Pruning trees and shrubs might be the last thing on your mind during the height of the growing season. Hedges, perennials and many shrubs need your attention throughout the year, however, and the time for tree pruning will come long after the garden is done and the harvest put away. Have basic pruning tools on hand, and you'll be set no matter the time of year.
In late winter and early spring, our woody plant compadres call to us through the wind and slush, begging us for a little clipping and sawing before spring arrives and their buds burst in an explosion back to life. But there’s much more to pruning than random whacking; the right touch and proper tools are key to your snipping success.
Four basic tool categories are necessities: hand pruners for the 1⁄2-inch to 1-inch twig range; loppers for the whoppin’ 3-inch branches; hedge shears for all of those bushes, shrubs and hedges during the growing season; and the saw to tackle anything else.
Selecting appropriate tools
The following four tools are essential to achieve consistent results – and they won’t make much of a dent in the pocketbook of even the most frugal gardener.
HAND PRUNERS – These are the tools you’ll use the most. Remember the two types of hand pruners: bypass and anvil. Each cuts in a different way and is designed for specific jobs. As a result, you’ll want to own both and know when to use them during different seasons and growth stages.
Bypass pruners use blades that slide by each other with a scissor-like cutting action. This lets you make clean, quick-healing cuts on healthy bushes, shrubs and plants. Anvil pruners use a straight-edge blade that cuts against a soft metal anvil. They’re designed for trimming dry and woody growth.
What to look for: Look for top-quality construction, including forged steel alloy for bypass pruners and high carbon steel for anvil pruners. Make sure the tool is sized and balanced so it feels comfortable in your hand. It’s a good idea to look for ergonomically designed pruners for maximum comfort and minimum stress on your joints.
Quick Tip: Hand pruners are rated for the maximum diameter of the branch they’re meant to cut – usually 1⁄2 inch to 1 inch. Don’t risk damage to plant and tool by trying to force them through larger material. For this you’ll need a lopper.
LOPPERS – These “grown-up” pruners have longer handles to provide extra reach and leverage for trimming growth as large as 3 inches in diameter. Like hand pruners, loppers are available with bypass or anvil cutting action. You’ll find a variety of sizes available, including designs engineered to multiply your cutting power.
What to look for: On bypass styles, look for forged steel alloy blades that are able to be resharpened, and replaceable blades and anvils on anvil styles. Handles should include comfortable, nonslip grips.
Quick Tip: If you buy just one set, a 26-inch bypass model is a good choice.
HEDGE SHEARS – This essential tool shapes and removes excess growth from bushes, shrubs and hedges. A variety of blade and handle styles is available, including extendable models for extra reach.
What to look for: Make sure your shears have forged steel alloy blades that resharpen easily, and look for top-grade hardwood handles with comfortable nonslip grips.
Quick Tip: Use hedge shears only on soft, young growth. Avoid using shears on older, larger material where hand pruners or loppers work best.
SAWS – When branches are too big to cut cleanly with a lopper, you’ll want to include a professional-quality saw as part of your pruning equipment. Saws are available in a wide variety of styles including straight and curved blades, and with handles that are fixed or that fold for easy carrying.
What to look for: Blades with 3-sided razor teeth offer more cutting efficiency.
Quick Tip: If you buy just one saw, make sure it’s large enough to handle medium- to large-size branches. This will save time and help you do a better job.
In most parts of the country, deciduous trees and shrubs, broad-leafed evergreens, and conifers (except for pines) should be pruned in the spring. But spring isn’t the only season when proper trimming and shaping can be beneficial to the various plants, trees and shrubs around your home.
Remove any wood damaged by winter wind, ice or snow. Remember, prune back to a healthy bud or limb. Repair damage from animals.
Shear evergreens and hedges now, when they are putting on their greatest growth. This also is the time to prune all early-blooming shrubs after the last flowers fade.
This is a good time to prune certain shade trees such as maples and birches that lose too much sap if pruned in the spring. Some orchardists prefer to prune fruit trees now, since summer pruning encourages trees to set more flower and fruit buds and fewer leaf and branch buds. In the Deep South, however, late-summer pruning of fruit trees is unacceptable since it encourages a spurt of growth late in the season that would put the tree at risk of cold injury.
In all but the most northern regions, this is a good time to prune roses, clematis, hydrangea, buddleia, crape myrtle, potentilla, hibiscus, grape vines and the small-berry fruits. However, in Florida and other Sunbelt regions, the best pruning times for these ornamental shrubs vary.