Homestead's gardening educator extraordinaire - Gene Sumi, of course - gave his famous pruning talk recently to a rapt audience, as part of our Winter Workshop series. He relayed far too much information for one blog story, though, so let's just start with his tool recommendations.
Gloves are what Gene called "the most basic pruning tool" and he likes the ones with a bit of thickness to them, for safety, but more suppleness than leather, which can get stiff. And if you prefer cutting without gloves on, at least use a glove for the holding hand. You know, the hand that's in the line of fire from sharp cutting tools? The hand holding the tool and doing the cutting can probably take care of itself.
Arborists have all sorts of equipment for getting high up in trees and more impressive tools for cutting them, but home gardeners rely more than anything on a simple hand pruners (called "secateurs" in the U.K. and across Europe).
Your first choice here is between the anvil-type pruner and the bypass-type. Now I'd always heard that the anvil type were to be avoided because they could crush stems as they're cutting them. But according to Gene there are situations where anvil pruners work best - on dead wood or very hard wood, like citrus. Apparently, trying to cut really hard wood with bypasses can damage them - who knew? (Once again and not for the last time, Gene teaches this old dog a new trick!)
Asked how often to sharpen hand pruners, Gene answers that there's no regular schedule for sharpening that we can put on the calendar. Instead, he recommends that whenever you notice the pruner not cutting as easily as it once did, get out a fine stone to "touch it up" before it really loses its edge.
Hand pruners should be used to cut stems up to 1/2 inch in thickness. If you're straining to cut with one, you know it's time to move up in size to another tool.
LOPPERS AND SAWS, ETC
The lopper, another essential pruning tool for the home gardener, can cut branches up to 2 inches in diameter. For anything larger, use a saw. Like Gene, I'm a big fan of folding pruning saws, for several reasons. Because they cut in both directions, they cut really, really quickly. They fold up into a neat, totally shape package. And they're cheap! For cutting branches you can't reach there are all sorts of saws on poles, and they also work well. But how about the ones you can't reach with pole pruners, the ones that require getting on a ladder? Gene has a clear answer to that - Hire a professional! - and that's great advice for home gardeners of all ages.
Of course, for gardeners who likes a neat, cared-for look, there are hedge-trimmers and grass-trimmers.
Felco brand tools will last a generation or more, thanks especially to their easily replaced blades. It's made in Japan, as are Baco tools, another high-end brand. A less expensive though still reliable tool manufacturer is Corona, which manufactures its products in Taiwan. The tool-makers that Gene doesn't vouch for are the ones in China, because he's seen too many poor-quality tools that were made there.
MORE PRUNING HELP FROM GENE
Starting in early March and going throughout the gardening season you'll find Gene's pruning tips here on the blog. At the appropriate time of the year we'll show you what plants need pruning then, and how to do it. We hope to get some of Gene's pruning wisdom on video!