When it comes to gardening, good tools are essential, especially when it involves repetitive tasks like pruning. The right pruners increase productivity, decrease wear and tear on the body and produce superior results. These days there are hundreds of options available. No matter what you choose, though, make sure these six are part of your home arsenal.
Pruning is a key part of garden maintenance. It allows the gardener to form plants into shapes (as in formal hedges), modify their appearance or simply maintain their size. Selective pruning can help maximize a plant’s fruiting or flowering. And, regular pruning of dead, diseased, damaged or dysfunctional branches (the 4 ‘D’s) can ensure plants remain vigorous and healthy. It improves the overall look of the garden, too.
Regular pruning improves the look of the garden
Good gardening starts with a good set of general purpose gloves. For planting, pruning and caring for my perennials, the best gloves are those made out of nitrile rubber. They’re flexible and relatively puncture-resistant (unless you’re pruning shrubs with heavy thorns) and they’re also washable, although NEVER throw them in the dryer.
Lightweight cotton gloves are a more traditional option, although they lose their flexibility once you wash them (again never use the dryer.) Another drawback is they can soak up water from the soil or plants and become clammy.
Leather gloves come in handy for bigger, tougher tasks like pruning thorny shrubs, cutting down tree branches and generally hauling stuff around. Leather doesn’t do well in water, though, and the gloves won’t let you sweat. Adding a knit glove liner to can counteract the problem.
Perhaps the most basic of all garden tools is the standard sized pair of pruning shears. The best ones have steel blades that open and close smoothly. Look for cast aluminum parts and plastic or rubber-coated handles.
While all pruners have two blades (the cutting blade and the anvil blade), there are two types of pruning shears. Bypass pruners consist of two sharp blades that cut like scissors, while anvil pruners cut by pressing the cutting blade onto the anvil, like a knife.
Felco 2 classic bypass pruner
Felco 30 anvil pruner
The best brands (like my Swiss-made Felco 2s) are nearly unbreakable and can be completely dismantled for cleaning and repairs. You can even send away for replacement parts.
With pruners, it’s important to make sure the tool fits your hand properly to guard against stressing the body. There are now smaller, lighter ones on the market made for small hands, as well as modern, ergonomic designs with rotating handles (to reduce stress on the hand during repetitive work) and mirror-image left-handed versions.
Caring for hand pruners
While you don’t need to clean and sharpen them all the time, hand pruners benefit from periodic touch-ups to remove built-up plant residue and allow for smoother, cleaner cuts. Remove dirt by dipping the shears in a small bucket of water, then scrub away debris with a small wire brush.
After you’ve dried off the blades, keep your pruners sharp by filing them with a flat file to maintain the bevel, using short, firm strokes aimed away from your body. Start at the base and continue to the tip of the blade.
Most plant diseases are fungal and don’t spread easily from plant to plant. Still, there are some, like Fireblight (that affects roses), that spread easily. Disinfect pruners by immersing them in rubbing alcohol or dunk them in a bleach solution made from 1 part bleach to 10 parts water. Be careful not to disinfect too often, though, or you can corrode the tool. Finish with a coat of oil like WD-40 to keep things running smoothly.
Think of loppers as pruners with long handles that allow you to reach higher and farther to prune out twigs and smaller branches. Just like with hand pruners, there are bypass loppers and anvil loppers. The best models have blades made of high quality, hardened steel. Some loppers come with a non-stick coating to resist sap and other sticky build-up.
Loppers come with a wide range of handle lengths, from the shorter 15 inches to 32 inches or longer. The longer the length, the greater leverage you have when pruning, making it easier to cut thicker branches.
Unlike hand pruners, many loppers cannot be disassembled for cleaning or repair and they often do not allow you to replace parts. Look for loppers that have a removable bolt holding the blades together; this typically indicates that the cutting blade is replaceable.
Clipping a hedge can get tiresome, so the best hedge shears should be lightweight and precise. Look for models with angled blades, rubber bumpers (to reduce stress) and long handles so you can position your hands at the bottom and at the top for lighter pruning.
ARS Ultra-Light Professional Multi-Purpose Shears
As the name implies, hedge shears are primarily used for hedging (although you can also use them to cut down tough perennials.). They produce a more formal, controlled look. Many brands have replaceable blades, since sharpness is of the utmost importance.
These precision garden tools are made for jobs that are simply too big or too tough for hand pruners or loppers, like pruning out small branches and limbs. Hand-pruning saws are available in straight and curved blades.
The best models are designed to cut on the pull stroke (which is more natural for the body than pushing the saw away.) There are fixed and folding blades and the saws come in a variety of blade sizes ranging from 5 to 16 inches.
Many gardeners swear by the Japanese pruning saw, which is a 3-sided highly ground razor cut saw with chiseled teeth. Designed for clean, polished cuts, it is said to require less effort. Blades are often replaceable.
If you’re really into pruning out that large, unreachable branch, then the pole saw is for you. Also known as a combination saw, it consists of a fold down or removable saw blade and a rope. Most can be extended as high as 12 to 14 feet. Before you invest, though, make sure your have the muscles to carry it.
Which tool, which branch?
In the words of Maryland arborist Phil Normandy, a good rule of thumb is to use the base of the blade as a guide and to resist cutting anything bigger. Otherwise, you might end up bending or even snapping the blade. He advises,
“If it’s too long for a pole saw, it probably needs a power saw, which means it’s too big for you to be doing it.”