TOH Tested: Pruning Tools
If you need to shape overgrown trees and shrubs, you need heavy-duty pruners. Thankfully, this suite of serious tools lets you stay on the ground as you work
If you need to shape overgrown trees and shrubs, you need heavy-duty pruners. Thankfully, this suite of serious tools lets you stay on the ground as you work.
The best time to do a major pruning of deciduous trees and shrubs is in the winter, when their leaves have dropped and you can clearly see the branch structure. "When woody shrubs, like lilacs, become old and overgrown, they need a major-renovation pruning to encourage flowering and vigor," says TOH landscape contractor Roger Cook. "That means removing the thick branches—not just the small water sprouts—a few at a time over a few years."
What to Look for in a Lopper
(1) Bypass blades: Their scissoring action severs live limbs cleanly, so cuts heal quickly.
(2) Compound-action jaws: They multiply force to make it easier to muscle through a branch.
(3) Unbreakable handles: These are steel, but fiberglass works well too.
(4) Contoured rubber grips: Paddle-like projections provide a comfortably wide surface to press against.
Choose your pruning tool based on the diameter of the brach it can sever in one pass.
(A) Bypass lopper
(B) Pruning saw
(C) Gas-powered pole pruner
(D) Telescoping pole pruner
(E) High-limb chain saw
The way cuts are made when trimming a limb helps keep trees and shrubs healthy.
With a bypass lopper, you want to leave the collar, the swollen ring at the branch's base. Any cuts in the collar can cause poor or slow healing, and that can lead to rot. Start with a razor-sharp cutting blade and position it (not the blunt counter-jaw) where the collar meets the branch. Squeeze the handles for a clean, crisp cut.
If you try sawing through in one go, the limb will break and rip a strip of bark off the trunk, exposing it to decay. To prevent that, make three cuts:
(1): About 6 to 12 inches from the trunk and a third of the way through the underside
(2): About 1 inch farther out and all the way through
(3): Next to the collar, all the way through
Best for: Live branches up to 2 inches in diameter and up to 8 feet high.
The verdict: Compound-action jaws triple however much power you apply. That advantage allowed us to get through tough wood in one clean squeeze most of the time. Rubber bumpers keep the steel handles from slamming closed on your knuckles. One drawback: They're heavy.
Fine print: 31 1/4 inches long.
Weight: 4.5 pounds
Best for: Limbs up to 4 inches in diameter and up to 7 feet high.
The verdict: The curved 13-inch blade bears teeth with a clipped edge at each point to remove wood on each pull. It leaves a surprisingly clean kerf, more like what we'd expect from a saw with a higher tooth count. Its laminated wood handle won't break, giving it an edge over the plastic competition.
Fine print: Six teeth per inch.
Weight: 0.4 pounds
Best for: Limbs up to 5 inches in diameter and up to 16 feet high.
The verdict: A chain saw on a stick? Sounds...inadvisable. Yet this nicely balanced number is easy to operate even fully extended, and a chip deflector lets you keep your eyes on the target. Starting it was painless, even on a 28-degree morning. Bonus: The chain and 12-inch bar are oiled automatically.
Fine print: Telescopes from 7 1/2 to 11 1/2 feet; 1.4-hp engine.
Weight: 16.3 pounds
Best for: Limbs up to 10 inches in diameter and up to 20 feet high.
The verdict: A saw-and-lopper combo head on the end of a telescoping fiberglass pole lets you elevate your pruning. When extended to its full 18 feet, the pole flexes quite a bit and can tire your arms. But once the blade lands where you want and establishes a kerf, it cuts like a demon.
Fine print: 16-inch blade, 1 1/4-inch lopping capacity.
Weight: 9.2 pounds
Best for: Limbs up to 14 inches in diameter and up to 25 feet high.
The verdict: It's just two 25-foot ropes tied to a chain that cuts both ways, but it spells doom for branches beyond a pole pruner's reach. Toss one rope over the limb using the weighted throw bag, then use both ropes to pull the chain back and forth. To make neat cuts in one pass, stand to one side as far as you can and saw until the chain bites into the limb's underbelly. Repeat from the other side and cut through.
Fine print: Includes throw bag.
Weight: 2.75 pounds
Neoprene wrist closures seal out dirt. Palm and finger pads prevent blisters and enhance grip. Sheep leather. Classic Gardening Gloves, $30;
Suede goat leather has double the durability of cow leather, yet it's soft and supple. Elastic wrist closure. HomeScaper, $19;
A waterproof, breathable membrane sandwiched between two layers of nylon keeps the wet away. Waterproof Gloves, $32;