Tips on classes, tool sharpening and grass clippings

As the gardening season begins, many good questions are showing up in my e-mail bag.

Terry H. of Boise asks: "I seem to have missed most of the winter and early spring garden schools and classes. Are any trainings coming up that I can squeeze in before summer arrives?"

You're in luck, Terry, there is a regional horticulture conference on April 17 in Nampa at Skyview High School from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. The conference is sponsored by the Treasure Valley Master Gardeners and features horticultural experts from both Idaho and Oregon. Topics covered will include: Native Plants, Small Fruit Culture, Beneficial Insects, Organic Soil Amendments, Herb Gardening, Tree Pruning, Identifying Weeds, New Plant Introductions, Bamboo Culture and much more. Registration is going on right now, so get a move on. Cost is $20 for this all day extravaganza—a real bargain. For a flyer or more information on the conference, contact the Payette County Extension office at 642-6022.

Dorothy P. of Eagle wonders: "I know that my pruning tools and shovel should be sharpened before the gardening season starts. Is it something I can do myself?"

Well, Dorothy, I guess it all depends on how handy you are with a file and whetstone. A dull pruning tool will not cut smoothly. A hoe will bounce off the ground instead of biting into it when it's not sharp, and a dull mower blade will tear the grass blades instead of cutting them cleanly, which gives the lawn a tan cast as the torn blades wither and turn brown. When you find yourself working hard to make a tool do what it was designed to do, it's time to stop and sharpen it.

All tools with a blade should be sharpened at the beginning of each growing season, but shovels, hoes and the mower blade will need to be sharpened more than once during the growing season to keep them working effectively. Sharpening garden tools is a lot like sharpening kitchen knives. You'll need a few files, a couple different whetstones, a vise and the right technique to get started.

To begin sharpening a shovel, grab a wide bastard mill file (that is indeed its name) or use a narrow, three-sided triangular file. Hold the file with one hand at the base and the other at the tip. Push the file forward while sweeping it evenly along the edge of the shovel blade or hoe. Files are designed to cut on the push stroke only, so be sure to lift up on the file during your backward pull stroke.

The first rule of tool sharpening is to follow the existing bevel on the tool's cutting edge. The tricky part is holding the file against the blade's cutting edge at the required 20 to 45 degree angle, while keeping the tool you are sharpening steady at the same time. Most folks use a vice to hold the bladed tool as they work.

Repeat the sweeping push motion along the edge until the blade feels smooth and sharp to the touch, but don't get carried away. Sharpening wears down most tools much more than normal use does. To make your tools last as long as possible, remove as little metal as you can each time you sharpen them. Sharpening pruning shears uses the same stroke motion but instead of a file, a whetstone or a grinding wheel, a small file is used. Often shears have to be taken apart to do the job correctly.

Once the edge feels sharp to the touch, carefully feel along the backside of the blade. Sharpening one side causes burrs or little rough bits of metal to show up on the other side. One final sweep with the file laid flat (no angle) on the backside of the blade will remove the burrs. Oil the moving parts on your pruning tools and wipe the overall blade with an oily rag or spray it with penetrating oil upon completion.

All this being said, I have to admit it is so much easier to take your tools or mower blade to a saw sharpening or lawn mower repair shop for their spring sharpening. It only costs a few dollars per tool and it is well worth having someone who knows what they are doing handle it in less time than it would take you to make a cup of ice tea and put your feet up.

Bob P. of Meridian asks: "Is it necessary to pick up the grass clippings during mowing? I heard that they were good to leave on the lawn."

You heard right, Bob, leaving the succulent clippings will actually add nutrients to your turf as they decompose. You'll be saving up to 30 percent on your fertilizer bill by letting them lie. If you cut your lawn frequently, the clippings will be short enough to filter down into the grass unnoticed. If you wait too long in between mowings, however, the clippings will be long and clump together in bunches. They'll then have to be raked off the turf. Nowadays, many homeowners have mulching mowers that cut the clippings into small pieces for the purpose of leaving them on the lawn.

Suzann Bell is a horticulturist with the University of Idaho Extension in Ada County. Send gardening questions to Suzann at:

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