Some Pruning Basics

by Julie Barnes, Master Gardner

Last month I discussed when to consider pruning. But, in order to do this job properly, choosing the right tool should make it easier for both you and your plants. This depends mainly on the size of the branches to be pruned. A plant can be easily be wounded and become more susceptible to disease when the wrong pruning tool is used.

Always begin with good quality tools that have sharp, clean well maintained blades for rendering cuts that will not damage surrounding tissue left on the plant.

Hand pruners or pruning shears are the most frequently used pruning -tool working best for small branches or stems up to ½in thick. They are essential for general tasks, such as, cutting down perennials, taking woody cuttings, harvesting cut flowers, and deadheading. Hand pruners are grouped into either anvil or bypass styles that are available in different sizes. When purchasing, assess how comfortable the handles feel when they are fully opened in the palm of your hand. A safety catch that holds the blades closed should also be easily be operated with one hand. Hand pruner handles should be gripped firmly to make clean cuts without twisting.

Anvil style pruners have one moving or cutting blade that cuts as it closes onto a flat edge (or 'anvil') giving an action similar to a knife on a chopping board. When the handles are squeezed the cutting blade comes down to cut a branch against the anvil or stationary blade. Because the blade often crushes stems when cutting, this anvil action is ideal for older or dead wood which tends to be harder to cut. Anvil pruners are slightly bulkier than bypass pruners making it harder to use them in tighter areas.

Bypass pruners give a clean cut as two curved blades "bypass" or move past each other similar to a pair of scissors. One of the blades is sharp and cuts as it moves by a thicker unsharpened blade that holds the stem. Generally, the bypass hand pruners are preferred over the anvil type. The anvil type can't cut as close and is more likely to crush stems when pruning while the bypass style prevents unnecessary tissue damage. So again, whichever type you choose, make sure the pruners are sharp and produce a clean cut without crushing or damaging a stem.

Long handled Loppers cut large stems from ½ to 1¼ in thick. Loppers have longer handles than hand pruners to provide the user with greater leverage and extended reach. If the loppers cannot make a clean cut through a branch without damage from twisting and tearing, then a pruning saw should be used.

A pruning saw works for stems that are more than 1¼ in thick. The blade is shaped so that it can be used in confined spaces. It is designed to cut live wood, unlike a carpenter saw that is made for dead wood. Any branch thicker than a finger should be cut with loppers or a pruning saw.

Spring is a good time to examine plants in the garden. When pruning trees and shrubs, a correct cut is made at an angle just beyond the bud. If a cut is made too far from a bud, the stub left above it will eventually die, rot away and provide a disease entry. And, when a cut is made too close to the bud, it will wither and die.

So, consider some sunny afternoon as a good time to prune.