(This is a slightly edited version of the same article published a few years ago in the HPSO Bulletin.)
The Pruning Series, 1
If you garden you will need to prune. Pruning is necessary not only for garden aesthetics but for the health and survival of plants in your garden. Gardens are our own inventions. They are infused with our intentions while the natural forces at play in any landscape work toward their own conclusion. We gather plants from disparate places around the world, put them together on soils in climates they did not evolve with, in intimate relationships we impose. We will have to be involved in an ‘editing’ process that is ongoing within the ebb and flow of plant growth and death that will include shuffling, removals, additions and pruning. Gardens are dynamic. Whether we make ‘good’ plant choices or not our continued involvement is a given. If we are good observers and modify our actions accordingly, we can move our gardens toward a balance that will require less of us. If we have aesthetic priorities that we are unwilling to relinquish, we will have to work to assure they continue. If our knowledge of how the plant will perform on our site is less than perfect and we fail to take all of it into consideration when we planted, we will have to intervene, maybe regularly.
Pruning includes more than the artful, structural and health enhancing cutting and removal of the woody tissue of trees, shrubs and vines. It includes:
The removal of reversions from asexually propagated plants to protect the cultivars desirable characteristics.
The cutting back of herbaceous perennials to shorten and stiffen stems so that they don’t flop with the weight of blooms.
Deadheading to encourage reblooming and the removal of collapsed bloomed out stems that ring the flush of mid-summer re-growth.
The removal of overly vigorous growth that threatens to smother less robust neighbors.
The late winter removal of the top growth of ornamental grasses.
The removal of damaged or broken roots when planting.
The removal of the year old growth on evergreen perennials like Helleborous x hybridus to better display their blooms and ferns so that the declining foliage doesn’t detract from the fresh new growth.
The removal of the spent flowers from these plants that would otherwise seed too aggressively around the garden.
Before starting any of these diverse tasks it is important to keep in mind that poorly maintained and poor quality tools can not only be frustrating to use but can negatively effect both the quality and amount of work that you do. Cheap tools will fail at a higher rate than one of quality and when it does it will probably be a throwaway because replacement parts are unavailable or they are not designed to be worked on. Keep in mind that we are gardeners for the long term. Our tools should not be a hindrance to doing good work nor should they be unnecessarily damaging to our own health and bodies. You can buy a good tool once or a poor tool many times.
Hand Pruners/ Secateurs
The most important single tool you will use for this work will be your pair of hand pruners or secateurs. They can be used for nearly any pruning job if the material is not too large. I even use mine, in the closed position, to score the sides of root bound planting material. This is one tool you should not scrimp on. Quality materials are essential. Good steel will take and keep a better edge. A sharp edge will make a cleaner cut with less damage to the remaining tissue. A good quality, clean cut, will lead to less rot and healthier plants. A better quality tool will have replacement parts available greatly extending their useful life. I choose Felco brand by-pass shears. By-pass type shears cut with a scissor like action. My Felco #2’s at home are thirty + years old. Twenty years ago I bought a pair of Felco #7’s for my wife’s use, she has much smaller hands, but find myself using them for lighter work. I can reach further into plants and can hold them with my fingers instead of seated fully in my grip.
Many home gardeners choose the anvil type pruner instead of the bypass. They are often cheaper. The anvil type has one sharpened blade that presses into the stem while pinching the stem against a flattened ‘anvil’. To fully cut through the material the cutting edge must press firmly into the anvil. If it doesn’t the cut will be incomplete. Crushed stem tissue is likely to occur. There may also be stem fibers that are uncut leaving a slight tongue. Any irregularities in a cut will slow the callusing, healing over of the wound, and increase the opportunities for rot. It should also be noted that anvil pruners can have more trouble cutting soft herbaceous material. Another physical consideration of the anvil type pruner is that the anvil itself, because of its width may prevent you from making the cut in the best position.
By-pass type shears, like Felco, have a curved blade that improves the shearing action. The blade tends to ‘slide’ through the cut as it moves passed the opposite fixed and curved ‘blade’, vs. pushing straight into an anvil, requiring less pressure and thereby less hand fatigue. The fixed curved ‘blade’ tends to hold the stem in place and is less likely to scoot it forward and away from the descending cutting blade.
[If well cared for, and kept sharp, any hand pruner will perform better producing consistently better cuts, less crushed tissue and fewer ‘tails’. Keep them clean. Pitch and sticky latex, will attract dirt, all which will increase friction. Increased friction will require more force to make the same cut, increase the stress on your hands and the pressure/ damage to the tissues you are cutting. I routinely clean up all cutting surfaces with water, soap or whatever will help dissolve away the crud. I periodically use fine steel wool to polish the rough spots and hardened organic gunk away. I remove any rust at the same time and oil both blades and any other moving parts including the spring with a light oil like WD-40.
Store all ‘edge’ tools, like pruners and shovels, in a dry place. This will reduce the opportunity for rust. Rusting is a chemical process in which iron from the blade is combined with oxygen in the atmosphere, oxidation. It physically deteriorates the surface and can lead to ‘pitting’ increasing friction and drag. A light oil will protect the metal from the moisture necessary for the rusting process. Always oil after cleaning.]
[If at all possible, keep your pruning tools out of the dirt! I say dirt because your garden soil is not a positive or even benign medium for these tools. Garden soil is largely composed of mineral particles not unlike those used to sharpen or polish metallic surfaces. In the ground they will work to grind off your carefully created and maintained cutting edge. You may also hit rocks which can dent or break the edge in away that will require much more metal to be removed in order to recreate your edge. A chainsaw or hand saw used to cut roots in the soil will, very quickly, be rendered useless. The dirt will destroy your edge, blunting it. The teeth will still be there, but it will cut very poorly and only with a lot more time and effort. Hand pruners and loppers, because their contact with the soil is more limited, and are not being dragged at speed through thousands of dulling particles, will hold up better and can be brought back to sharpness with less filing and honing. Good soil is your friend but dirt is the enemy of all edge tools.
Raise what you are cutting up out of the soil if at all possible. When cutting roots in the ground use your loppers or hand pruners. Their edge can be brought back much easier.
Learn to sharpen your saws correctly or take them in. I sometimes touch up the teeth on a chainsaw, but this requires more skill. The hand saws I recommend require different types of files than is needed for traditional western style saws. If you use the wrong file you will destroy the saw. If you do choose to use a saw on roots, use a cheap one. You will be surprised how quickly the blade is dulled by the dirt.
If I am removing a stump I never choose a saw to cut roots. My tools of choice are a Pulaski, a balling shovel and/or a spade like a King of Spades. These are designed for this kind of heavy work. The Pulaski was built as a firefighters tool after the Great Fire of 1910 which burned over 2 million acres, primarily in Idaho, and killed 87 people. It is essentially an axe with another axe blade welded opposite it at 90deg. This tool is ideal for chopping roots away while minimizing any contortions you might need to get in to do the job. Because axes and chopping tools are not filed to as thin an edge as are pruning tools and are forged of ‘softer’ less brittle steel, they withstand rougher use.]
Unlike anvil type, bypass shears are sharpened on one side of the blade only, away from the fixed ‘blade’. ‘Never’ sharpen both sides of the blade on bypass shears, they’re like scissors, it will ruin the blade. Improperly sharpened in this way a cut will tend to push/bend the blades apart and the cut will be of poor quality. The blade can becomes badly damaged requiring that it be replaced. When sharpening maintain the original manufacturer’s ground edge. Make it thinner and the edge can dent or break. Blunt it and more force is required to make the cut.
I sharpen the blade without removing it from the tool. The blade needs to be held solidly so while filing or honing they don’t waver and create an irregular edge. I keep my edges sharp by consistently honing them with a small steel that has diamond embedded in it. Some of us are old enough to remember barber shops in the day when barbers used a straight razor to shave their clients. A big leather strop hanging from the chair was used each time before shaving the customer. The hone, like a strop, removes very little metal, working to polish an already relatively sharp edge. A file should only be necessary if the blade is damaged or heavily worn. This doesn’t have to happen. When I use a file, I have 4” flat file. It is small enough to maneuver inside the open blades of the tool. The coarseness of a file is proportional to its length. It is fairly fine, but it still removes metal. Keep your hand pruners sharp! If for no other reason than to save your hands.
Remember, when choosing a pruning tool consider what you are cutting, your tool options and your abilities. In general, hand pruners are useful cutting wood up to 1/2” or so. If you are squeezing your hand pruners with both hands and twisting them back and forth in the cut, stop. Choose loppers or a saw. The twisting can damage your hands, spring the blade on your pruners ruining them and cause more damage to the cambium. Don’t do this!!!
[Gardening is demanding of our hands. We grip pruners, dig with shovels and tear apart root balls with our hands. Make it a habit to regularly stretch your hands and fingers at least daily. I lace my fingers, turn my palms outward and press through my palms. I have been gardening for 35+ years and working professionally in the field for over 30 yet have no carpel tunnel or tendonitis. It’s not just genes.]
When you choose a pair of hand pruners make sure they fit your hands and the job. Felco makes several models. Too big or too small is bad mechanically for your hand. They also make them for lefties. Their models #7, 10 & 12 have handles that rotate putting less strain on your hand. The different models also vary in size of wood they can cut and they amount of leverage pressure they can apply. Try them out.
There are both ratcheting hand pruners and loppers out there. I have not used any of them though some friends and co-workers have liked them. A ratcheting cutting tool will take two or more squeezes to complete a single cut reducing the strain on your hands. For people with carpel tunnel or arthritis this can be a big deal so they are definitely worth considering. Again, I don’t have these problems and it does slow the process. Also, the majority of ratcheting cutting tools are anvil type though there are some bypass type available. The quality of the construction generally seems a little gimmicky to me…the quality isn’t there for me. If I were shopping for a pair of these I would still check to make sure replacement parts are available. It has always bothered me to buy cheap tools that turn out to be disposable.
Loppers are another commonly used pruning tool. Personally, I don’t use them too much. They do provide a longer reach and more leverage. Some of my peers regularly carry two, one with short handles, often the 17” Felco #20, the other the 25” Felco #21. The shorter loppers cut wood similar in size to the hand pruners, have the same quality steel and reduce the wear and tear on hands. The longer tool cuts larger wood and allows you to cut nearer to the ground without kneeling. When choosing loppers lightness is an issue. Holding loppers out away from the body can be tiring.
I use bypass type loppers. Their action is the same as it is for the hand pruners. Their care is the same as well. The primary difference is the diameter of wood that they can cut, though as with hand pruners, you will find that wood can vary considerably in hardness. Any Salix, or Willow, is softer and cuts more easily than Quercus, or Oak, the harder wood reduces the caliper size of branch you can cut. Sometimes I’ve seen people attempt to cut through harder wood by bracing one of the handles against a solid surface and leaning their body weight against the other handle to cut through a branch. This is a great way to ruin your loppers as they aren’t designed for this kind of force and may cause the handle to break, if its wood, or bend, if it’s metal. Get a saw.
Loppers can come with other features such as extendable handles to provide you with a longer reach and more leverage. I have a pair of Fiskars that do this. (I use the Fiskars at home. The blade is not replaceable, but I don’t really use them that much so I will have them for quite awhile. I know, I’m not being consistent here.) While this sounds like a good idea, it did to me, in practice it didn’t really work that well. When extended the longer handles open wider often conflicting with branches you aren’t going to cut. Your actual reach, by the time the jaws are open wide enough to get around the branch, may be less than you would expect. Think back to high school geometry, as you widen the angle of a triangles two ‘legs’, the lopper handles in this case, the height of the triangle, your ‘reach’ with your loppers, lessens. The cutting ‘head’ moves closer to you as the jaws open.
Felco loppers use the same high quality materials as their by-pass hand shears. Bahco, formerly Sandvik, also make high quality hand pruners and loppers. I use a pair of short handled Coronas sometimes while pruning roses to give my hand a rest. The ash handles, while not as strong, are light enough and more than adequate when I’m working on roses (I used to prune more than a thousand every year). They are more of a hassle carrying around as you can’t shove them into a holster or pocket when you aren’t using them.
I will use loppers for doing what I would call a lot of gross removal, chopping away the tangled growth of suckering shrubs like Red Twig Dogwood to renew it, cutting back blackberries to get to the base so I can remove it or removing the hundreds of sprouts that sometime cover the trunks of Elm trees. I use them when I am less worried about the quality of each cut, the number of cuts is daunting or the cutting area is to congested to get in with a saw. I will also use them to chop up prunings in the back of my truck to reduce their bulk and number of requisite trips to the debris dump or to fill my debris can. My co-workers tend to use them more to protect their hands from wear.
In most situations, cutting larger wood, though still less than 2 1/2” or so, I prefer to use my folding Felco #60 (ARS and Corona make comparable saws. I use this tool a lot! Not all Corona saws have this type of blade, so pay attention.) As I stated before, my preference is to saw a branch too large for my hand pruners rather than using loppers as I think it makes a better quality cut. Remember, the cleaner the cut, and better positioned it is, the more quickly it will heal over and deter rotting. It is easy to carry in my back or side pocket in my Carhart’s. It’s 6” blade is narrower at the top, or back of the blade, than down at the teeth so that the blade sides do not come in contact with the wood creating drag. It cuts quickly on the pull. Don’t bear down when you push it through, you are likely to break the blade, saw blades are hard and brittle compared to shears and shovels. The teeth are taper ground, in the Japanese style, not with the conventional western tooth pattern. These saws require less effort to cut with.
Good fixed blade saws are also out there. They are carried in sheaths to protect the blades and the users. These are longer and can cut larger wood. A 13” blade, such as is on the Felco #611, can cut wood, if you’re ambitious, up to 8” or so. These saws make very clean cuts when compared to a chainsaw or more traditional crosscut type saws. Fanno makes an old favorite of mine, Fanno 30″ Pruning Saw No. RF-05. It has a flat laminated 30” long wood handle and a 16 ½” blade. While this may be more saw than the average home gardener generally needs it is a wonderful tool allowing you a little longer reach, providing a buffering distance from a dropping limb and a more aggressive tooth to cut through wood quickly. Unless you’re routinely cutting your own firewood to heat your home, good handsaws, such as these, should preclude the need for a homeowner to have and wield a much more dangerous chainsaw. Yes they do require effort, you are the power source, but I have watched many inexperienced, ill-trained, homeowners using dull chainsaws doing things that beg for a serious injury.
Americans love their power tools. If I’m falling a tree or bucking one up or am facing days of heavy cleanup work after a storm, I pull out a chainsaw. In Parks I could do more heavy pruning after a single big storm event than will probably face the home gardener in a lifetime. Power tools are seductive. If we have them we’ll use them. They are expensive, require regular maintenance that most of us are not skilled at providing and, are dangerous to the user and those around them. Be aware! A good sharp handsaw can do most jobs. If you are doing removals or heavy pruning after storm damage, consider hiring a professional. (There probably isn’t a more dangerous tool out there than a dull chainsaw or one with a loose chain! Don’t think that an electric chainsaw is safe! Get safety training and wear chaps!)
There’s an old gardening maxim that I used to hear. It went something like this, when tasked with the care of a landscape, “shear shrubs and trim trees.” Maybe it was a mnemonic people used to remember the difference in care. It has supplanted thought for many people. Much of the public view their hedge shears as an indispensable tool in the garden. What else would you do with a shrub than shear it? It’s what most of the mow and blow commercial landscapers do as well. We transform them into shapes that have more in common with geometry than they do with the fierce and wild plants they actually share DNA with. These are abstractions that can compromise their health. Shears do have a place in the highly formalized landscape, but they are over used. They feed their users need for neatness, uniformity and speed. In general, they violate my aesthetic. (I won’t be getting in to the “trim trees” part here, beyond saying it serves the same need, to contain, and permits their practitioners to ignore the peculiarities of a plant essential to it, that make it uniquely beautiful. There are several good books on pruning that languish on shelves.) Plants should be recognized for their unique as well as shared characteristics. We should not assume them all the same and treat them as such.
[Pruning Books: Cass Turnbull’s Guide to Pruning, a pracitical guide with humor from the founder of Plant Amnesty and Christopher Brickell’s, The American Horticulture Society Pruning and Training, encyclopedic in it’s scope and completeness. Anyone who prunes should have a basic understanding of tree biology, how they grow, respond to pruning and injury and ‘compartmentalize’ wounds. Every pruning cut is a ‘wound’. Are you adding to the problem?]
Having said that, I do use gas powered hedge shears. I have no hedges to keep trimmed anymore and am glad. By the end of a year some of my co-workers have cut several thousand feet of hedge. What I used them on were an acre + of ornamental grasses or battling back stands of Blackberry reaching over my head. Hand hedge shears just don’t work. Cutting multiple mature Pennisetum and Miscanthus will destroy your hands before you finish no matter how sharp your pruners are. It is also extremely time consuming. Most of my peers prefer to use the “shear on a stick”, or articulated shear. These look something like a string trimmer with a hedge shear on the end. The cutting head articulates so the angle of the blade, relative to the pole, can be set. It allows you to maintain an upright more comfortable position. I prefer blades that can cut on both sides. This helps relieve the back stress otherwise created by continuously pressing it one direction. These are professional grade (we use Stihl and Echo) expensive tools (around $500) and not practical for the homeowner unless they have enough formal hedges and mature grasses that they can justify it. They are also handy for cutting down groundcovers like Epimedium. (Yes, you can use string trimmers but they are quite a bit slower and tend to throw debris around making more of a mess. They also leave torn edges.)
Alternatively, you can reduce the amount of hedging and larger growing, mature, ornamental grasses in your care. Dividing your grasses regularly will keep the crown sizes down making them easier to cut. The larger Pennisetums are very dense and have a high silica content making them difficult to cut back much like dividing large clumps are. For these the traditional gas hedge works best because the new growth radiates out from a relatively tall crown so you must angle your blade as you cut so that the grasses don’t end up looking like a bad monk’s bowl cut.
Pole Pruners & Loppers
Those of you interested in pole pruners and saws have probably been frustrated by the large number of such tools utilizing round fiberglass poles. All of these that I’ve tried flex too much and, in the process, absorb much of the energy I’m trying to put into the cut. This can be compounded when the branch you are attempting to saw or lop bends with your effort as well. A more rigid pole will reduce the necessary effort. Old school wood handles were often more rigid, good, but, didn’t telescope in and out sometimes making them more unwieldy especially when working at those inbetween distances. There are other problems with such tools. Because you may be standing well below your cut, the length of the pole and the room needed for the mechanism to work on the lopper, you are going to leave stubs and the angle of your cuts maybe less than ideal resulting in more rot in the tree. These are bad for the tree.
Silky makes a professional grade aluminum extension saw in 16’ and 21’ lengths with high quality blades. I’ve used a friend’s and found it to be much more rigid than any of the fiberglass models. It has a double locking system and the pole’s oval shape, in cross-section, reduces the flop and flex. These start at over $200. ARS, has another professional grade system that has a ridged track that helps minimize flex and flopping to either side. Their poles have a quick release to swap between saw and lopper heads. These are over $200 also. You get what you pay for. (Aluminum poles and power lines can be a fatal combination. People are electrocuted every year somewhere doing this. Don’t chance it! Stay well away from any electric lines.)
If you are looking for a workout several companies, e.g., Stihl and Echo, produce a 12” chainsaw on an extendable pole. While these don’t extend as high as their unpowered brethren, they can help you get through a lot of work quickly. The 2-cycle engine mounts at the base of the pole to ‘balance’ out the saw on the other end. At full extension, you can make cuts 16’ up into a tree and they are relatively stable. When revved up the torque can make the saw a little difficult to control and it may skip around making cut placement more difficult, but once they are up to speed they settle down. At 15-17 pounds these saws deliver quite a work out. They cut quickly. Safety wise, the spinning chain is well away from you, just be very sure your help and observers are well away should it swing or you stumble. Be sure to keep debris cleared out from your work area so as not to trip you. Again, price is an issue with these saws as these are in the $600 and up range.
Combination Power Tools
Sthil and Echo both make a line of multi-tasking, ‘professional’ grade tools. These have a basic power unit you can easily attach tools like string-trimmers, edgers, hedge shears and chain saws. These are cheaper than buying two or more of the one use tools I’ve described above. They may be a better fit for the homeowner/gardener. If you are considering these make sure you stay away from the lighter use homeowner specials that are out there. While I haven’t used any of these myself, I know some people who are happy with them.
When limbing a tree with any saw, hand, pole or chain, you must use proper technique to ensure that your saw does not get pinched in the cut or your branch does not tear down the trunk. The weight of the branch can collapse against the blade as the cut deepens. If this is up in the tree beyond your reach you’ll need another saw to free it. If you make a single top cut, the weight of the branch can cause it to fail before you finish, tearing into the trunk, adding years to the time required to close the wound and stop rot.
It is good practice to cut any sizeable limb using a three cut system. First, make an undercut away from where you want your finished cut. This will stop any tongue from tearing back into the tree. Second, make a top cut above or just outside your undercut. The branch will drop suddenly and cleanly. Make sure that you, children, pets and gawkers are clear. They won’t have time to get clear when it drops! Third, make your finished cut where you want it just outside the branch ‘collar’. Pole saws make this more difficult because your cuts tend to be made more on the side of the branch than clearly on the top and bottom. Still, try to do this. It will reduce the chances of your saw getting stuck or tearing.
I try not to use a pole saw at my maximum reach. If I do, the saw is probably perpendicular to the ground. It is very likely that your cut will not be at the correct angle and will damage the branch collar retarding healing. Educate yourself on how to make a good pruning cut. Use your tools as intended.
A word on ladders. Ladders can get you up into trees. Just remember, falls cause many serious injuries. Expensive pole pruners are cheaper than medical bills and broken bones. Ladders can shift throwing you off balance. Three legged orchard ladders, when set up properly, are relatively stable on uneven ground. Never use step ladders while pruning in the garden. Their bases are narrow and they cannot be set up solidly on sloping or uneven ground. Extension ladders can be problematic in a tree. As comical and improbable as it may seem, people have sawn off the limbs that their ladders were resting against. Branches, you lean your ladder against, can fail. People also, when they feel comfortable on a ladder, may tend to reach further than they should and loose their balance when the branch/ladder shifts. I do use orchard ladders. They are a relatively safe, but you will never be as stable as you are standing on the ground. If you are perched on any ladder when a branch falls toward you your options are very limited. Always keep the path of the falling branch in mind, especially when working from a ladder. It should go without saying that free climbing in a tree and pruning without training and safety harnesses, etc., can be very hazardous. Pruning is one of the more enjoyable horticultural tasks for me. It can also be one of the more dangerous.
Arborists are trained and may have many years of experience. They aren’t simply homeowners with fancy tools. They know how to climb safely. They are trained in techniques to minimize damage to the tree, themselves, adjacent structures and valued plant material in the vicinity. Knowledgeable, licensed and certified arborists will not do work that will damage the longevity of your tree. They will not knowingly transform your tree into a weakened blight on the neighborhood. You likely don’t have this training or expertise. Don’t go cheap. There are people willing to do the work who are poorly trained and under insured. If you go with them, make sure your insurance coverage is good, because the injuries and damage they cause on your property may come back on you.
Now that you have outfitted yourself with good quality pruning tools and know how to maintain them in good working condition, you still have to know what you’re doing. You need to know how, where, when and why to make a cut. Pruning a Forsythia, is not the same as pruning an elegant Japanese Maple or making training cuts on a Gingko in your parking strip. Giving me a scalpel does not make me a surgeon. Take classes, read, ask questions and observe. Observation is required for good horticultural practice. How does the plant respond to my cut? It will vary from species to species, sometimes even between varieties. Many responses are shared widely. Relax. Pruning is both art and science and, as such, will take time and attention to develop. Just being aware of this has you moving in the right direction. Don’t be intimidated. Be thoughtful.