Gardeners can be very partisan when it comes to naming their favorite tool, but few will deny the absolute indispensability of a good pair of hand pruners. You can get by with a good pair of scissors or flower shears for soft stems, but sooner or later, you're going to have to get in there and trim, prune, or hack back hard woody stems, and you'll be glad you have the appropriate tool. With a good pair of hand pruners (or maybe a couple), your two-handed loppers will come out only when larger tree and shrub branches require trimming.
Here are three things to consider when choosing a pair of hand pruners.
There are basically three types of hand pruners: bypass, anvil, and ratchet. Bypass garden pruners are probably the most popular, for good reason. This tool makes a nice clean cut using two curved blades that bypass each other in the same manner as scissor blades. One blade is sharpened on the outside edge, and it cuts as it slides tightly across a thicker unsharpened blade.
In contrast, anvil garden pruners have a single straight cutting blade that closes down on a flat edge or anvil. Anvil pruners have a slicing action similar to a knife against a cutting board and work well removing brittle dead wood but not so well on flexible green wood. They tend to be a bit bulkier than bypass pruners, making it more difficult to get in close for crotch cuts.
Ratchet garden pruners are basically anvil pruners with a mechanism that performs the cutting action in stages. Ratchet style hand pruners offer more leverage for smaller or weaker hands or for when you are cutting bigger, tougher stems. If you will be doing a great deal of pruning, ratchet pruners might save your hand and wrist some strain and fatigue.
Which is better? Each style has its devotees, but, because of the closeness and cleanness of the cuts, a bypass hand pruner is normally the best choice for most home gardeners. If possible, you should try out or at least hold the pruners before making a purchase. Get a sense of the feel in your hand, the weight, and the ease of grip. Some styles have a special notch in the cutting blade for trimming wires and plant ties.
Experienced gardeners may well choose to own two or more pairs of hand pruners—either a couple of bypass pruners of different sizes or perhaps an anvil pruner to go along with a good bypass pruner.
Prices for pruners vary widely, from less than $10 to well over $75. As with any other tool, buying the best you can afford will save you effort and money in the long run.
First look for a quality brand name such as ARS, Corona, Felco, Fiskars, or Sandvik. These are the brands that storeowners sometimes display behind locked glass doors to prevent shoplifting. Then, look for keywords like “Professional” or "Heavy Duty." These styles should have blades made from high-tempered carbon steel, which can be repeatedly sharpened. You'll also want hand pruners with replaceable parts. It is a mechanical device after all, and parts will eventually wear out.
Most quality hand pruners will come in a range of sizes. Felco, for example, has been making their classic model #2 for decades now. It has always been popular with professionals, but their #6 model is easier to use for someone with smaller hands.
If available, a leather holster is a good accessory if you're buying an expensive pair of pruners. It's all too easy for your prized pruners to accidentally get dropped into a refuse bag or compost heap, and it's less likely to happen if you have a convenient holster attached to your belt. Another helpful accessory is a whetting stone for sharpening the blade. Manufacturers may offer sharpening stones specifically designed for their blades.
Pruning can tire the hardiest hands, but if you are already starting out at a disadvantage with carpal tunnel or arthritis, you should look into ergonomically designed models. There are cushioned handles to reduce pressure, rotating handles to lessen wear on your wrist, even models with a horizontal inclination to allow the hand to remain in an unbent, neutral position. Left-handed gardeners haven’t been forgotten, either. There is usually a model designed just for them, although they tend to be harder to find in garden centers.
The bottom line: Take the time to find a hand pruner that makes clean, easy cuts and feels comfortable in your hand. When you are cleaning up winter damage this spring, you will thank yourself for having invested the time and money in finding just the right tool.