Few gardening tools are as useful as a good pair of hand pruners. They're really the best tool for trimming and pruning soft or woody perennials, and are much easier to control than a large pair of loppers when working with flowers and small shrubs. While some garden specializations have a wide variety of specific tools available (rose growers, for example, sometimes invest in floral shears or flower scissors in addition to pruners), it's hard to beat pruners for all-around usefulness.
Though it may seem like there's a dizzying array of choices when purchasing a pair of hand pruners, most gardeners will agree this is one of the most important and most-used tools for their garden work. Some gardeners keep a basic, inexpensive pair of pruners for messier jobs and use their more expensive tools for finer work (such as pruning roses and flowering shrubs). Regardless of price, regular cleaning and maintenance will help keep them in good working condition.
Here are the four types of pruners you can get and the ins and outs of each one.
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Best for: Pruning, trimming, use on flexible stems or green wood
Bypass pruners are often considered a "must have" tool for gardeners. These pruners have two curved blades that "bypass" each other much like the blades on a pair of scissors. One blade is sharp, with the other dull, which give sa clean cut as long as the tool remains sharp. Depending on how you hold the pruners you can use the sharpened side for a variety of tasks. Bypass pruners are excellent for pruning small shrubs and roses, and small branches on trees (less than a quarter inch in diameter). Cutting larger branches can dull the blades, so keep your loppers handy for these instances.
Bypass pruners come in a variety of sizes, so if possible, try them out in your hand to make sure the size is comfortable for you. Many models come in a variety of sizes and the right size can make all the difference in comfort and efficiency. For example, Felco's #2 is their best-selling size of bypass pruners, but the #6 is better for smaller hands. Keep in mind longer handles will give more leverage. The blades also come in a range of sizes. Smaller blades are handy for finer pruning rosebushes or most deadheading jobs, while larger blades are useful for cutting back irises, phlox, bee balm and other perennials.
Care and Maintenance: Regular cleaning is especially important to keep sap from gumming up and dulling the blades. Clean your bypass pruners by wiping them with a clean soft rag after use, and keep them rust free with an occasional spray of WD-40 or other solvent used for cleaning metal. You can sharpen your pruners with a whetting stone or a fine file before you begin work.
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Straight Blade Pruners
Best for: Deadheading, cut flowers, small pruning cuts and fine work
These fall somewhere between floral shears and bypass pruners in terms of strength and function. You won't get the strong clean cut with larger stems you get with bypass pruners, but these blades are sturdier than the scissors sometimes used by rose growers. Some gardeners like the way these sharp blades can get into tight spaces for delicate bud trimming and pruning: they will reach where a set of bypass pruners might be too bulky to fit. These are also excellent for cutting flowers for a vase and trimming the leaves from the stems. Some of these pruners have both metal and plastic parts but it's also possible to find all-metal designs.
Care and Maintenance: The blades of these tools are somewhat finer and more delicate than other pruners, so caring for them properly is essential. Wipe clean of any debris after each use and keep them dry.
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Best for: Cutting old dead wood, pruning woody stems and branches
Though they can be useful, anvil pruners are much less versatile for garden use than bypass pruners. These pruners have a single straight (as opposed to curved) blade that closes against a flat edged piece of metal (the "anvil"). This design makes the anvil pruners unsuitable for cutting green plant material as it can bruise or crush stems and damage your perennials. Their shape is also bulkier, making them impractical for pruning that requires flexibility of motion and cutting at close angles.
Just as with bypass pruners, you don't want to cut branches that are too large with your anvil pruners; anything larger than a half inch in diameter is a candidate for your loppers. Keep a pruning saw handy for larger pruning jobs. The anvil design is also available for larger loppers that are held with two hands for cutting larger dead branches.
Care and Maintenance: Cleaning your anvil pruners of sawdust and dirt will help keep them functioning smoothly. You may find the blade portion of your anvil pruners grows dull with time. The blade can be sharpened or replaced.
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Best for: Tough stems, better leverage for avoiding fatigue
Ratchet garden pruners are very similar to anvil pruners, but they include an extra mechanism that allows you to cut things in stages. This improves leverage and is helpful for gardeners with small hands, or who have weaker hands due to arthritis or other conditions. Like other gardening tasks, pruning is repetitive and can cause strain to the hands and wrist, so vary your tasks and don't spend too much time at any one thing. Large pruning jobs call for ratchet pruners to lessen pain and fatigue.
Care and Maintenance: Clean your ratchet pruners regularly, and use a lubricant/solvent such as WD-40 to keep all parts working smoothly.
There are a few considerations for choosing the best pruners for the job, including size, shape, price, ergonomics, and availability for left or right handed gardeners (left-handed pruners are not always available in garden shops, but ask the manager if they can order a pair for you). The shape of the handles and blades can be an important factor, as you may find some designs more comfortable or efficient than others. These days it is common to see more safety features in garden tools so you may find that newer designs include things such as locks or other mechanisms designed to protect users and to keep blades sharp.
Consider ergonomics as well. Ergonomics refers to design elements that help minimize the chance of injury caused by repetitive stress or poor posture. Some features include cushioned handles, curved handles that fit the hand snugly and comfortably, handles that rotate to alleviate pressure, and designs allowing for pruning without bending the hands.
As with all tools, you tend to get what you pay for. Pruners made of hard-tempered carbon steel will withstand sharpening over time better than those made with cheaper metal. Replaceable parts are also a consideration: being able to replace blades will greatly prolong the life of your tools.