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Garden tools seldom become obsolete and can serve you well for decades. I still use several that were passed down to me from my father.

Proper maintenance increases their life span and makes them easier to use: A well-honed shovel slices through packed ground with less strain to your back, while a sharp blade on a pruner cuts cleanly, making your job quicker and minimizing trauma to your plants.

It helps to start out with good-quality tools. The extra cost will spare you the greater hassle and expense of replacing inferior tools every couple of years.

To keep tools in good shape, take a few minutes each time you're finished with them to clean off dirt and moisture to discourage rust and deterioration. Spend a couple of hours every few months sharpening edges and greasing hinges.

Fall is a good time to repair, sharpen and lubricate your tools so they'll be ready for the next season. If you're going to be putting tools away for the winter, oil them to inhibit rust, and store them in a dry, sheltered place.

Cleaning tools

Use a solvent such as lighter fluid or Liquid Wrench (available at hardware stores) for tough cleanup jobs. After pruning conifers and woody shrubs, squirt solvent on a rag, and wipe the sticky sap from the blades.

For rusty tools, cut a scouring pad into manageable pieces, then dampen a piece with solvent. Scrub away the rust, then wipe the tool clean. Solvent also loosens rusty screws and eases creaky joints.

Many solvents are poisonous, so store them out of reach of children and pets.

For shovels, spades and hoes, fill a 5-gallon bucket with sand, and place it near where you store your tools. Mix in about two-thirds of a quart of motor oil (to inhibit rust); make sure the sand is slightly damp with oil but not soaked through. Whenever you return a shovel to the shed, knock off the biggest chunks of soil, then plunge the tool's head into the sand a few times. Brush off the sand and store the tool.

You can make a mini version of this sand bucket for hand trowels and other small tools. Simply fill a flowerpot with sand to an inch from the top, and stir in a quarter-cup of motor oil. Store your tools in the pot between uses.

Sharpening tools

You can take your tools to a professional for sharpening, but it's easy to sharpen most common tools at home.

Attach a good sharpener to the corner of your workbench, so shears and scissors can be sharpened as soon as they become dull.

Keep loppers and pruners working smoothly by regrinding their edges with a tool such as the English-made Precision Pruner sharpener ($10.95; available from Walt Nicke Co., P.O. Box 433, Topsfield, Mass. 01983; (978) 887-3388), a sharpening stone that attaches to the edge of the tool's blade for leverage.

A metal bastard file is traditionally used to sharpen shovels, hoes and edgers. Use the flat side of the file, and tilt it at the same angle as the tool's beveled edge. Grind the edge with long strokes, always moving in one direction only, away from the edge. File shovels and edgers on both the front and back faces, hoes on one side only.

You can also use a drill with a rotary sharpener attachment: Secure the tool to your workbench with cords or clamps. Attach the sharpener to the drill, start it spinning, then lower it gently against the edge of the tool. Move the sharpener slowly back and forth along the edge until sharp.

Taping handles

Over time, wood handles may split or crack. Deep cracks require a new handle, especially on picks, axes and sledgehammers, because it would be extremely dangerous if the heads of these tools flew off in midswing.

You can prevent mere splinters from worsening, however, by wrapping a handle with hockey stick tape, available at sporting goods stores. Begin several inches beyond the crack, and wrap the tape tightly around the handle, overlapping the previous layer of tape by one-half to two-thirds its width as you go. Add a second layer of tape for heavy tools.

Organizing tools and supplies

Autumn is also a good time to organize your work space for the following season. If you don't have a potting shed, create a potting bench in the corner of a garage, on a sheltered terrace or in any space you don't mind getting dirty.

Make sure your bench has a flat surface placed high enough for you to stand in front of and work at comfortably. Place plastic bins underneath to store soil mixes and planting ingredients, and install nearby shelves for pots and supplies. A bulletin board comes in handy for displaying notes and diagrams.

Store small tools, such as garden forks and claws, nearby on a plywood board fashioned with hooks.

The potting bench will become your creative space for planting, sorting seeds, testing germination and planning projects.

Questions should be addressed to Martha Stewart, care of New York Times Syndication Sales Corp., 122 E. 42nd St., New York, N.Y. 10168. Questions may also be sent to Stewart by electronic mail: Questions of general interest will be answered in this column; Martha Stewart regrets that unpublished letters cannot be answered individually.