If you are going to buy just one tool for pruning, make it a pair of pruning shears. This tool—secateurs, to British gardeners—is what you'll use for pruning roses and for the majority of cuts on fruit plants, houseplants, and young ornamental trees and bushes.
There are two basic types of pruning shears: anvil shears and bypass shears. The business end of an anvil shears consists of one sharp blade opposed to a flat piece of softer metal. The sharp edge comes down on the flat piece as a knife does on a cutting board. Bypass pruners, in contrast, work more like scissors, with two sharp blades sliding past each other.
Better-quality pruning shears cost more and are well worth the extra money. But be forewarned: “better quality” can have more than one meaning. It may mean a tool manufactured from higher-quality materials, or a tool designed to cut more efficiently, or be more comfortable to use. I have cut branches using stainless steel pruning shears that were relatively expensive, yet neither especially comfortable to hold nor effective at cutting. If possible, always try out a few pairs of pruning shears once you have settled on a price range.
Anvil shears generally are cheaper than bypass shears—and for good reason. The price difference may be reflected in the cut. Too often this type of pruner will crush the side of a stem against the anvil's flat surface, and if the cutting blade does not mate perfectly with the anvil, it can leave the severed stem hanging on by a thread of bark. The wide, flat anvil also makes it hard to get the tool right up against the base of small stems.
It is important to check out the weight, the hand-fit, and the balance of any prospective candidates before you finally settle on one, because pruning shears are a use-anytime sort of tool that you may well get in the habit of carrying with you whenever you go into the garden. I always, for example, drop my lightweight Pica shears into my pocket since I'm sure to come upon at least a stem or two that needs pruning. Through this habit, I've found that a dependable locking mechanism is also important, so that the shears don't come open in my pocket. (I've had trouble with my Picas, and working the catch on my otherwise excellent Bahco shears takes both hands.) I might suit up with a pruning holster and a heavier pair of shears when going on a more deliberate pruning excursion.
A bypass pruner should have an adjustable tension screw, so that the blades can be made to close easily, yet be tight enough that they do not bind on a stem. But beyond basic design, some pruning shears have special features. Gardena makes a pair that can be adjusted to your hand size, although the maximum blade opening shrinks when fitted to a smaller hand. You can buy left-handed shears or shears tailor-made for small hands. When ordering Bahco pruners, you specify both your hand size and the largest-diameter stem that you expect to be cutting (to a maximum of one-and-a-quarter inches, which takes strong hands).
The blades of some bypass shears are hooked at the ends to help prevent stems from slipping free of the jaws as you cut. Other shears achieve the same effect with a rolling action of one bypass blade along the other as the handle is squeezed. To make it easier to slice through thick stems, some shears have a ratchet action, but you should weigh the advantage of more power against the need to squeeze the handle repeatedly. Fiskars, Bahco, and Felco are among manufacturers of models that ease hand strain with hand grips that rotate as you make the cut, or through blade angles varied in relation to the handles. And for the professional landscaper or orchardist, confronted with hours of pruning at a stretch, pneumatic and electrically operated hand shears are available.
Also take note of how easily the blades of a particular pair of hand shears can be sharpened. No matter what shears you own, care for them and they will repay you with years of service. Pruning shears do not need to be babied, just kept clean, sharp, and oiled. Dirt may nick or dull the edges of the blades, so give them an occasional wipe with an oil-dabbed rag. Clean off sap with a rag dipped in a solvent such as kerosene. Periodically apply a few drops of oil to the bolt that joins the blades, as well as to the spring that spreads the handles. Better-quality shears usually have replaceable springs and locking mechanisms.
Pruning shears cut most easily and quickly if their blades are sharp, and clean cuts heal quickest. On anvil shears, hone the sharp blade on both sides, making certain to avoid putting a curve on the edge; otherwise the blade will not contact the anvil evenly along its full length. On bypass shears, sharpen both blades. Because these blades cut as they slide past each other, sharpen each blade only on its outside edge, as you would when sharpening scissors. Some shears, such as the better Felco models, have replaceable blades should the old ones become damaged beyond sharpening.
Pruning shears may be among our most used tools, but they're not for pruning everything. Never attempt to shimmy and wiggle a shears through branches too big for it. Apart from the sheer difficulty, you are likely to leave ragged stubs and could well damage the shears, especially those cheaper ones with stamped metal blades.
Generally, stems huskier than about three-quarters of an inch call for the use of a lopper or pruning saw. And at the other extreme, when it comes to nipping out the tips of shoots—those of outdoor chrysanthemums or indoor avocados, for example— no tool is more convenient or useful than your thumbnail.