Selecting Tools for Pruning Plants, Trees, and Shrubs

Pruning Bushes
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  • 01 of 04

    The Most Indispensable Pruning Tool

    How to Prune Perennial Plants and Shrubs
    Marie Iannotti

    Pruning plants can often intimidate gardeners. It shouldn't. Pruning is one of the best things you can do for the plants in your garden and landscape. Becoming proficient at pruning plants just takes experience and the right tools. The four basic tools described here will take care of pretty much all your garden pruning tasks. Keep these tips in mind when selecting your pruning tools:

    • Buy the best tools you can afford. They will pay for themselves in the long run. Good quality tools stay sharp longer and cut easier.
    • Keep your tools sharpened. A sharp pruner is not just easier to cut with, it also makes a cleaner cut that heals faster. And it puts less stress on your hand.
    • Keep your pruning tools clean. One pruning cut on a diseased branch can spread disease throughout your garden. Wipe the blade clean with rubbing alcohol. Always clean your tools before putting them away.

    Four Tools for the Well-Equipped Plant Pruner:

    Gardeners have personal preferences, but there are a few features that you should look for in whichever style or make you choose.

    • Carbon Steel Blades - Sharpens easily and holds its edge longer than less expensive blades.
    • Replaceable Parts - Being able to replace blades, springs and even handle covers, will keep your pruners functioning longer. Pruners that are assembled with nus and bolts, rather than being riveted together, usually have replaceable parts.

    By-Pass Versus Anvil

    There are 2 basic hand pruner designs: by-pass and anvil.

    • By-Pass Pruners - One blade that is sharpened on only one side swings by (or by-passes) a curved but flat surface that cups the branch being pruned and slices it. Doesn't crush the branch being pruned.
    • Anvil Pruners - One blade that is sharp on both sides and comes straight down on a flat surface, slicing the branch being pruned.

    Other Bells & Whistles

    • Sizing - Pruners come in various sizes, so it's important that you hold them in your hand before selecting a pair. Make sure the grip feels comfortable and easily controllable.
    • Locks - Hand pruners have some sort of a latch, to keep them closed when not in use. Test to see it the latch can be opened and closed using your pruning hand.
    • Cut-and-Hold - Holds onto the stem, after each pruning cut. This is more for cutting flowers than for maintenance pruning since it could get very tedious shaking off every stem you cut.
    • Ergonomics - Pruning can be very hard on hand joints. Some styles have handles that swivel, requiring less movement and pressure. Some have softer grips. Others have rachet action, making the pruner do most of the work.
    • Sharpening Tool - Relatively inexpensive and often they are shaped to make it easier for you to get just the right angle on your cutting blade.
    • Holder - Belt holsters ensure that you have your pruners handy.


    You will find very hand pruners priced from $5 on up. Buy the best pair you can afford. However, unless you've tried out several pairs already, you might want to wait until you have some pruning experience and know what works for you, before investing heavily in pruners.

    If you have a large property and become a serious pruner, you might want to look into specialty pruners that come with features such as a built-in disinfectant sprayer, pneumatics, and self-oiling abilities.

    Continue to 2 of 4 below.
  • 02 of 04

    When a Hand Pruner Won't Cut It

    Using a Lopper to Prune Plants
    Marie Iannotti

    Many gardeners don't know what a lopper is or what it is used for - until they need one. If you find you need two hands to make a cut with your hand pruners, it's time to switch to a lopper. Loppers are basically hand pruners with long handles. While the longer handles will give you added reach to prune higher branches, that's not their true advantage. The handles on loppers give you leverage, so you can pruner can handle larger branches; up to 2" in diameter, depending on the lopper.

    The same basic principles and features of hand pruners apply to loppers. You want a carbon-steel blade and the option of replacement parts. There are by-pass, anvil, rachet, and ergonomic loppers too.

    There will be less stress on your hands when using loppers since you'll be using both hands to make a cut. But a comfortable grip is still important and some type of cushioned bumper behind the blades will prevent the handles banging together and jarring you.


    Loppers can cost anywhere from about $20 up to $200. Although a good quality lopper is a tool for life, you probably won't be getting as much use out of your loppers as your hand pruners. Put your resources into your hand pruners first.

    Continue to 3 of 4 below.
  • 03 of 04

    Pruning in Quantity

    Close up of male hands trimming hedge with garden shears
    Henry Arden / Getty Images

    Every homeowner seems to have a pair of pruning shears in their tool shed. Shears have long been the tool of choice for hacking back the shrubs in front of the house. Current gardening etiquette frowns on using shears to prune foundation plants. Part of this thinking is because it is becoming less fashionable to have perfectly clipped and shaped shrubs. Allowing evergreens to grow into their natural shapes is more in favor. More importantly, shears leave ragged edges when they cut and that's not good for plants. It is recommended that you prune these shrubs with hand pruners. True, it will take a good bit longer, but you can make pruning cuts cleanly and where you want them.

    However, if you have a lot of shrubs or if you simply like the look of clipped and shaped shrubs, then pruning shears is the tool you should use.

    Another maintenance job where pruning shears are indispensable is perennial shearing. Many perennial plants decline after their initial bloom period and shearing back the entire plant will remove the ragged old foliage so that the new growth can fill in.

    What to Look For

    • As with loppers, good quality pruning shears will have strong carbon-steel blades. However, you shouldn't need to replace the blade on shears unless you do an unusual amount of pruning or misuse them.
    • Shears should also have some type of bumper between the handles to cushion the shock when closing the blades.


    • Straight-Edged Blades - Shears with straight-edged blades make the cleanest cut and can most easily be sharpened. They make for a good all-purpose tool.
    • Serrated Blades - Shears with some type of toothed or wavy blade can be a little easier to cut with and will hold onto the branch being cut, however the cut itself will be less clean than a straight-edged blade. This type is good for smaller pruning jobs and for pruning where you don't want the debris to fall all over the ground. Serrated blades work especially well when cutting down ornamental grasses.
    • Power Shears - For those who look for power and speed, there are electric and gas powered pruning shears. These are quick and relatively easy to use, but they don't make as clean a cut as manual shears and they are noisy. However, they can make quick work of a long hedge and save a good deal of wear & tear on your arms.


    You'll find manual shears priced from about $20 up to $100.

    Continue to 4 of 4 below.
  • 04 of 04

    Tackling the Big Pruning Jobs

    Pruning an apple tree with pruning saw
    redstallion / Getty Images

    There are times when nothing but a saw will do. If it's too big for a lopper, you need a saw. In a pinch, you can pull out any old saw and use it as a pruning saw. But actual pruning saws are designed with sticky, gummy plants in mind. A good pruning saw won't gum up and bind when you use it to prune live wood.


    • Tree Saws - The traditional tree pruning saw (sometimes called an orchard saw), has either a straight or curved 12- to 16-inch blade and a pistol-style handle. The teeth cut on the easier pull stroke and it slides back on the push.
    • Tri-Cut Blades - Tri-cut blades have teeth that are sharpened on three sides, like a triangle, rather than traditional blades that are sharp only on two. Tri-cut blades cut faster and easier. You'll feel the difference as soon as you try one. They also stay sharper longer. Yes, tri-cut blades can be sharpened, but I won't pretend it's an enjoyable task. As with any serrated edge, it's worth it to have a professional with the right tools sharpen your saw blade.
    • Folding Saws - For the most part, any light pruning that can't be done with a lopper, can be handled by a folding saw. The beauty of a folding saw is its portability. You can stick one in your garden bag or even your pocket. It's always handy, without being a weapon. And they are deceptively strong.
    • Pole & Rope Saws - Pole saws are used for cutting high limbs without the aid of a cherry-picker. They look like they'd be very handy, but they are difficult and time consuming to use. Balancing the pole, getting to the correct limb, staying out of the way of the falling limb and persisting through the burning pain in your shoulders the effort will cause you are some of the down-sides of pole and rope saws. Still, they are nice to have on hand for occasional use. Be sure to use gloves with rope saws.

    Features and Pricing

    Saws can run you anywhere from $20 to $200. Many of the same manufacturers who make pruners make excellent pruning saws. The important thing to look for is replaceable blades. Blades can be sharpened, but sooner or later you'll need a brand new blade.

    Blade sharpeners start at about $15.

    Besides a good blade, you'll want to look for a comfortable handle. Foam cushioned handles can ease grip stress, but wooden handles, when maintained, will last longer.