Garden Myths Gardening tools Pruning

Garden Myth: Sterilize Garden Tools With Vinegar

Contrary to popular belief, vinegar is not a good product for sterilizing cutting tools. Photo: thespectrum.com & kindpng.com

Question: I was told to wipe my pruning shears with white vinegar to sterilize them between cuts. It’s apparently more ecological than using bleach.

Answer: True enough, but does it kill microbes? After all, the idea of sterilizing tools before reusing them is all about killing all microbes that could be carried from one plant to the next or from an infected part of the plant to a healthy one. And no, vinegar does not kill all microbes. It may be deadly to some, but is harmless to others.

So, no, don’t use white vinegar (or any vinegar) to wipe your garden tools between cuts.

Bottle of bleach with an X through it.

But then, neither should you be using household bleach! There are more details in the article Gardening Myth: Sterilizing Pruning Tools with Bleach, but in a nutshell, while bleach will sterilize pruning tools, it will also corrode and blunt them; plus it is awkward and dangerous to use (it’s irritating to the skin and dangerous to the eyes), stains and damages clothes and will ruin your gardening gloves. Plus, it’s extremely toxic to plants and can damage the tissue of the next cut.

So, bleach is certainly not something you should be using to sterilize pruning tools either!

What To Use to Sterilize Cutting Tools

The classic product for sterilizing garden tools is rubbing alcohol (isopropyl alcohol). It kills microbes, then quickly evaporates, so doesn’t harm the cut surfaces of the plant, nor does it corrode tools. Also, it’s harmless to clothing and garden gloves, is only an irritant if used repeatedly and can be easily carried around in your pocket in a small bottle.

Bottle of hand saniitizer

And in the COVID-19 era, you may already be carrying around hand sanitizer. Well, it’s also usually alcohol based (indeed, it is often largely isopropyl alcohol), so it will sterilize tools perfectly well, although do let the product evaporate from the tool (gels especially tends to be slower to evaporate than rubbing alcohol) before making another cut, as it can damage plant tissues. 

Other sterilizing liquids you could try are household cleaners, like Lysol, Pine-Sol or even an antiseptic mouthwash like Listerine. As with hand sanitizer, let them evaporate before making the next cut.

But just say no to vinegar and bleach!

Larry Hodgson is one of Canada’s best-known garden communicators. He has notably been editor-in-chief of HousePlant Magazine, Fleurs, Plantes et Jardins, À Fleur de Pot and Houseplant Forum magazines and is currently the garden correspondent for Le Soleil and radio garden commentator for CKIA-FM Radio. He has written for many garden publications in both the United States and Canada, including Canadian Gardening, Harrowsmith, Horticulture, Fine Gardening and Organic Gardening. He also speaks frequently to horticultural groups throughout Canada and the U.S. His book credits include The Garden Lover’s Guide to Canada, Complete Guide to Houseplants, Making the Most of Shade, Perennials for Every Purpose, Annuals for Every Purpose, and Houseplants for Dummies, as well as nearly 60 other titles in English and French. He is a past president of the Garden Writers Association (now Garden Communicators International) and the winner of the prestigious 2006 Garden Media Promoter Award offered by the Perennial Plant Association. He resides in Quebec City, Quebec, Canada.

5 comments on “Garden Myth: Sterilize Garden Tools With Vinegar

  1. Good to see something useful coming out of covid !

  2. With few exceptions, I do not sterilize my tools. There are not many diseases that I am concerned about. The exceptions are the fruit trees (which I used to prune a great many of, and will prune again). There are a few disease going around both the stone fruits and the pome fruits.

  3. Great Article! Thanks for sharing this important article. I am looking for such an article for a long time. I will do the same with my gardening tools to protect them from rust. I will definitely share this article with other gardeners.

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