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Ask a Master Gardener: Taking care of gardening tools for winter

Dear Master Gardener: How should I care for my tools before putting them away for the winter?


• Wash or wipe off excess soil from all your garden tools. Use a narrow putty knife to remove hardened soil, or soak encrusted tools in water, and scrub with a wire brush.

• Remove rust with a coarse grade of steel wool or a medium-grit sandpaper or cloth. Add a few drops of oil to each side of the tool surface. Use a small cloth to spread it over the metal; this protects the surface against rust.

• Sharpen the soil-cutting edges of shovels, hoes, and trowels to make digging easier. Use an 8 or 10-inch mill file to sharpen or restore the cutting edge. Press down and forward when filing, the file only cuts on the forward stroke. Lift the file, replace it to the original spot and push down and forward on the file again. Repeat until the desired edge is formed.

• Check handles for splinters and rough spots. Use 80-grit sandpaper on rough, wooden handled tools then coat with linseed oil.

• Make sure the handles are tightly fastened to the shovel, hoe or rake. You may need to replace or reinstall missing pins, screws or nails.

Dear Master Gardener: Gophers have gotten into my fenced garden area and there are mounds of soil in my rhubarb plants, blueberry bushes and apple trees. What should I do to get rid of them?

Answer: Unfortunately gophers eat the underground parts of flowering plants and a variety of roots, bulbs, tubers and grasses, and can be a serious problem for the home gardener. They can damage lawns, flowers, vegetables and trees. In addition, their mounds can smother small plants. Gophers push soil out of their holes in flattened or fan-shaped mounds, which can vary in size from 12-24 inches in diameter and 6 or more inches high. Then they plug the surface opening through which they have pushed this soil. One gopher can create several mounds per day. Trapping is a good method to reduce pocket gopher numbers. You can purchase gopher traps at garden centers and hardware stores. They can be set in the main tunnel or in a lateral one, preferably near the freshest mounds. Poisons specifically for gophers could be an option, but shouldn't be used near your fruits and vegetables.

Dear Master Gardener: How do I remove the babies from my aloe plant and replant them?

Answer: Aloe plants produce offsets, which are the baby plants at the base of the parent. Winter is a good time to separate aloe plants when they are not actively growing. The plant and soil can be taken from the pot and the small plants gently removed. Water the plant well before taking it out of the container so more soil will stick to the roots. Choose an offset with a few roots and carefully cut it away from the parent plant with a clean, sharp knife. Sometimes the offset will just pull away from the parent. Then pot the little ones in containers and you have new plants!

Dear Master Gardener: I just bought a house and there is a French lilac obstructing my view of the lake. Is it too late to prune it?

Answer: Lilacs bloom on the previous year's growth. The best time to prune them is immediately after flowering in spring. Pruning lilacs in late summer, fall or winter may remove many of their flower buds. One way to reduce the size of an old lilac is to cut it back over a three year period. First, remove one-third of the large, old stems at ground level in late winter (March). The next year in late winter, prune out one-half of the remaining old stems and thin out some of the new growth. Retain several well-spaced, vigorous stems and remove all the others. In the third year remove all of the remaining old wood in late winter. Additional thinning of the new shoots should also be done.

November Garden Tips

• Apply a thick layer of mulch in a large area around trees; do not allow the mulch to contact the trunks.

• Turn the compost pile one last time before it gets too cold.

• Climbing roses that are hardy enough to remain on their supports through winter need to be securely tied to the support to prevent wind damage.

• Small to medium evergreens should be protected from wind and sunscald with burlap wrap or wind screens. They can also be protected from heavy snowfall that may break and damage limbs by tying or wrapping them.

• Do not try to remove wet heavy snow from evergreens; you could do more harm than good. Evergreen limbs remain supple through winter and will bend under the weight, but hopefully will not crack.

• Store leftover fertilizers and liquid pesticides for winter. Granular fertilizers need to be kept in a cool, dry place. Keep liquid fertilizers and pesticides in a dark location in above freezing temperatures.

• Indoor plants, including annuals grown indoors need very little fertilizer. Use a diluted solution of houseplant fertilizer if plants are actively growing and showing signs of nutrient deficiency.

• If it is not too cold and snowing yet, you can still get out and prune.

• Consider planting an indoor herb and vegetable garden. Leafy crops such as lettuce and spinach, root crops such as radishes, as well as oregano, rosemary, sage, mint, winter savory, and marjoram survive most indoor growing conditions.

• It is never too soon to start planning for next season. Take inventory of all your tools, seeds and gardening equipment as soon as you pack them away for winter storage. Start a list of replacement tools and supplies that you need for next year.

University of Minnesota Extension Master Gardeners are trained and certified volunteers for the University of Minnesota Extension. All information given in this column is based on research. To ask a question, call the Master Gardener Help Line at 218-454-GROW (4769) and leave a recorded message. A Master Gardener will return your call.