The first step to successful pruning is using the right equipment. Most gardeners can manage with just a few basic tools. Choose your tools carefully and they will often last a lifetime. Remember, cheap tools can be expensive if they break and have to be replaced!
Bypass pruning shears are the most commonly used tool in the garden. "Bypass" means that the blades slide past each other in a scissor cut as opposed to an anvil pruner that pinches a branch between a blade and a metal block edge. Bypass pruners make a cleaner cut and are easier to use for most small pruning jobs. A cleaner cut will cause less damage to the plant and the wound will heal faster. Pruners can cut branches up to ½ inch in diameter.
Loppers are used for branches that are too large for pruners. Loppers work the same way as hand pruners, but the long handles give you leverage and therefore more cutting power to cleanly cut through branches up to 2 inches in diameter, depending on the plant and the condition of the wood. They can also be found in a bypass or anvil design.
A pruning saw is an essential tool for making cuts larger than an inch. Pruning saws can be made with a folding or a fixed blade. Many are designed with a curved blade to cut on the backward or pull stroke instead of the push stoke. This makes cutting awkward overhead branches much easier. In general, saws with large teeth (5 or 6 per inch) are good for cutting larger green branches. Saws with a slimmer blade and smaller teeth (up to 10 per inch) are better for dead wood and smaller branches. Do not try to use a carpenter’s saw for pruning because the green wood will quickly clog the saw and dull the blade!
Hedge shears are two handled, long bladed shears that are indispensable for maintaining formal hedges. They can cut both small and large twigs at the same time resulting in a smooth surface of dense, healthy growth. Many will have a serrated blade to prevent twigs from sliding out from between the blades as they are cut and a notch that allows you to cut an occasional larger limb. Gardeners with numerous hedges to trim may want to opt for an electric or gas powered hedge trimmer.
Eye protection and a heavy pair of gloves are essential to prevent injuries while pruning and a pole saw or chainsaw might be practical if you have a large yard and tall trees. Always disinfect your pruning tools between cuts to avoid spreading disease to healthy plants and keep tools sharp for best results. Prevent rust by oiling your tools frequently.
A ladder can also be helpful, but be sure to always put it on stable, level ground and do not over extend your reach. There are many other tools out there that are variations on these basic themes. If any of them makes your work easier, faster or more fun, it is probably a wise investment.