After a long mild autumn, the leaves of deciduous trees and shrubs are finally falling, making it possible to start on the satisfying task of winter pruning. The most useful tool for pruning is a set of long handled loppers. These allow you to get down to the base of shrubs without bending and to reach into a tangled mass of branches without getting scratched. The length of the handles varies from 40cm to over a metre.
When buying a pair it is important to remember that those with longer handles are more flexible but they do require more effort to use successfully. Hold the loppers you are considering buying at arm’s length. Are they too heavy for you? Imagine working with them above head height for an hour or so on a cold winter’s afternoon.
Like secateurs loppers are available either with a bypass blade or with an anvil system, where the stem is cut by one blade pressing against a metal plate. The anvil system allows the blades to open wider than bypass loppers, enabling you to cut larger stems and branches, even as thick as 2.5cm. Whichever system you choose you should always be able to cut through the stem in one easy, gentle movement. Some loppers have a ratchet mechanism that lets you cut in stages. The final cut should be smooth and clean. If you have to hack away with the loppers or if the effort required brings out the veins in your neck, something is wrong. Check that the blade is sharp – if it is, and you are still having problems, then the branch that you are trying to cut is too thick for the loppers. Use a saw instead.
The most useful saw around the garden has a curved blade about 45cm long and can get at branches in awkward, confined spaces. Known as a Grecian saw, it has one set of teeth and cuts as you pull the saw down. Some are hinged so that the blade folds away into the handle but the joint where the blade folds is always weak and eventually will work loose. The manufacturers claim that this makes them safer for carrying around in your pocket, but who wants to carry a saw around with them? It is much better to buy one with a fixed blade and a strong joint between the handle and blade. There are straight-bladed forms that have two sets of slightly splayed teeth, which cut on both the push and the pull stroke. Obviously these cut more quickly but require more effort.
The best professional-quality saws have hard teeth that have been heat-treated to make them sharper and last longer. When they are blunt they have to be re-ground and it is becoming more and more difficult, particularly in urban areas, to find places that re-grind and sharpen saws. The alternative is to buy cheaper saws that have to be discarded once they are blunt.
Whether you are using saws or loppers it always seems that branches, stems and especially little twigs have a life of their own. They will scratch, poke and jab without the slightest provocation. Eyes are their favourite, so please remember to wear eye-protecting goggles.