Cleaning Tools for Storage: Good Maintenance, Helpful Gift

Heather from a Southern California beach town contacted me recently about using sand for cleaning garden tools. She had come across my Seattle Times article on tool maintenance. This seemed like a good time to revisit this task, which I do every winter.

(Also, it occurs to me that a gift certificate promising to do tool maintenance would make a great holiday present for the gardener on your list!)

Hi Bill,

Someone from my local gardening group keeps her garden tools in a bucket of sand and swears by it. Then I posed the question if it has to be beach sand with salt and then refreshed once in a while and kept out of the rain or garden sand with no salt. She didn’t know either. And of course my google detective work isn’t panning out.

I look forward to your suggestions,

Heather

Hi Heather,

Cleaning garden tools in a bucket of sand is a great maintenance technique. I often just plunge them into the sand 4 or 5 times, then brush them off with a rag and store them in a rack or on a shelf. But you can keep them in the sand too.

tools in sand

I would not use sand that has salt in it – salt is corrosive to metals. Get a bag of play sand or construction sand (used to set patio pavers) from Home Depot or Lowe’s. Try to store the bucket of sand under cover, so it’s not too wet.

If you’re gardening near the beach in soil that has salty sand in it, I’d clean the tools promptly after gardening to get that salt off.

Some people mix a bit of oil into the sand (motor oil or vegetable oil) because oil on metal tools inhibits rust. But the oil is not strictly necessary.

If the tools already have rust or caked on stuff you can scrub that off with a wire brush or steel wool. A bit of oil while doing that helps too. You might want to wear gloves for that job.

Another great thing to do for your tools with wooden handles is to clean and smooth the wood with sandpaper once a year and rub in some linseed oil. That keeps the wood from cracking.

Final tip: sharpen digging tools like spades, shovels and trowels with a file (a “mill bastard” type, available at most hardware stores) in the winter. Then they’ll be all ready to use next season.

There, now you know more than you ever wanted to about garden tool maintenance.

Holiday cheers and happy growing,
Bill

Winter Garden Gets Its Blanket

We are having a White Christmas here in Seattle, with a gift to my garden (and me) of a nice blanket of sparkling snow.

Here are images from my garden today.

Merry Christmas!

yard

A Christmas view of our yard from the house.

brroccoli

Broccoli shoots peek out of the snow cover.

cloches

Glass cloches protect young plants from the snow.

cold frames

A plastic cloche covers lettuce, and a double window A-frame covers overwintering beets.

cold frame closer

The beets are tiny and might handle this cold, but I should have put ends on this double-window cold frame for better protection.

big bottle cloche

A big water bottle protects a young cabbage.

yard with cold frames

Cold frames in the background protect greens, but lots of brassicas fend for themselves under the snow.

Cold frames

The big cold frame in the back and the smaller Triangle Tunnel in the front both contain salad greens. I won’t open them until our warmer weather returns, but the tender greens should be fine. Snow is a great insulator!

dino kale

Dinosaur kale is tough!

parsnip

A Christmas stew is going to contain fresh parsnips, pulled today from the snowy ground.

Results of Extended Cold Spell

Sunny, cold days have been the norm in Seattle for a number of weeks, which is “unseasonal” for us here in the Maritime Northwest. And it’s having a punishing effect on my overwintering edibles.

Starting with a snowstorm the second week of December, we’ve had what I’d call a hard winter, as “hard” relates to frost and freeze, that is. Many nights in the low 20s or even teens, and days when the thermometer barely tops 32. Freezing.

The effect has been mixed, according to today’s survey, done in balmy 42-degree sunshine. I opened the zippered front of the long plastic cloche, expecting to find slimy messes where my lettuce and radicchio starts were living, along with a seeded bed of mustard greens. Across the path, floating row cover blanketed a bed seeded with corn salad (mache). All had been alive after that December snowstorm, but I hadn’t uncovered these areas in weeks. Here is my delightful find:

salad cloche

Mustard greens have sprouted in the first bay of the cloche, and in the back two, Winter Density lettuce and Palla Rossa radicchio are standing tall. To the right of the path is thickly sown Vit corn salad.

You’re looking at Winter Density lettuce and Palla Rossa radicchio under the cloche, and Vit corn salad sprouted densely on the right, where the corner of the floating row cover has been removed. Definitely winners in a harsh environment. The existing leaves probably wouldn’t be desirable, but they provide a good base for new growth, which will find its way into late winter salads.

The cloche, which doesn’t look like it would provide much protection, is also a winner. It’s sitting on a raised bed made of stone, which helps radiate heat back into the bed, and I’ve placed stones in bare spots within the cloche to add to that effect.

However, a trek to the back 40 brought down my mood a bit. The purple sprouting broccoli has been shivering with just a smattering of straw mulch around its stems. It had bounced back after the snow melted in mid-December, but since then it’s been in severe retreat due to the cold nights. I should have covered it, but went away for Christmas, when the first cold nights really set in, and by the time I returned I figured it was too late. The cold has continued, with a brief letup, and I hope for the best. But here’s what it looks like right now:

PS Broccoli

“PS” might stand for pretty sad instead of purple sprouting in this bed of broccoli, but who knows, it may recover. Stay tuned as the weather warms.

Behind the broccoli, though, are two A-frame cloches, one covering carrots and the other beets. Although the edges of the cloches are frozen into the crusty soil, I can see green leaves through both of them, giving me hope that these two root crops are hanging in there.

beet and carrot cloches

I haven’t opened these cloches yet – their edges are frozen into the soil – but the beets (left) and carrots (right) still have good greenery.

Speaking of the crusty ground, it needs to be pried open like a stuck car-door in order to rescue a parsnip or two. But it’s worth the effort, as those roots have been nice and sweet.

Other above-ground plants have not fared well. A bed of parsley in an open cold frame is matted against the soil, although might recover. Slimy mounds that once were ruby chard hold less hope. Onions and celery root look OK, but haven’t been pulled yet. Kale, usually a staple in our winter garden, is suffering.

Taking stock of the successes and failures, I can see things I should have done: more mulch around the broccoli, maybe a floating row cover or cloche over it. Definitely much more protection over the poor chard. But just keeping myself warmly clothed on my rare forays out into the crisp weather has been enough of a challenge. I’ll chalk it up to experience and hope the broccoli will finally bounce back. Warmer weather is on the way; this week’s forecast is for high 40s daytime, and mid-30s overnight. I’m ready.

empty bucket

My harvest bucket is pretty empty on a mid-winter walk through the frosty garden landscape.

Cover Fall Edibles Now

In my Seattle garden, fallen leaves are drifting up around the edges of my vegetable beds like Technicolor waves lapping at the shore. Time to deploy the season extension.

This time of year, nature is getting ready to go dormant. Despite the occasional warm, sunny day, the weather pattern is changing. Shorter days (and longer nights), cooler temperatures, glorious rain, from drizzle to downpour, all signal the change in plants. Growth slows down. Cell walls begin to thicken in the plants, mirroring our defensive layers of fleece and wool.

Stave off the inevitable decline in your vegetable garden by covering those plants that are actively growing. The ones that will feed you salad this fall can be nursed along for a few more weeks if covered with a cloche or a cold frame.

Three devices

Three season extension devices protect fall and winter crops: hoop-house cloche, triangle tunnel and cold frame.

The root crops that are going to be overwintered will be aided by a blanket of garden fleece, also known as floating row cover. Later this fall, you can pull off the FRC and cover those beets and carrots with a cloche, giving them more protection during our coldest time.

dome hot cap

The last of the summer basil crop is nursed along under the dome hot cap.

The kale, cabbage, broccoli and Brussels sprouts will benefit from a top-dressing of compost and straw mulch, between the rows and around the plants. This step can be taken for all the fall and winter veggie plants, but isn’t as necessary for those under a cloche or cold frame until the weather really reaches our daytime winter temperatures of 45 degrees. Still, I often do this now around my salad greens too, just since I’m out in the garden with the straw at hand. It’s often more pleasant to do it on a nice fall day than try to wait for a break in the winter rains that will take hold in November.

The main reason to do this season extension and mulching work is to protect our plants from the colder temperatures, pounding rains and desiccating wind.

A few weeks ago I put in a late batch of lettuces and raddichio into a long hoop-house cloche. With the unseasonably warm weather, I’ve been able to take that off for days at a time, and the veggies are nearing harvest. Now that rains and cooler weather are predicted, I’ve put it back on again.

Often at this time of year I’ll set up the cold frame over a bed with starts. It’s amazing to check the soil temperature inside the cold frame and in the bed next to it. Inside the bed, the temperature of the soil will be well above 60, while in the open garden the soil temperature is inching down toward the mid-50s. Capturing that warmer soil temp, keeping it from dropping so fast, is a key benefit to season extension.

cold frame

My Twinwall cold frame is keeping the fall salad greens robust.

Also this week we’ve had a couple of days of significant rain. At times, it’s come down pretty hard. A soft rain is great for watering the beds, and I open the season extension devices for a few hours in early afternoon if a light rain is coming down. The best situation is a nice soft rain for an hour or two, followed by a clearing and light breeze, so the plants dry out. Regular moisture on the leaves and stems of fall veggies can promote rot. If I can’t get the timing right to open the season extension during a light rain, I hand-water the beds as needed.

And I always keep the devices closed during a heavy rain. Over time, heavy rains will compact the soil, leach out the nutrients, and reduce those soil temps — all things I’m trying to avoid. Score another benefit for season extension.

floating row cover

Fall beets and carrots are growing nicely, and bug free, under a layer of floating row cover.

The winds are also gusting this time of year. Combined with cooler temperatures and rain, the wind can be hard on tender vegetable crops. The worst effect is when it blows the top layer of

hot caps

A couple of unusual kales that were struggling are getting a boost by being covered with glass hot caps.

mulch away from the base of the plant, exposing the plant’s fine root system. Those roots will dry up, making it tough for the plant to survive, much less grow. Such stress will invite pests, and can trigger the plant’s desire to bolt and go to seed.

One final idea concerning season extension: what’s good for the plants is also good for the pests. In this sense: the pests love the warmer, drier location too. I’m picking a lot of slugs and snails out of my season extension devices right now, and off the plants. I need to be diligent about this, because they’re all drawn to the warm place with plentiful food. As the temperatures continue to drop they’ll become less of a problem, but right now, I need to pay attention if I want to keep those fall crops around for my autumn dinners, and not just be feeding the pests.

new cloche

I’m having fun with my commercial-made cloche. The long single-row device has an internal wire frame and zippered vents with mesh.

Fall in the maritime garden is a time to appreciate our weather. The change is usually not abrupt, giving me a chance to also adjust my own pace to the slowing rhythm of nature. But the decline into winter is inevitable, which is another lesson. At this pace, it seems more possible to stay in the moment, enjoying the color and patterns of those fall leaves as they naturally mulch the margins of my garden.

 

November Tasks: Slow Gardening

Grab that sliver of sunlight between showers and get out into the garden. Fleece up and tidy the shed on a rainy day. Scratch out some thoughts on next year, with notes on this year’s successes and duds.Garlic and favas

There are some November tasks for us Maritime Northwest gardeners. But this season is also a time to take it easy and practice “slow gardening.” Moving at slug speed on these chilly wet days seems most appropriate.

Granted a glorious Sunday afternoon last weekend, I rallied to rake out the last open space in my vegetable beds and plant garlic. Three varieties, six rows, 48 cloves. That should keep us in spicy sautés for most of next year.

The rest of the open space got filled up with favas. I had a box full of the thumbnail-sized beans saved from last spring’s harvest. They sat for six months waiting for this occasion, so I could no longer deny them their special purpose: Get under the soil and send up next year’s crop!

Favas are one of the few vegetables whose seed will sprout in our chilly November soil. Garlic, of course, needs a little chilling to trigger its emergence. I’ll see the fava shoots in a few weeks, but the garlic won’t poke through the straw mulch until January. It always warms my heart to see it during that coldest month, just as I am starting to notice the days lengthening beyond the solstice. Another season beginning.

A few more tasks that are getting some slow action on these short November days:

Sorting the bees. Yes, you read that right. I’ve had a box of Orchard Mason bees wrapped loosely in a mesh bag on my basement shelf since I brought them in in early fall. Now it is time for them to be transferred to the refrigerator for the winter.

Bees in tubes

Orchard Mason bees are in their cocoons. I’ve removed them from their paper sleeves to clean and store the cocoons in the refrigerator for winter.

Bee cocoons

The mites have mostly been cleaned off these Orchard Mason bee cocoons.

The task is simple and rewarding. First, I open the stacked grid that holds the bee nesting tubes, paper sleeves in which they laid their eggs and mudded up the holes. I pull out the paper tubes and carefully peel them open to reveal the bees in their cocoons. (Since the eggs were laid in the spring, the eggs have hatched, the bee larvae have eaten the pollen deposits left with their eggs, and the larvae spun their little cocoons.)

Along with the bees in those tubes are a couple of interlopers that need to be removed. Spiders have laid their eggs in some of the tubes. No big deal, except I don’t really want those hatching on my basement shelves.

More concerning are the mites: hundreds of mites have glommed on to the bee cocoons. If left with the cocoons, they would attack the bees when they emerged, and decimate the population.

Fortunately, right now the mites and the bees are pretty dormant, so as I pull the cocoons away from the paper tubes, I brush off all the mites.

The clean cocoons are then counted and stored in a plastic bottle inside a plastic bag in my refrigerator. The bottle has some vents cut in the lid, and the plastic bag contains a damp paper towel that I’ll refresh from time to time. Refrigerators are low-humidity places, and my bee cocoons need a bit of moisture to survive.

Weeding the beds. Winter weeds grow more slowly, but so do your vegetable plants. And with less nutrition available in the soil, your winter vegetables don’t want the competition from weed roots. I clear a space at least a few inches around the base of each winter veggie. I also run the fork along the edges of the raised beds and pull out any grass that is encroaching. It seems to really spread if left to take hold over the winter.

Some of the less harmful, more beautiful weeds like viola tricolor (Johnny Jump-up) get left in the beds between the plants. They can be good filler to shield the bed from winter rains, and I can use the flowers to brighten up my winter salads.

Mulching the fall and overwintering veggies. After I weed, I try to tuck in some straw or other light mulch around the base of the plants.

This provides a number of benefits:

  • keeps heavy rains from compacting the soil
  • prevents wind from drying out any partially exposed roots
  • prevents the soil from becoming too dry if we don’t get rain
  • prevents weeds from sprouting.

And it looks nice!

Broccoli mulched

Servicing the watering devices. I garden in a mostly mild winter climate, but sometimes we’ll get a hard freeze or a week of snow, so I need to protect against freeze damage.

First, I make sure my drip irrigation system is drained to avoid having the pipes burst. (Water is one of the few things that expands when it freezes.) I also check the downspouts and gutters to make sure there’s nothing clogging up the system that fills my water catchment. I clean and store my ceramic bird bath so it doesn’t crack. Finally, draining the hoses and storing them in the garage each winter will help them last many more years.

I appreciate the slower gardening days of winter. I can review some of these tasks as I peer through a rain-streaked window, looking to the western sky for that actionable opening of blue.

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