Q. You often discuss the need to "sterilize" your garden tools to prevent transfer of disease. How do you "sterilize" these items?
A. A. What I mean by “sterilize” is exactly what is meant to a medical doctor and for some of the same reasons. Not sterilizing pruning equipment before its use is a terrible oversight. People overlook cleaning and sanitizing equipment because people don't understand why it is needed.
99% of the time unsterilized equipment is not a problem. It’s that 1% of the time when it becomes a problem. These are the times I receive questions about the dieback in olive, mulberry, silk tree and perhaps even ash trees.
Diseases are transmitted. Several important diseases are transmitted on pruning equipment. These include sooty canker (fungal disease of mostly ornamental plants), fire blight (bacterial disease of
many ornamental plants and fruit trees), crown gall (bacterial disease of many woody plants), slime flux (bacterial disease of many plants), Exocortis (viroid disease of citrus and tomatoes), bacterial spot (Xanthamonas, a bacterial disease), sudden oak death (fungal disease), figure mosaic virus, rose mosaic virus, tobacco mosaic virus, Fusicoccum viticolum on grape (fungal disease), Pierce's disease of grapes (5% transmission rate, bacterial disease) and others. I did not include tropical plant diseases like papaya ring spot virus and banana wilt.
|Mimosa or silk tree die back due to Verticillium wilt.|
|Sooty canker on ash.|
Cut flower growers and florists also realize the importance of sanitizing knives and pruners to prevent infections from entering the cut flower and promoting its longevity.
Whenever we enter fresh plant tissue with a pruning shears or saw the equipment needs to be sharpened, cleaned and sanitized. Adjusted and sharpened pruning equipment provides a narrow point of entry which minimizes plant damage around the cut. The concept that gardening tools should be kept clean, adjusted and sharpened is less controversial since this makes sense to people.
Equipment should be adjusted, sharpened and sterilized at the beginning of a pruning day. Equipment used for pruning should be sterilized for the same reasons we sterilize hypodermic needles and scalpels. Several important diseases are transmitted on pruning equipment. You can read more extensively about this topic this week on my blog.
|Sanitize and sterilize pruning equipment. Here I am using an alcohol wipe after cleaning, sharpening and adjusting the blades.|
Unlike a medical procedure which usually enters the body in one location, pruning involves entering the plant multiple times at different locations. So when pruning we must be concerned about transmitting a disease from plant to plant and the possibility of spreading a disease on the same plant to multiple locations.
If trees are healthy, then there is no reason to sterilize or sanitize pruning equipment between cuts or between trees. If the disease is present or you suspect a disease, sanitize between every cut to prevent the disease from spreading within the tree.
What to use for sterilizing equipment? First of all, wash the cutting surface of all pruning equipment with soap and water. Removing dirt and debris from the cutting surface improves the efficacy of sanitizing materials. It also prolongs the life of sanitizing solutions.
Sterilizing methods have been researched and there is some disagreement about what works best. Sterilizing solutions recommended include household bleach, Pine-Sol, rubbing alcohol, trisodium phosphate (TSP), and household disinfectants.
Household bleach (ex: Clorox): 25% solution (1 part bleach + 3 parts water)
Pine oil cleaner (ex. Pine-Sol): 25% solution (1 part cleaner + 3 parts water)
Rubbing alcohol (70% isopropyl): 50% solution (1 part alcohol + 1 part water)
Denatured ethanol (95%): 50% solution (1 part alcohol + 1 part water)
Trisodium phosphate (Na3PO4): 10% solution (1 part Na3PO4 + 9 parts water)
Quaternary ammonium salts: use as directed on product label
Household Disinfectants (Lysol, etc): full strength
Personally, I have used alcohol and even a cigarette lighter when nothing else was available.
By the way, bleach can be very corrosive to steel. When using bleach, oil your equipment at the end of the pruning day.
Sterilizing and sanitizing solutions have a life span. Dispose of these solutions at the end of the day and reformulate them again when needed. If there is a lot of pruning and equipment is particularly dirty, then sterilizing solutions will need to be reformulated more frequently.
One excellent method that reduces disease transmission from a piece of equipment is air drying it. Unfortunately, when you are pruning the cuts are made fairly rapidly and the blades never really have a chance to dry between cuts which increases disease transmission potential, particularly bacterial, viral and viral-like diseases.
How often should you sterilize equipment? Equipment should be adjusted, sharpened and sterilized at the beginning of a pruning day. If trees are healthy then there is no reason to sterilize her sanitize pruning equipment between cuts or between trees.
When you encounter a tree that is diseased or you are not sure if it does have the disease, I would recommend sanitizing between every cut to reduce the potential from spreading it within the tree.
Workers who are moving between properties must sterilize equipment between properties at a minimum. They should be taught that if a tree or shrub looks unhealthy, they need to sterilize between cuts. This is when a rag for wiping off debris and cigarette lighter that can fit into your pocket becomes handy. Any attempt is better than no attempt.
Root pruning. Sometimes I recommend pruning roots of plants. When cuts are made on roots of plants it is important to keep the pruning cut exposed to the open air for 24 to 48 hours before allowing it to come in contact with the soil again. This helps prevent disease transmission from the soil to the plant of soilborne diseases which are numerous.