Choosing the Right Pruning Tools

I love garden tools. When I have the right tool in my hand I feel like I can do anything. Without the right tool, working in the garden is a struggle. Back when I took my first horticulture class my teacher stressed the importance of careful tool choice and I thought he was nuts. Surely a pruner is a pruner? Not so. There is a wide variety of pruning tools for different kinds of pruning work, and choosing the right one makes all the difference in the world, for both you and your plants. Here's what you need to know.

Hand pruners are best for cutting branches and twigs under 1/2 inch in diameter. There are two basic kinds of hand pruners: anvil pruners and bypass pruners. Design is important, so try different styles to find one that fits your hand well. Some have rotating handles, others are stationary. Some are designed for petite, feminine hands; others are for left-handed gardeners. When you've chosen your pruner, buy yourself a holster. SO worth it! I can't tell you how many tools I've lost because they weren't attached to my body.

Anvil pruners cut by bringing one sharp blade down on top of a second blade with a flat surface. These pruners crush as they cut, which is fine if you're cutting up twigs and branches to throw away. If, however, you're pruning a plant and you want it to keep growing, it's better not to crush the stem. Anvil pruners generally require less hand strength than bypass pruners, so if you're cutting up a lot of small, dead wood, this should be your tool of choice.

Bypass pruners cut like scissors, with one blade passing by the other. Stem tissue is neatly severed with as little trauma as possible, leaving it uncrushed. If you're pruning live growth that's 1/2 - 3/4 inch in diameter, this is the best tool for the job. If you plan to purchase only one pair of hand pruners for general use, ones with a bypass design are most useful.

Ratchet pruners are a specialized type of hand pruner that increases the force of your cut with its ratcheting action. An interior mechanism allows you to make numerous, small cuts without actually opening up the blades for each cut. Each time you squeeze, the blades cut deeper into the wood. Many ratchet pruners accommodate branches up to 1 inch in diameter, and they may be either anvil or bypass design. If you have arthritis or a repetitive stress injury, this is an excellent tool for you.

Loppers come in many shapes and sizes and are designed to cut branches from 1/2 - 2 inches, depending on the model. The length of the handles determines the amount of leverage you get while making your cut; longer handles make the job easier. Handles may be made of wood, metal, or fiberglass, and all work well, although wood-handled loppers are generally heavier. Loppers make a bypass type of cut and are useful for cleaning out the interior structure of an overgrown tree or shrub. Ratchet loppers are a wonderful invention. Capable of making large, clean cuts, they are faster and easier to use than saws and can handle branches up to 2 – 2 1/2 inches in diameter. However, ratchet loppers won't fit into tight spaces because of the way their blades need to open to fit around the wood being cut. Good ratchet loppers cut cleanly with very little muscle on your part.

Pruning saws fit into spaces where loppers might damage the bark of a tight-angled crotch. Most pruning saws cut on the draw, which means they cut as you pull the blade toward you. Blades can be replaced as they get dull. A folding pruning saw not only takes up less room in your tool bag, but also protects the blade (and your hands!) by holding the blade inside the handle with a locking mechanism. Pruning saws are great for cutting branches from 1-3 inches in diameter.

Pole saws/pruners may be equipped with either a saw blade or pruning blades, or both. The pruning blade is operated by a rope attached to what looks like a bicycle chain or spring, and the entire cutting mechanism sits atop a long pole, allowing you to cut branches that might otherwise be out of reach. Whether you use the saw blade or the pruning blades will depend on the thickness of the branch you need to cut. The pruners are better for thinner branches, while the saw blade can handle thicker wood. Buy the lightest weight pole you can, since working overhead can be tiring.

Hedge shears are often used incorrectly, and I hesitate to recommend them since they can often do more harm than good. But if you have a formal hedge or topiary that requires close shearing, they are indeed a necessary tool. Hedge shears resemble giant scissors and make large, wide cuts. They are not suitable for cutting woody branches and should only be used to trim soft, green, new growth.

Depending on the kind of pruning you need to do, one of these tools is bound to be right for the job. I couldn't do without one of each!

Ellen Zachos is the owner of Acme Plant Stuff (, a garden design, installation, and maintenance company in NYC specializing in rooftop gardens and indoor plants. She is the author of numerous magazine articles and six books and also blogs at Ellen is a Harvard graduate and an instructor at the New York Botanical Garden. She lectures at garden shows and events across the country.

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