What Tools Do I Use?
If you want to make the best cuts, it’s important to have quality tools. This doesn’t mean that you have to spend a fortune, but a few extra dollars spent on excellent pruning tools will not only make your work easier, more enjoyable, and more attractive, but you’ll make cleaner cuts, which benefits the plants too.
I use a few main tools for everyday pruning and maintenance: the secateurs (or hand-pruners), a hand saw, loppers, a pole pruner, and long-handled shears. I generally avoid the use of pole saws, because I find that it’s difficult to make precision cuts with a hand saw from 6’ or more away from the cut. If I think I need a pole saw, I get out an orchard ladder of appropriate length and make the cut with a handsaw, from the ladder. I always try to get as close to my work as possible, to make the cleanest, most accurate cuts. It’s pretty much impossible to do thorough and proper pruning, on ornamental trees, without a ladder. I’ll discuss ladders in more detail below.
For cuts larger than about 3-4” in diameter, you may want to invest in a small chainsaw, although for most maintenance pruning applications, chainsaws are not required. There are some excellent small chainsaws on the market, specifically designed for pruning applications. As with other tools, it pays to buy quality. If you have a large yard, with a lot of trees, and expect be doing a lot of work, it would pay to get a contractor-grade chainsaw from a chainsaw dealer, rather than from a big box hardware store.
I buy my tools from specialty arborist supply stores. All of the equipment you need is available from arborist supply stores online. Two of my favourites are thearboristsupplyco.com (local Albertan company and very personalized service) and treestuff.com (based out of the US, but quick service and excellent selection).
I’ll cover each tool, and its application, separately.
In everyday plant maintenance, the secateurs are the most commonly used tool, so the importance of buying the right secateurs cannot be overstated. The industry-standard for quality is the Felco brand of by-pass pruners, and they are available in both left- and right-handed. All the parts are replaceable, and properly looked after, you probably won’t have to buy another set of these in your lifetime. They are easy to sharpen and maintain. Beware the knock-offs available in discount and big-box hardware stores.
Secateurs are great for pruning twigs and branches up to about 1/2” in diameter, on most species. On species with very hard wood, such as dead lilac, frozen apple, or elm, you might only want to cut branches up to 1/4” before you take out your handsaw. If the cut requires undo strain, or if you find yourself rocking back and forth with your wrist during the cut, then the branch is too big for the secateurs. Pruning in this way will harm your wrist, and likely make a messy cut on the tree.
For hard-core pruning enthusiasts, or career pruners, Felco offers an electronic pruner with a thin, backpack-style battery. As a commercial pruner, I own a few of these units because they handle pruning cuts up to 1.25”, which means I don’t have to use my handsaw nearly as much as if I were using standard secateurs. The main advantage with the electronic pruner is speed, efficiency, and virtually no wrist strain, even if pruning all day. The main disadvantage, especially for the homeowner, is the cost. Felcotronic pruners run about $2500, and require more frequent servicing than hand pruners. They are exceptionally well-made, and properly maintained, can last decades, according to the manufacturer. I’ve been using my first set for 11 years and they still run like they did when I bought them. For commercial applications, I couldn’t live without them.
The second-most used tool is the handsaw, and quality is very important. Sub-standard saws can make ugly cuts, regardless of technique. I started out with a Corona saw, and made what I though were decent cuts. Then I discovered the Silky Zubat handsaw, and never looked back. I use Corona as a disposable root saw now. The Zubat is made of top quality Japanese steel, and is supremely sharp. You can make the finest, most impressive looking cuts. Generally, I use my handsaw for cuts greater than 1/2” in diameter.
I don’t actually use loppers because I have electronic pruners that do the work of loppers, except much more quickly. Loppers are useful because they can cut branches from 1/2” to about 1” so quickly, and with greater leverage, than by using a handsaw. To me, their only practical use is to remove suckers near the base of trees and shrubs, such as lilacs, or to cut down medium-sized hedges, like cotoneaster. I don’t like seeing them used to make pruning cuts on trees. My philosophy is that if you’re making a pruning cut from 2’ away from the branch with a set of loppers, you should get a step-ladder and make a better cut with a handsaw.
The Pole Pruner
My pole pruner is an extension of my arm. With enough practice, you can develop amazing dexterity with this tool. I use the pole frequently, in situations where a I can’t climb to reach a branch on the outer tips of the crown, or where making cuts too close to my work prevents me from seeing what I’m trying to accomplish, such as clearing spruce branch off a house, or reducing the width of a chokecherry, for example. Often, I need to see the “bigger picture” when making a cut, and this is where the pole pruner is most useful. Bear in mind, however, that pole cuts are usually not as high quality as secateur cuts, even when they look like it from a distance. Perfection is difficult to achieve from a distance of 6-12’. Often, I can clean-up a pole cut from a ladder. Sometimes I have to settle. The goal with pruning is to strive for excellent cuts, knowing that, occasionally, they are difficult to make.
A pole pruner consists of a cutting head, and one or more attachable poles. For ornamental work, where I use my pole frequently, I prefer a Marvin cutting head with a lightweight pole made from aspen. Pole work is a hard enough shoulder workout without the added weight of heavier materials, such as fibreglass. As with other tools, it pays to buy a professional-grade pole pruner from an arborist supply store. A good pole assembly costs around $175 (2018).
If you want to impress your friends and neighbours, master the use of hand shears. It takes a lot of practice to get really good with them, but if you stick it out, you’ll find that your ability and precision with power hedgers will be much better also. I love cutting plants with a pair of sharp shears. I prefer Bahco shears, made in France. Bang for buck, they are professional-grade, and take a real beating. As with other tools, properly maintained, they will last for years. I’ll cover the use of shears in a later section.
Hedge trimmers vs. Hand Shears
I learned to shape shrubs using shears, by old-school arborists who demanded exacting quality. For precision, and quality of cut, nothing compares to sharp, long-handled hand shears for trimming fine-twigged material such as cedar and juniper, medium-sized material such as dwarf korean lilac and potentilla, and even more course material, such as two year old spruce or common lilac branches.
Shears slice, like scissors, as opposed to gas or electric hedge shears, which rip or tear. I always use barber-shop analogy with my clients. I ask them, would you have your stylist cut your hair with a steak knife? On large projects, hand shearing can be a lot of work, and hard on the shoulders, shoulder-blades, back, etc. So these days, if its one or two shrubs, I’ll use the hand shears. On hedges, and larger topiaries, I might start with the gas hedgers to “rough-in” my shape, and then finish with the shears. This takes a good portion of the physical load out of the job, and the finished product is still very nice. I once hand-sheared a 400’ lilac hedge that was 8’ high by 8’ wide. It took two and a half long days, and was the most beautiful hedge I’ve ever made. It still hurts to think about and I will never do that again!
For those people who’ve never shaped hedges and other plant material, starting out using hand shears is a good idea, since the shaping is slower and more forgiving. That is, you can usually fix your mistakes before things get too out of hand. With power hedgers, you can make big mistakes quickly, that only time and another growing season can repair. On the prairies, that’s a long wait, so start slow, be careful. I’ve always said, if you can’t cut a straight line or a clean shape with hand shears, you won’t be able to with power hedgers.
(c) 2018 Shane LePage, Wild Rose Garden & Tree Service Inc.