Your Show-Me Garden: MU Extension brings you gardening tips from experts around the state.

COLUMBIA, Mo.– Just like surgeons and dentists, gardeners should work with clean tools. Sanitizing garden tools between uses will lower the risk of spreading diseases from one plant to another, says a University of Missouri Extension horticulturist.

“In this day and age we are seeing more and more soil-borne diseases, such as bacterial canker in tomatoes,” said David Trinklein. “Sanitation is the first line of defense in combating diseases.”

Tools such as pruning shears can easily spread disease from an infected plant to a healthy one if not sanitized. Contaminated equipment can spread bacterial, fungal and viral diseases, and even nematodes.

Regular cleaning also will protect metal blades from rust and wooden handles from rot, extending the life of your tools, he said.

Trinklein recommends using a solution of one part household bleach to nine parts water as a sanitizing agent.

“You can’t really get better than that,” he said. “You can get more expensive than that, and maybe a bit less obnoxious with regard to the odor of the chlorine, but it is extremely effective.”

Before sanitizing, be sure to clean off soil and organic matter, which may neutralize the chlorine in the bleach.

“Then you simply dip them in the solution for a couple of minutes and then allow the solution to evaporate,” he said. “Once the bleach has evaporated it is perfectly safe to go in and use the tools, even though you might still smell the chlorine.”

Equipment such as stakes, pots and containers also should be sanitized. Trinklein notes that clay pots are more difficult to sanitize because they are highly porous.

“Back in the day when we used a lot of clay pots in floriculture, we used to either steam them or put them in a vat of water and boil the life out of them,” he said.

Gardening can be tiring work and modern life is full of distractions, so it can be easy to forget about or put off cleaning your tools, Trinklein said. “Make it a ritual: As you put away a tool, clean and disinfect it. It’s a good ‘best management practice.’”

Gardening will be safer and easier if you keep tools sharpened: That applies not just to shears and knives but tools such as trowels, hoes and shovels as well.

“That’s a wintertime job, and it might need to be repeated in the course of the gardening season, depending on how much you use them,” he said.

Trinklein notes that for the avid gardener, high-quality tools are a good investment. “Quality is something that costs, but properly cared for, a quality tool literally should last a lifetime. That will essentially allow you to amortize those expensive pruning shears over decades as opposed to years of time.”

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