During late winter and early spring, there are loads of trees and shrubs that need pruning. So, it’s time to rummage around in the shed to see if you can find your trusty secateurs. That is if you didn’t lose them in the compost heap or buried them in the garden last year. Of all the essential pieces of gardening kit, secateurs seem to take the most abuse from gardeners. Also, when I give my talk on pruning to garden clubs, it seems they’re one of the most confusing. So, here’s my handy guide to secateurs.
There are two basic designs – and very few people seem to know why and what they’re used for. Anvil secateurs have a flat metal plate – or anvil – that supports the plant stem while the sharp blade cuts through it. These secateurs have a tendency to crush live stems and, as a result, are designed to cut through already dead stems only. Some anvil secateurs have serrated anvils, which grip the stem more firmly.
Bypass secateurs cut with a scissor action, although – as with anvil secateurs – only one blade has a sharp cutting edge. They produce a very clean cut, providing the blade is sharp. As such cuts heal more quickly, bypass secateurs are designed for cutting through green, live growth. Don’t use anvils.
If you have weak wrists, arthritis or a similar condition and find using secateurs difficult or tiring, help is at hand. Ratchet secateurs have a ratchet mechanism that causes the secateurs to cut in several stages with little pressure needed on the handles. These reduce the strain and stress on your hands and wrists.
For bypass secateurs, you can buy models with rotating handles. These transfer anything from 20-30% more of your hand pressure through to the cutting blade. They also reduce calluses and blisters! You can also buy manaresi secateurs, sometimes called grape pruning shears, or even sheep-shearing shears that have two cutting blades and are perfect for trimming over small-leaved plants – like box and lavender – and for shaping topiary. And if you’re pruning prickly plants or plants with an irritant or toxic sap, cut and hold secateurs hold the stem in place, so you can drop it into your waste receptacle without having to touch it.
Tips for using
- When it comes to pruning, there is some variation in the stem thickness that secateurs can cope with; always bear this in mind and don’t try and force them to cut through anything wider as it’s quite easy to damage the plant, the blades and the cutting mechanism.
- Bigger secateurs have a wider cutting width – but the handle gape may be too wide for those with small hands to use comfortably – or at all. If you can, try them for size before you buy them.
- When using secateurs, unless cutting very soft material, always position the stem close to the middle or base of the blade; cutting with the tip can strain the blade, damage it and cause the blade to warp.
- Always make a clean, straight cut and without twisting the secateurs or the plant. If the stems are too thick for secateurs to cut through cleanly and easily, move on to loppers or even a saw to complete your pruning job.
Hopefully, the last time you put your secateurs away, you gave them a good clean to remove all the debris and gunk and oiled them, so they’re in perfect working order and ready to attack all that overgrown growth. If you didn’t, then you’d better give them a really good overhaul now. Sterilising the blade with household bleach or Jeyes Fluid is also a good idea if you’ve been pruning plants with disease; otherwise the disease could be transferred from plant to plant on the blade. And, it’s essential to have a good, sharp blade to make clean cuts, which will also make cuts easier to achieve; blunt blades don’t cut through plants – they “hack” through them! If you are a chef or a good cook, you’d never treat your best carving knife in the same way and use a blunt blade to hack off chunks of that gorgeous joint you’ve spent hours cooking to perfection. No, you want to slice through it with ease to produce deliciously thin slices. You should always treat your secateurs with the same reverence.
And the final part of my preaching sermon: remember that secateurs are a precision cutting tool and should only be used for pruning plants – don’t use them for cutting through sheet metal or digging out weeds from cracks in paving!