With the arrival of Fall also comes some new chores. A typical Fall garden clean up will often include various tasks such as breaking down the vegetable garden, cutting back certain perennials, and pruning or trimming trees, shrubs, and bushes.
When it comes to pruning, there are a seemingly endless selection of tools. It may seem a bit overwhelming to a new homeowner, but in this guide I’m going to break down the most common pruning tools and tell you what they are, what kind of jobs they should be used for, and how to maintain them. I will also contrast differences where appropriate. So, with that being said, let’s dive in:
There are four basic types of pruning/trimming tools, as well as some pole-mounted variants for trimming high up in trees. But what tool you use depends on the job at hand;
In this article:
- Types of pruning tools
- Which tools should you buy
- Selecting the right pruning tool for the job
- Best time to prune shrubs
- Best time to prune trees
- Final thoughts
Pruning Tool Guide
|Hand Pruners||Trimming small woody branches up to 1″ diameter (25 mm)|
|Lopers||Pruning woody branches up to 1.5-3″ diameter (75 mm). The long handles provide leverage as well as capacity.|
|Shears||Shaping bushes and shrubs. Trimming lightweight brush, flowering stems, ornamental grass.|
|Pruning Saws||For cutting limbs off trees.|
The smallest of the pruning or trimming tools are commonly known as hand pruners. Hand pruners are designed to be used one-handed and trim or cut anything from flowers to woody branches up to 1″ diameter (2.5 cm). They come in two styles, by-pass or anvil style.
No matter which style of hand pruners you choose, make sure you they have certain features. Some features to look for would be a return spring in-between the handles so that they open automatically after every cut. It can also be beneficial to have ones that are easy to disassemble so that you can sharpen the blade each year to ensure efficient cutting.
Bypass versus Anvil pruners
While both anvil and by-pass pruners can do the same job, each do have their own task for which they are best suited.
Bypass Pruners have both an upper and lower blade, similar to a heavy-duty scissors. The dual blade excels at cutting through live woody stems up to 1″ thick.
Anvil style pruners have a single blade that will push down to an anvil, similar to when you chop vegetables on a cutting board. Anvil pruners are great for pruning dead limbs and branches up to 1″ thick. They do not cut well on live branches, as the single-blade/anvil combo will tend to crush live wood rather than sever it.
Pruning tool capacity/size selection
The size of your hand will typically determine what size hand pruner you should use. Since hand pruners are similar to a pair of scissors, the maximum opening of the blades is directly determined by the handle width. The larger diameter branch you want to cut, the wider the handles must spread.
If you are trying to snip or prune a branch but find that it is too large you may be tempted to use two hands on your hand-pruners. But, this can result in smashing your fingers together (ask me about it!). So, it is better to switch to long-handled pruners or loppers.
A newer type of hand pruner is known as ratcheting or double action. These hand pruners have either a ratcheting mechanism or extra lever to allow more mechanical advantage at the blades. While more expensive, this type of hand pruner will require the least amount of force on the operator, which means it can be very nice to use ergonomically.
For larger or harder limbs, loppers are the preferred tool of choice. Loppers are similar to hand pruners, but have much longer handles, which give the operator significant leverage that results in much more force at the blade as well as increasing the capacity of the cut. This in-turn makes loppers the best choice for pruning or trimming harder or larger woody branches.
The longer handles mean the blades can open more, giving you up to two to three inch diameter capacity. If you are dealing a particularly hard woody shrub, or limbs that are extra thick, then loppers are the right tool of the job.
Loppers also come in both anvil and bypass form, which are either two-bladed (by-pass) or single-bladed that contacts an anvil (anvil loppers). And similarly to hand pruners, by-pass loppers are best used on live branches while anvil-loppers are best for removing dead woody limbs.
Shears (Hedge Trimmers)
When you need to trim or shape a large bush then shears are an appropriate tool. The primary tool for topiary, shears are used for trimming leaves, small stems, and for cutting back perennial flowers and grasses. There are two styles, manual and powered shears.
Manual shears can be found in most people’s garage and resemble a large pair of scissors. The blades are usually 10-12″, and attached to 10-12″ long handles. They are generally easy to use and can cut through thick bundles of ornamental grass or flowers.
And although this can be done by a single person, if you have someone to hold a bundle of grass and gently pull, it will all cut in once chop quite easily. Also, these are great at cutting up green yard waste for compost piles!
Powered shears or hedge trimmers have two series of half-moon blades that reciprocate past each other, and almost resemble a sawtooth shark. These are powered either via battery/electricity, or combustion engine. Although electric or power shears are much heavier than manual shears, they make fast work of the overall trimming job. I can attest to this from personal experience – just make sure you use them in a safe manner.
For larger limbs 2″ diameter or more it is generally best to use a pruning saw. Pruning saws come in all shapes and sizes, from smaller 6″ folding saws to large 24″ bow saws. Small folding saws are compact and can make cuts in tight places, while larger bowsaws can be used to make quick work of large limbs or even tree trunks.
Compact pruning saws that fold typically have 6-16″ blades. They work well for limbs 2-5″ diameter, the key factor making sure your saw is at least 20% longer than the diameter of the limb you wish to cut.
These saws are easy to clip onto a belt or carry for longer distances, making them an excellent choice tool to have for camping, trail building, or hunting/scouting. Their are very practical, and more light weight than other tools such as a hatchet or machete.
Pole Saws / Pole pruners
Pole saws and pruners are normal versions of the aforementioned pruners/loppers, and pruning saws, but now are attached to a pole. The poles allow you to trim branches that are high up in trees or tall shrubs. For manual pole-saw or pruners, the pole generally extends telescopically up to 15-20′ (6 m).
The pruner/lopper mechanism is attached to a rope, which you pull on to actuate and cut with the blade. Care must be taken to make sure you don’t get the blade stuck in the limb, as it can be difficult to free it.
The blade of the saw is generally 8-10″ long, and is used just as any other pruning saw. However, the long handle makes it very taxing on your arms to use for extended periods of time. I can tell you from personal experience that after trimming 4-5 limbs of 4″-6″ diameter with a pole saw, my forearms are very tired.
Power pole saws
If one had trim many trees, it would be better to utilize a powered pole saw, which is essentially a small chainsaw mounted to a long, extendable pole. They are available both electric and gas powered, and the pole generally is around 10′ tall.
Pruning Tool Maintenance
To get the most out of your pruning tools, you should expect to perform a bit of maintenance. For starters, when you are going to prune a plant, you should always sterilize the blades by dipping them in some rubbing alcohol, or wiping down the blade with a fully saturated rag. This will kill any plant diseases or pathogens. After finished using the tool for the day, you should wipe it clean to remove any trace of alcohol or dirt, then apply a light coat of machine oil.
If you are unsure of what kind of oil, you can’t go wrong with 3-in-1! Also, remember that WD-40 is not an oil, but a degreaser/cleaner. So if you use it to remove any dirt or rust, follow it up with a light coat of 3-in-one to prevent rust and lubricate the tool.
Depending on how frequent you use your pruning tools, you will need to sharpen them every 1-3 years. If you notice it isn’t cutting that efficiently, or has gouges on the blade, the consider touching it up with a file.
The easiest way to sharpen is to secure the tool to a work surface with a clamp, then just run a file over the cutting edge. However, if your pruners can be disassembled, then you will be able to actually clamp the blade in a vise and give it a proper sharpening.
How sharp should my pruning tools be?
In general you want your pruning tools to be sharper than a butter knife, but not as sharp as a steak knife. The reason for this is that they are cutting through wood in a direct manner. And, if they are as dull as a butter knife they will crush the wood, while if the blades are razor sharp then they will not hold their edge past a few cuts (you would need to re-sharpen right away).
But if when it comes to sharpness, your pruning tools are in-between a butter knife and a steak knife, then they will be sharp enough to make many cuts before getting dull. So, you can use them for long periods before re-sharpening.
Which tools should I buy?
When it comes to purchasing pruning tools, I have two recommendations. The best value is Fiskars, as they have a lifetime warranty (and they stand by it). I’ve had to file a warranty claim with Fiskars in the past, and the warranty was fully honored (they sent me a new tool). You can find a selection of Fiskar pruning tools at our recommended products page.
A second brand recommendation would be Corona Tools. They make high quality products ( I own some) and they have some manufacturing facilities in America. For the product itself, what sets them apart is that their tools are easy to disassemble/reassemble (for maintenance). Although I love Fiskars lifetime warranty, they are much harder to sharpen as they aren’t always easy to disassemble.
Selecting the right tool for the job
Trimming flowers, leafy stems
For cutting back perennials, grass in Autumn, hedge shears are the best tool to use. This can easily be done by one person. Tip: For a very efficient and clean operation, have a friend hold and gently apply tension on the grass or flowers. This will make the shears easily slice through the stems. And then the person holding the stems can place all of them in a bucket or wheelbarrow with minimal mess.
Note, if you want to do a little something extra for wildlife, consider delaying cutting back perennials until the following Spring. Or, at a bare minimum, leave at least 6″ of stalk sticking upwards. The reason for this is that bees often like to lay eggs in the hollow stems of perennials. If you want to learn more, you can read our write up on why you should delay cutting back flowers in Autumn.
Pruning shrubs and bushes
For smaller woody shrubs and bushes, the pruning tool you use will depend on the diameter of the limb. For smaller diameter twigs and branches up to 1-1/2″ diameter, you can use hand pruners. For branches 1-1/2″ to 2″ diameter, you will most likely want to use loppers.
And finally, for woody branches greater than 2″ diameter, most people will need to use a pruning saw.
For trees, the same size constraints will apply as with shrubs and bushes. Smaller limbs and twigs up to 1.5″ thick can be cut with hand pruners. While branches up to 2″ can be cut with loppers. And anything larger should be cut with a pruning saw. Also, for anything high up on the tree you should consider using a pole trimmer or at least safely reach it via step or extension ladder.
Also, when pruning trees, take care to make sure you don’t cut away too much exposing too much of the trunk. As doing so may cause sunscald on the tree.
When should you prune shrubs
Woody shrubs and bushes should be pruned in late Winter to early Spring, before insects emerge. In doing so, you can shape the shrub to your liking and the limb will have time to create a scab. Since most diseases enter a shrub via open wounds, we can prevent this disease vector by pruning when insects are not active.
Also, don’t forget to sterilize your pruners after each plant! You wouldn’t want to accidently be spreading disease or fungus in open wounds on the plant.
When should you prune trees
Like shrubs, open wounds on a tree are where most diseases can enter. So, while each species is different, it is typically best to prune or trim trees in late Winter to early Spring, when insects are not active but after the coldest parts of Winter. This will allow the tree to heal it’s wounds somewhat before insects can potentially transfer any disease.
Although there are as seemingly endless amount of pruners available on the marketplace, despite all the variations we can generally classify them in to four primary categories. Understanding tool capacities and the difference between by-pass and anvil pruners/loppers can further make us more efficient in selecting the proper pruning tool for the job. Finally, even though it may be tempting to prune during nice weather, we should definitely consider the risks of insect born diseases entering our trees and shrubs.
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