Getting an early start on weeding

KENNEWICK -- Some gardeners have other interests to keep them busy during winter months, some head south for the season and others wait impatiently for spring to arrive.

If you are in the last group, take a tour of your garden and landscape to look for winter annual weeds that already may have started growing. These are weeds that germinated in the fall, are growing during the warmer parts of winter and will flower and go to seed in the spring. There are a bunch of these evident in the landscape outside my office!

A swipe with a sharp hoe will make easy work of these annual weeds, but first take some time to get your favorite hoe in shape. Remove any rust that might be on the blade by soaking it in vinegar, then using a steel wool cleaning pad with the vinegar to scrub off any rust that remains. Be sure to use rubber gloves. There are commercial rust removers that can be used if the rust is extreme. Avoid those that contain caustic chemicals and look for one that's nontoxic and noncorrosive.

After the rust is gone, smooth the surface with 80-grit sandpaper. Next, use an 8- to 10-inch mill bastard file with a handle to sharpen the blade using "push" strokes directed away from you and following any existing bevel. If the blade is in bad shape, sharpening with a grinder or belt sander may be needed. Don't forget to wear safety glasses.

After sharpening, remove any burrs that have formed on the back of the blade using 300-grit wet-dry sandpaper, then apply a light coating of WD-40 or other high-quality oil to the blade. Also, unpainted wooden handles will benefit from a coat of linseed oil to keep the wood from drying out and cracking.

Did you know that new garden tools need to be sharpened before use? For obvious reasons, stores find it advantageous not to ship or display tools with sharp blades. So, even if your hoe's blade isn't rusty, check to make sure the blade is sharp. The sharpening process isn't difficult, but if the thought of taking on the sharpening task is too daunting, you may be able to find a local sharpening service.

Now also is a good time for anxious gardeners to sharpen their trusty hoes. On a mild sunny day, go out looking for those winter annual weeds. The sharp blade will make easy work of cutting them off right below the soil.

Best hoe: The traditional garden hoe is a versatile tool that allows gardeners to chop off big weeds, move soil around and create furrows for planting. However, many WSU Master Gardeners favor other types of hoes.

One of their favorites is a stirrup or shuffle hoe, also known as the Hula-Hoe or scuffle hoe. These hoes have a blade shaped like a stirrup that oscillates when pushed and pulled. The blade slides into the soil at a horizontal angle and cuts off young weeds just below the soil surface. It isn't effective on big tough weeds, but works well on smaller seedling weeds. This type of hoe doesn't take as much effort to use, is easier on your back, and does its job with minimal disturbance of the soil.

* Marianne C. Ophardt is a horticulturist for the Washington State University Benton County Extension.