Skip to main content

How to properly clean your garden tools & pots

Soil covered tools in need of cleaning at the end of the gardening season
Photo: M. Grabowski, UMN Extension 
Lower the risk for plant disease in next year's garden! Before you store your garden tools for the winter be sure to clean them. Many plant pathogens can survive from one season to the next in infected plant debris, soil, or on tools, trellises, stakes, or pots that were used to grow the plants.

How to clean tools, pots, and other garden supplies

Remove all soil and plant debris attached to tools, trellises, or old pots. Most plant pathogens survive best when sheltered by soil or in plant material. Potting soil, annual plants, leaves and stems killed by frost can all be placed into a compost pile. Use a brush or a hard stream of water from the garden hose to completely remove soil and other organic material. 

Disinfectants available to home gardeners

1) Bleach (5.25% Sodium hypochlorite)
Make a 10% solution by mixing one part bleach with 9 parts of water. Dip or spray tools with the 10% bleach solution. This will kill fungi, bacteria, and viruses within seconds.

Note: Bleach can be very corrosive to metal so bleach may not be a good choice for metal pruners and other cutting tools that require a sharp edge.

2) Lysol (.1% alkyl dimethylbenzyl ammonium saccharinate)
Many different products carry the Lysol label so look in the bottom left corner for the active ingredient (a.i.) listed above. Research has shown that this formulation of Lysol will eliminate bacteria, fungi, and viruses from tools. Use the product as is. Do not dilute it in water.

Note: Lysol is not corrosive to metal and can be used to clean pruners and other cutting tools.

What about rubbing alcohol?

A study tested 3 concentrations of rubbing alcohol (70%, 90%, and 99% isopropyl alcohol) for its ability to remove the bacteria that cause fire blight from a pruning tool. In the study, researchers cut through a fire blight infected apple, soaked the tool in isopropyl alcohol for 1, 3, and 5 minutes, then used the tool to cut into a healthy apple. In all cases, the cutting tool spread the fireblight bacteria to 25% of the healthy apples. This shows that rubbing alcohol was not an effective disinfectant for bacterial diseases.

Old roots and soil on a used pot need to be removed before disinfecting the pot.
Photo: M. Grabowski, UMN Extension 

How to apply a disinfectant to eliminate plant pathogens

A disinfectant should be applied after all soil and plant material has been completely removed from the tool, pot, or other garden equipment. Apply the disinfectant to completely coat the surface of the equipment. Be sure to get the disinfectant into corners and tight spaces. 
  • Small pots, clips, or ties are most easily treated by dipping in a bucket of disinfectant.
  • Wooden or bamboo stakes or trellises benefit from soaking in a large tub filled with the disinfectant to allow time for the solution to move into small pores and cracks common in natural materials. 
  • Large equipment like a garden tiller or a tall trellis can be sprayed. Use of a pressurized sprayer with a wand attachment can be useful in reaching the top of tall equipment or getting into tight spaces like the tines of a tiller. 
Rinse with clean water and allow tools and equipment to dry completely before storing. 
Author: Michelle Grabowski, UMN Extension Educator

Print Friendly and PDF