Fix up look sharp: a masterclass in caring for your gardening tools

Your tools don't need to be razor sharp, but keeping them in top condition will help when it comes t

Your tools don't need to be razor sharp, but keeping them in top condition will help when it comes to hedges - Credit: Getty Images

A good gardener never blames their tools. Ruth Pavey shares an expert’s tips for tool care, plus a tribute to a remarkable woman

Alison Richards demonstrates how to sharpen your shears

Alison Richards demonstrates how to sharpen your shears - Credit: Nigel Sutton

Alison Richards, jeweller turned gardener and Hampstead resident, has appeared in this column before, talking about Mediterranean plants and the restoration of her great grandmother’s villa garden in Western Sicily. Alison’s way of going about this restoration is to take out parties of friends, including me, for working holidays.

Last November when I was there, I was struck by how good and sharp the tools were. Then on our last night I saw why. Into the grand old-fashioned sitting room, with firelight glinting on faded gilding, in came Alison lugging a quantity of loppers, secateurs and shears. Then she set to with oil, rags and sharpening tool. So deftly did she work that in no time the whole pile of tools was ready to be put away till the spring.

Two things struck me about this procedure,

1) that this was a skilled jeweller at work,

2) that a sharpening masterclass would do me, and my tools, good.

So, to NW3 did I recently take them. The first thing Alison said was that she does all her sharpening instinctively, so it’s hard to put the steps into words. Watching YouTube tutorials, she suggested, might be clearer. Actually, despite demonstrating a variety of techniques, You Tube wasn’t clearer, so here are Alison’s tips:

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- Use a flat sort of sharpener, or one with a handle, and have a few twigs to hand.

- Know that it’s only the bevelled cutting edge that you want to work on; doing the other sides is counterproductive.

- If the blades are dirty, pithy, etc, clean them first with something like Scotchbrite. This makes it easier to see the bevel.

- Use mineral, as opposed to vegetable, oil.

- Put a little oil on the bevelled edge.

- Anchor the tool against the edge of a table.

- Working away from you, use firm, even strokes with the sharpener down the whole of the cutting edge. The sharpener should be at an angle quite close to that of the edge, so that it is in contact with the whole of it throughout the stroke.

- After a few strokes, try cutting some twigs, to see if you’ve done enough. It isn’t necessary to have razor sharp tools, just sharp enough.

Two more comments Alison made were that a wipe of surgical spirit between working on one plant and the next will reduce the spread of infection, and that all tools benefit from being regularly cleaned and oiled.

I already knew that she took her own advice about the latter, but what about the surgical spirit, did she really do that? Well no, she admitted, not often. One further aside was that using olive oil, even of the finest quality as produced on the villa estate, is useless because it’s sticky. 3-in-1 or equivalent is much cheaper and better. However, the Racalia estate oil, available at Fortnum and Mason, is highly recommended when not applied to secateurs.


Margaret Jarvie, allotment gardener, beekeeper, swimmer, quiltmaker

I briefly noted in January that Margaret Jarvie had died, but now that the birches around her woodland grave are beginning to come into leaf, it seems time to say a bit more about this remarkable woman. Her life touched and inspired many people. After her funeral, there was much talk of her kindness, humour and no-nonsense pragmatism.

Margaret was born in Iowa in 1924, the daughter of a beekeeper. She came to England in 1945, in her words as a “reverse GI bride”, meaning that she had married an English naval officer. She did all manner of things, including having six children, but it was as a needlework teacher that I first met her, in an East End comprehensive. When she retired she more or less took up residence at her plot on Highgate Allotments.

This was before allotment waiting lists, so she suggested that I should rent the vacant plot next door. She dismissed my quibbles about lack of time, declaring that she liked to have her friends around her, which she did. The rickety table, benches and sunshade outside her shed became a wonderfully social spot, in which you might meet her children, her grandchildren, her fellow beekeepers, quiltmakers or visitors from America.

This sociability did not, however, stop her from growing a great variety of vegetables, fruits and flowers as well as keeping bees. She grew almost everything from seed, using an arcane numbering system to save on labels. Until the age of 90 she seemed indestructible. But alas, she wasn’t.