General Advice

Ten Practical Pruning Tool Tips

Tony Matson - Saturday, June 16, 2018
Buying the tools:
  1. Buy what you can afford. Take heed of the saying "You get what you pay for!"  Doesn't mean you have to buy the most expensive item but consider your gardening needs.
  2. Try before you buy.  Not always possible but if you see someone selling tools take the opportunity to touch, feel and even cut some plant material.  A good retailer will have a selection of tools for you to select from.  A Garden Show is a good time to compare tools.  If you can't try before you buy (on-line purchase) then at least check the length and weight of the tool, and the size it will cut.  Measure your current tools to compare.
  3. Check availability of spare parts.  Think sustainability. We've become a throw-away society, but we don't need to.  A good pruning tool supplier should have all the spare parts.
  4. Warranty -what does this mean?  Warranties are intended to cover you if there is a fault in the item in terms of manufacturing and assembling of the parts. If something is going to go wrong, it is likely to be in the first few uses.  If someone is offering a lifetime warranty you really need to check what it covers - blade (normally not), spring, nuts and bolts, handles?  What is the difference between normal wear and a manufacturing fault when the product is say five years old?
  5. Buy something suitable for you.  Try this checklist:  
    • Size - for example, if purchasing secateurs, do they fit nicely in the hand.  Whilst you might want to cut a big stem it is no good buying a large pair of secateurs if you can't get your hand around it.
    • Weight - with the modern materials of plastics and aluminium it is possible to get many lightweight products suitable for your needs.  Hold the product for a while as if you are trimming a hedge, or lopping a branch, and determine if you can manage the tool.
    • Mechanical advantage - many products today have gear actions or ratchet mechanisms to make the task easier.  If you have some tendonitis or arthritis, then consider these options.
    • Reach - many items are extendable however this will add to the weight.  Check what you need to cut and if possible, keep your feet on the ground.  There are many light-weight extendable poles with pruning and saw attachments.
After use:
  1. Wipe the tool dry after use.  Blades and other parts are made from steel and will quickly rust with moisture.
  2. Clean with a 70:30 ratio of Methylated Spirit: Water mixture.  This will clean and disinfect the blades.  Use a small brass brush to scrub the more stubborn saps.  The brass brush is soft and will not damage the blade or other parts.  There are many commercial products available on the market including WD30 cleaner - a citrus based foam cleaner.
  3. Sharpen as required.  Each time you sharpen you are removing metal from your blade so when you are not getting a nice easy clean cut, then it is time to sharpen. Sharpening devices include whetstones, diamond files, sandpaper and tungsten carbide.  The latter is a hard substance that provides an economical way to sharpen your tools.
  4. Lubricate your tools from time to time.  Typically, any moving parts, including the silver volute spring on the secateurs.  You can use an oil or spray lubricant.
  5. Store your tools in a dry place.  First you may wish to smear some oil (machine oil, 3inOne, Singer) onto the blade(s) of your tool.  Cover the blades and put into a cupboard in your shed or garage.

    Pruning Hedges

    Tony Matson - Friday, March 16, 2018

    Hedges are very popular as they not only can provide a formal element to your garden design, but provide privacy and screening from your neighbours.

    When to Prune?

    There are lots of times during the year when you are able to prune - during the dormant season, all the way to spring.  Pruning promotes new growth.  You don't want to prune in Autumn - reason being is that it will promote growth and the winter temperatures will damage the new growth.

    How Often?

    Most well established hedges should only require pruning twice a year, once at the beginning of Spring, when the plants are showing new growth, then once again at the beginning of summer to maintain shape.

    Newly established hedges do require a bit more attention in their first few years.  Tip-prune all the plants regularly in the first few years before they have reached their final height.  This encourages thick healthy growth and is important to establishing an attractive formal hedge.

    Tools required:

    Hand shears are the best choice for the home gardener.  They allow much better control and allow a closer and cleaner cut without the noise.  You will not get shredding or burning that some motorised hedgers will give.

    Secateurs - recommend a ratchet or normal pair of secateurs to cut larger branches which are too big for hedging shears.  

    Rule of thumb is that you shouldn't cut branches which are bigger than a 'lady's little finger' in width with hedging shears.   This will preserve the scissor type cutting action of the shears.

    Pruning Saw - can also be used for the woody sections of a hedge if cutting right back.

    String and 2 stakes or poles to create a straight line as a guide to pruning.

    Motorised hedger if hedges are extremely long.

    How to Prune?

    1. Prune out dead or diseased branches first
    2. Set up your stake and cord to get your height/ line
    3. Start at the top - flat along the top.   Decide if straight or round/ curved edges are required
    4. Trim back new growth by tip pruning, work down sides
    5. Feed and mulch after hedging plants to encourage healthy and vigorous new growth
    Ref:  Angus Stewart, "how to prune a hedge in 7 simple steps"

    Anvil versus Bypass Secateurs

    Tony Matson - Tuesday, November 07, 2017
    I often give talks at Garden Clubs and ask the question "What is the most important tool in the Garden Shed?"  Invariably the answer is 'secateurs' so I though it would be worth discussing the merits of Anvil vs. Bypass Secateurs.  Many people have more than one pair. 

    Anvil secateurs have an upper blade that is sharp both sides and cuts down onto a flat lower 'anvil'.  This anvil can be metal or have a hard plastic insert.  The action is much like a guillotine or a knife on a chopping board.  With a blade sharp on both sides, pruning harder stems will be easier. For tougher or woodier stems, a pair of anvil secateurs is recommended. The majority of ratchet secateurs are of the anvil design.  Some people suggest that anvil secateurs shouldn't be used to cut green material because it will be squashed rather than cut.  However, there are a lot of experienced (mature) gardeners that find the ratchet anvil secateurs very useful. Anvil secateurs are also good for both right and left handers.  The top handle is flat and the safety latch is in the central position.   As indicated, ratchet secateurs are extremely popular with gardeners with tendonitis, arthritis and/or those with declining strength.  Most of these people have lovely gardens and are not causing their plants to die by using anvil secateurs. 

    Bypass secateurs have a convex shaped blade, sharp only on the outer edge cutting down beside an anvil or non-sharp hook concave in shape.  The anvil or hook is typically smaller on bypass secateurs.  Bypass secateurs are the most common type, used for pruning live stems and where you need to make sharp, precise cuts.  They are more suitable for cutting softer, stringier living stems as the blade cuts all the way through the stem.  Bypass secateurs can cut smaller stems right against a larger stem and due to this functionality nursery people will typically use this type of secateur. The majority of bypass secateurs are designed for right handers with a tapered handle, with the outside edge of the blade on the right side and safety latch controlled by the right thumb.  Harder or dead stems may cause the stem to bend rather than be cut, and get caught between the blade and the hook.  This can cause the two sections to separate resulting in damage to your secateurs.

    In summary - for the average gardener who is not grafting or propagating either the anvil or bypass secateurs will be suitable.  In an ideal situation where either blade is sharp you will get a nice clean cut on living tissue.  The anvil secateurs are more useful for harder wood as both sides of the blade is sharp and since the blade is like a guillotine, is less likely to cause damage (separation of the blade and hook). These are very effective with lots of shrubs to prune, or cutting up to stems for the compost bin.  They also are invaluable if you are loosing strength or have arthritis or tendonitis.   If you are cutting flowers and herbs/ spices I recommend bypass style secateurs.  Whilst there is a lot to be said for using the "right tool for the right job" it is more important to get the right secateurs for you.  In addition to cutting action, check hand size and weight of the tool.