turner, ©2021, Clemson Extension

Sap residue on pruning tools becomes harder to remove once dry. Stephanie Turner, ©2021, Clemson Extension

Sap residue on pruning tools becomes harder to remove once dry.
Stephanie Turner, ©2021, Clemson Extension

The surface of older tools may have some pitting or scratches that can harbor bacteria. Wash these surfaces with soap, warm water, and a stiff brush. Dry them in the sun if possible, and then soak them in the disinfectant chosen.

Gardeners need to be especially conscious of tool hygiene when working in new locations or working with diseased plants. Taking tools from home to other sites, like community gardens or common areas, opens up the possibility of bringing a new pest or disease to your home landscape. Be especially cautious about disinfecting tools after working with active disease organisms, like pruning around oozing cankers.

Your hands are another possible vector for disease. Activities like deadheading and harvesting can create opportunities for transmitting viruses. Tomato mosaic virus and tobacco mosaic virus are commonly spread on hands and even on clothing. Wash your hands or gloves thoroughly after touching any plants that appear to have contracted a virus.

These nitrile-dipped garden gloves have care instructions that indicate washing by hand with a mild detergent and hanging to air dry. Stephanie Turner, ©2021, Clemson Extension

These nitrile-dipped garden gloves have care instructions that indicate washing by hand with a mild detergent and hanging to air dry.
Stephanie Turner, ©2021, Clemson Extension

Get into the mindset of thinking about your tools (and hands) as possible vectors for disease in the garden. Create a routine that works for you. Just like so many things, when it comes to proper tool hygiene, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure!

If this document didn’t answer your questions, please contact HGIC at hgic@clemson.edu or 1-888-656-9988.

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