The Organized Tool Shed

Nature abhors a vacuum, my father the chemist liked to announce, explaining the mysterious disappearance of any free space in the tool shed. We might clear a section of floor, but we’d find the space filled in again almost as soon as we turned our backs.

Busy lives and a short growing season conspire to create a mess that, by summer’s end, makes any prospect of returning the car to the garage downright laughable. Of course, cars don’t really need to be garaged anymore. But every tool shed benefits from an annual cleaning, ideally done between the fall of the last leaf and the fall of the first snowflake. Admittedly, in some places, that can be a brief window of opportunity, but your goal is modest. You aren’t out to actually empty the shed, but rather to attend to its various contents, which are most likely to be…


These are the gardener’s most permanent possessions, but only if they are cared for. First and foremost this means gathering them up at the end of the season (if not at the end of every day). Start by cleaning every metal surface. Soil left on a shovel blade will be underlaid by a patch of rust come spring. So scrape and scrub away. Use water if necessary, and once the surface has dried, coat the bare metal with a layer of spray lubricant, such as VVD-40.

Pruners, loppers, and hedge shears should all be rounded up and sharpened with a whetstone. (If not now, when?) And while you are at it, dress the edges of shovels and hoes with a bastard mill file or a bench grinder. Sharpness is nice in any tool, even a blunt-edged one. (See box, page 53.)

Short-handled tools like trowels, hand hoes, scratchers, and weeders can be stored together in a box or bin. Long-handled tools, however, are best hung up. First, because the floor will invariably get wet during the winter, causing the tip of the tool to rust, and second, because otherwise someone will step on the tines of an iron rake and whack himself in the head with the handle. Hardware stores offer a host of tool- hanging devices if you want some-thing more elegant than simply hammering nails into the wall.


With the exception of the snow blower and perhaps a chain saw, these are ready for hibernation. Putting them to bed properly is the only way to guarantee that they will wake up and start when you want them to. The owner’s manual for each (which you once had) explains long-term storage. The basics are similar. Clean off all the surfaces and spray lubricate any bare metal. For four-cycle engines, run the engine until it is warm and then drain and replace the oil and clean the air filter. Then either run the engine until it is out of gas or add gasoline stabilizer to any remaining fuel. For two-cycle engines, you get to skip the oil change. Don’t forget to sharpen the lawn mower’s blade.

Once all the engines have been serviced they can be put away. Again the emphasis should be on dryness, not accessibility. We pack ours all together just as tightly as possible, a mass of interlocking wheels and handles.


Whether their approach is conventional, organic, or PMO (“pretty much organic”), gardeners invariably find themselves with partial containers of various toxins. According to the labels, these should all be stored in a cool dry place. Whatever the level of toxicity, the best location is out of easy reach (ideally in a child-proof cabinet). Write the date of purchase on the front of the container. By statute the contents have to be effective for at least two years after purchase. Since there is no easy way to dispose of the material besides applying it, dating teaches you not to buy more than you can use.

Unused fertilizer should be stored where it won’t get wet and cake. Synthetic fertilizers, especially those that contain calcium nitrate or ammonium nitrate, are hygroscopic and will absorb moisture right out of the air unless they are tightly wrapped in plastic. But any fertilizer is subject to leaching and nutrient loss if it gets damp.


Hoses should all be drained and coiled. Tying them with short lengths of twine will keep one coil from tangling with the next. Nozzles, valves, and other attachments are best stored together nearby. Don’t leave water to freeze in pumps. I add antifreeze to one of ours (which then re-quires flushing out in the spring). Another we simply bring into the house to keep from freezing.


Most of the plants we buy these days are container grown, which leaves us with an empty pot after planting. These pots can be reused for one’s own transplants or for divisions that are to be shared. The empty containers need only to cleaned and stacked and put away. A scrub brush and soapy water will clean them. If you want sterility, a brief dip in a five percent solution of Clorox in water will suffice.

With peat moss and peat-based potting soils, it’s excessive dryness that you have to worry about. Unopened bags typically contain 50 percent moisture; once you open them that percentage can drop. If the moisture content gets below 10 percent, the material becomes virtually impossible to re-wet. Tightly roll up the tops of opened bags to prevent moisture from escaping.

As for those empty plastic sacks that once held peat moss or other bulk materials, they are much sturdier than any house-hold garbage bag, and should definitely be saved for reuse.

You know that you have done everything when everything is in its place, the watering cans on one shelf, the bamboo stakes neatly bundled in one corner. Would that it could all stay this way. Alas, someone will take down a shovel and not return it to its hook, someone will spill a bag of ground limestone and not sweep it up. Do not expect otherwise. Order is as ephemeral as open space. If your chemist father didn’t tell you, entropy always increases. 

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