How To Use Hand Pruners (Secateurs)

Some Tips To Make the Most of the Tool You’ll Be Using Most

woman trimming plant with shears
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Pruners: a tool so critical to pruning, that they got the name “pruners.” These little clippers are designed to smoothly cut thin pieces of wood, as well as anything softer such as the non-woody stems of perennials.

Pruners are the simplest tool to use. If the wood is thin enough (about half an inch or less) and you know where to make your cut, go ahead and do it. Pruners don’t take any special technique.

But if you have more shrubs and perennials than lawn, you’ll be using your pruners more than any other tool, so it’s nice to take a few moments to think about the steps you go through and consider a few tips to make the job easy on your body and wholesome for your plant.

The Two Types of Pruners

There are two ways that pruner blades cut: bypass-type and anvil-type. I’ll describe both here, but you should probably buy and use bypass pruners. I’ll explain why in a bit.

  • Bypass pruners, the most common kind, have a single-edged blade that slices past a thick base as it closes.
  • Anvil pruners have a blade that slices to the center of the fat lower base, contacting that base at the completion of the cut.

So why is bypass the best? Anvil style lets you exert extra force, but hand pruners are not meant to be forceful, they are meant to be accurate and make a razor-clean cut. A well-honed bypass cutter does this.

Anvil is more likely to crush, especially if not perfectly sharpened—crushing a plant stem is an awful thing to do to it. It’s the equivalent of a surgeon, instead of slicing off your wart, bludgeoning it off.

As long as keep your solemn Gardener’s Oath to switch to loppers when your wood is too thick for hand pruners, you have no reason to own anvil-cutting pruners.

Pruning With Hand Pruners, General Technique

  1. Perfect cut location for bypass pruners: For the most exactly-placed cut, line up the blade itself with your cutting site. Remember that the blade passes to the side of its thick base, so the precise spot that the blade comes through shifts about a 1/4” when you flip the tool. When cutting very close to a main stem (a common move), you’ll often feel you need to use the tool “upside down.”
  2. Select correct angle. If your plant is opposite-branching, you should cut directly across the stem above the node. If it is alternate-branching, cutting straight across is fine, but it’s even better to cut on an angle sloping away from the single bud at the node. This drains rainwater away from the bud, so none gets trapped on the stem or in a crotch and promotes rotting.
  3. Get the wood deep into the pruners. Completely open your pruners and get  the branch all the way in. It’s tempting to snip-snip wood like your pruners were scissors, but this weaker cutting method will stress your hands and dull the blade tip.
  4. Make the cut. With the wood properly positioned, close the loppers through the branch in one fluid motion.

Other Tips and Cautions For Using Pruners

  • Work comfortable. The primary concern with pruner use is that you are making a lot of cuts using just your hand muscles. This can lead to fatigue and soreness, and repetitive stress injury at worse. To stave off these problems always use the deepest part of the blade to cut, to get maximum leverage. Operate the pruners with the balls of your hand and finger bases, not finger tips. When the wood resists a pruner cut due to its thickness or density (ironwood is a lot harder to cut than pine), switch to your loppers.
  • Try carrying them a belt holster for easy access. Go to a place where professional gardeners work, such as a botanical garden, and you will see that every one is carrying a pruner on his or her belt. You should too. Buy a holster that your pruners fit snugly into. Take my extra tip: get a holster with a hole at the bottom. This allows wood chips, dust, and debris to fall out instead of collecting in there, as it will tend to. This is also one reason you shouldn’t keep pruners in your pockets—my laundry is already enough of a nightmare without the new holes in my fabric and wood chips crudding up the dryer.
  • Cutting wires: at some point, you will be tempted to cut a piece of metal wire with your pruners. Don’t do it. You will permanently nick the blade, making every single cut you make afterward just a teeny bit harder. Some pruners, though, have a small notch where wire can be inserted and cut.
  • Keep ‘em sharp and clean. Dull pruners are useless and easily sharpened. Marie Ianotti has you covered with her gallery step-by-step on cleaning and sharpening pruners.
  • No one knows they are called “secateurs.” That’s the most specific name for this tool, but I was a professional gardener for five years before I heard it, and lots of my colleagues don’t know it. Go out and impress/teach someone.