Pruning is an important part of gardening, and to do it right you need the proper tools and know a few basic techniques.


The long handles of a lopper help you reach further into a shrub or tree.

Tools of the Trade

For almost every kind of pruning that you’ll do in your garden, you need but three tools:

  1. Hand pruning shears for small branches (less than ¾ inches in diameter). Get yourself a bypass (scissors) type.
  2. Lopping shears for branches greater than ¾ inches and up to 1½ inches in diameter. The long handles allow you to reach an additional 1-2 feet into a tree. (Small shock-absorbing handle “bumpers” on the higher-quality products do make a difference.)
  3. A pruning saw for limbs greater than 1½ inches in diameter. These come in many sizes, with either straight or curved blades and teeth that are either fine or coarse. Use a saw with fine teeth for cutting limbs up to 2 ½ inches, and one with coarse teeth for larger limbs.

But when your plants require a little more pruning finesse – whether it’s to create a more formal look to your plants or for trimming special plantings like topiary – consider using these tools in addition to the basics:

Hedge pruning shears for formal hedge pruning and topiary. These also are useful for quickly giving a light “haircut” to fast-growing or heavy-blooming plants.

A pole pruner for removing tree limbs less than 2 inches in diameter that are out of the reach of lopping shears. Extendable pieces allow for an additional 15 feet or so, and saw attachments manage branches that are more than 2 inches thick.

A pruning knife for cleaning up large cuts or for trimming away the frayed bark occasionally left by pruning shears and saws.

A keyhole saw for tight spots. This tool is particularly useful on older, heavily branched roses.

The Rules of Tools

  1. Select high-quality equipment. They’re easier to use, last longer and make pruning more pleasurable.
  2. Sharpen blades regularly, and dry and oil them after each use. Oil blades by wiping them with a cloth saturated in household oil, and treat wooden handles with linseed oil.
  3. After pruning diseased plants or plant portions, use rubbing alcohol or strong mouthwash (full-strength) to sterilize your pruning tools.

Basic Pruning Techniques

So you’ve selected your tools – now how do you use them? Here are some important tips to follow:

  • Use sharp pruning shears and make clean cuts.
  • Cuts should be ¼ inch above a bud or to a crotch (lateral branch). Where you can, cut back to a lateral stem to encourage branching. Cut whole branches back to the branch collar (that area of connection that appears to have a ring of wrinkles).
  • Cuts should be made at angles away from buds on upright branches to prevent standing water and diseases from forming.
  • Unless you’re creating a formal hedge, do not severely shear back most shrubs. A light “haircut” is all you should do (and only when necessary).
  • Don’t use pruning paint – even on the largest cuts. Latest research shows that a painted wound heals more slowly and often becomes infected when moisture seeps under the seal. An unsealed wound allows new tissue to grow over and cover it.
  • To promote fullness, pinch or shear new candles – new dense growing tips – of pines and other conifers as they appear by one-third to one-half. (Don’t cut into old wood of candles, otherwise the tree won’t fill in.)
  • For pruning larger tree limbs, first make a ¼- to ½-inch cut 12 inches out from the trunk on the underside of the limb. The second cut should be made 18-24 inches from the trunk on the upper side of the limb. Finally, remove the 12- to 24-inch stub to the shoulder collar – that ringed wrinkly area, again – of the limb.

When it comes down to it, most pruning tasks are pretty simple. Use the proper tools and follow these basic techniques and you really can’t go wrong.