Yardsmart: Tools for pruning trees

Maureen Gilmer

"Are you OK?" I'm asked every January when the brutality of dormant pruning makes me look like a battered woman. No matter how hard I try to avoid it, I'm always looking right at that upper branch when it falls. I get stabbed and scratched and sometimes bruised, too.

Winter pruning is different in every region. Here in California, it's traditional to begin these tasks after the holidays when trees and shrubs have had time to become wholly dormant. They don't remain that way for long here, so pruning in a timely fashion is essential. Obviously the pruning season will be far different in Minnesota than it is in Florida, so adjust your time accordingly for local conditions.

For everyone starting into the fruit-growing world, winter is an active time. Pruning removes the unwanted growth that helps a young tree achieve greater strength. This is important in the early years since the structure you create is essential to the ability to hold a heavy load of fruit or a full canopy under windy conditions.

To prune properly, you need good tools to prevent injury to you and your trees. They should be sharpened before use so minimal pressure is required to make each cut. Over the years I've used four tools that have proved themselves with all kinds of pruning. They are perfect starter choices, with brand names such as Corona, Felco and Fiskars. These blades are designed for frequent sharpening over decades of professional use. It's false economy to buy cheaper options because the blade quality is not good enough to sharpen properly.

Hand clippers

My preference for hand clippers is the same today as it was in 1977, when I first began in horticulture. Felco No. 2 was the company's first widely used pruner, and is still hotly coveted today. However, some may find this Felco too much for smaller hands, so consider the time-tested Corona General Purpose Bypass Pruner, which has been around just as long and is still preferred by many.

Loppers or long-reach pruner

Any branch too large for hand clippers can be cut with long-handled loppers. While there are many fine brands out there, I prefer the Wolf-Garten Telescoping Bypass Lopper, imported from Germany. This is a lightweight, anvil-type of lopper with extendable handles I first used on my "Weekend Gardening" TV show. I brought a pair home for the "can-you-break-it" test. It passed with flying colors, and I'm still using that original pair 10 years later.

Pruning saw

Any branch too large for the loppers is cut with a manual pruning saw. My favorite brand is from Japan, where both sword-making and pruning in the bonsai style are fine art forms. The Silky brand produces a wide range of fine pruning saws. I prefer the smaller ones that fold like a pocketknife so I can keep it handy in my back pocket. The teeth are so strong that they glide through both living and dead wood for easy, clean cuts with minimal pressure.

Pole pruner

A pole pruner is a cutting device at the end of a long telescoping pole. I prefer the Corona Professional Compound Action Tree Pruner because the blades are excellent and the pole extends to 14 feet of lightweight carbon fiber. Best of all is the compound action, which takes a lot less strength to pull the rope. There are too many poor-quality pole pruners out there that flex under pressure or the blade itself will break, and pulling the activation rope is a real chore.

Everyone who maintains trees will face winter pruning every year. It's much safer and easier to use proper tools for the job. Let my tool preferences help you get started. Then, over time, fine-tune your own quality tools so they will still be useful when passed down to the next generation of gardeners.

Maureen Gilmer is an author, horticulturist and landscape designer. Learn more at Contact her at or P.O. Box 891, Morongo Valley, CA 92256.