At the beginning of last century the wonderfully named Harry Havart complained in his book ‘The Back-Garden Beautiful’ that, amongst lazy gardeners, the French import of secateurs was beginning to replace the pruning knife. Secateurs may now have found their place in every gardeners’ tool shed, but convenience and versatility have kept the pruning knife in every gardeners’ pocket.
The traditional pruning knife has a slightly curved blade, which apparently makes it easier to control. For a general-purpose garden knife choose one with a straight blade – they are much more flexible and easier to sharpen than the curved ones. Make sure that opening the knife doesn’t require either a delicate touch to grab the end of the blade or brute strength to get the thing open.
As well as for minor pruning jobs a knife is necessary for taking cuttings, harvesting salads and other vegetables, tying-in plants. Mine gets used occasionally to dig-out weeds between the cracks of paving. Even if you don’t abuse your knife in this way, it still needs to be sharpened regularly. As with all tools that require sharpening, little and often is the mantra. There is no great mystery to sharpening knives. All you need is a small sharpening stone and a few drops of oil. Wipe the blade clean and lay it flat on the stone, then raise the back edge very slightly. Apply a little pressure to the blade and slowly push the blade along the length of the stone. Repeat this until the blade is sharp. After sharpening always clean the blade of any tiny bits of metal as these will blunt it again very quickly.
For anything other than light pruning, secateurs are essential. The two most common types of secateur are ‘bypass’, where the blade cuts past a curved lip and ‘anvil’, where the blade presses down against a flat piece of metal. In my experience, anvil secateurs have a tendency to crush whatever it is you are cutting, leaving behind a mangled, chewed stump. If you are going to use them, make sure that the blade is kept sharpened. For regular, easy, everyday use the bypass type are much more convenient.
Before buying a pair check how they feel: open and close them, feel their weight and how comfortable they are in your hand. They should have a notch at the bottom of the blade for snipping wire and some kind of cushioning to ease the jarring of your hand from cutting too hard. The best ones will have a system of easily replacing the blade and a mechanism for adjusting the width of the cut. At some point the spring opening will get damaged or rusted, so make sure that the spring can be replaced and that spares are easy to get hold of.
Visiting gardens or watching TV gardening programmes I have always been irritated by the sight of a secateur holster strapped to some designer belt. Sheer ornamentation, I thought; not something a real gardener needs. Well, now is the time to come out: I use a holster for my secateurs. After years of torn trousers, being pierced in the thigh while kneeling down or never having my secateurs to hand I have succumbed and bought a holster. Like all new converts I now veer towards the evangelical. If you use your secateurs a lot invest in a holster and wear it with pride. Of course, Mr Havart would almost certainly not have approved.