pole pruner closeup by shed door

Tool Review: Pole Pruner

I’ve been doing a lot of pruning around the place lately, and had a substantial brush pile for pickup on our recent Compost Day.


Most of the pruning and trimming was done either with feet on ground or from an 8-foot-tall stepladder. Not, unfortunately, one of those elegant three-legged numbers used by professionals, but an orange fiberglass and aluminum one intended for the handy homeowner. In most places it worked well, and is just light enough that I can lug it around and position it properly.

October 12, 2009 027

My cutting tools — secateurs, loppers and scimitar-shaped pruning saw — also worked as expected. Near the end of the job, I tackled a relatively small but (when fully leafed out) shade-creating branch of the Tree of Heaven (Ailanthus altissima). I had an idea I could remove it by deploying the pole pruner. Most of the time, this tool stands unused in a corner of the shed. Once more I have been reminded why.

In theory, it’s a marvellous thing — a 5-and-a-half-foot-long telescoping pole that may be extended to 10 or so feet, with both a clipper and a saw blade at the end. The clipper is operated by pulling on a long cord (wrapped around the pole when not in use, as in the photo) that works a spring-loaded device attached to a blade-and-hook arrangement similar to that found on loppers. The gardener may stand on the ground (or, if desperate and daring, on a ladder) and cut otherwise unreachable branches. In theory.


Slick, eh? Except the damned thing is virtually unusable, especially when fully extended. For one thing, it’s fairly heavy, with the cutting equipment on the end accounting for a good portion of that weight. It’s hard to finagle the hook over a branch at the correct angle and then hold the tool with one hand while pulling the cord with the other. The cord is long and hard to manage. The cutter can’t easily cut branches thicker than half an inch in diameter. That leaves the saw blade, which is about 9 inches long, but it’s impossible to saw a branch that’s bobbing up and down and can’t be held steady because it’s out of reach. Thus the saw is usable only to cut branches fairly close to a trunk or thick branch.

My pole pruner gets a one-star rating — or, if you prefer, a multi-#*%! rating.

To anyone who has been contemplating a pole pruner as a solution for pruning out of reach vegetation, I would say — don’t. At least not a heavy two-tools-in-one thing like mine. I think I’ve seen pruning saw blades attached to long wooden poles, which are probably a lot lighter. The limitations I’ve already noted would still apply, though. All in all, I would recommend a good ladder, and if that won’t do the trick, note the real problem branches and hire a professional to deal with them.


The Unkindest Cut

I hate pruning.

For a gardener, that’s a dangerous admission. Gardeners are always pruning, or at least always cutting. (“Pruning” usually refers to operations on woody plants such as trees and shrubs, with the artistic intention to shape and train). We are always cutting down old stalks, bushwhacking overgrown or unwanted vegetation, or “pinching” young plants to make them bushier and fuller. The garden tool I use more than any other is a set of secateurs, otherwise known as pruners or clippers. On any inspection trip around the garden it takes only a minute or two before I spot a job that requires this tool.

So what’s the problem?

Yesterday, for example, I finally got around to cutting down last year’s fern foliage before the new fiddleheads start unfurling.

March 23, 2015

I wasn’t quite so prompt with Epimedium x perralchicum “Frohnleiten.” The durable foliage of this useful plant lasts all winter, but should be removed so the dainty flowers and beautiful new leaves may be seen and admired. By the time I got around to doing that yesterday, tender bloom stalks with their yellow flowers had already unfolded, with others still bent over but preparing to rise.

March 23, 2015

Rather than the quick clip that would have been fine a few weeks ago, I had to do careful, stalk-by-stalk cuts. Accidentally cutting off new growth is sickening and guaranteed to make one feel like a Bad Gardener.

That’s what I hate about pruning — cutting off healthy growth. In the case of the Epimedium, it’s not desirable and happens only as a result of clumsiness or haste. But pruning, done by the book, often requires removal of new, leafy plant material. Many types of clematis require that the plant be cut to the ground every spring. Easy but brutal, because often there is visible new growth all over the old vines. The gardener must steel herself and snip, suppressing the thought that the plant will have to replace all that mass, not just pick up where it left off last fall. (And yes, I know that if you leave the old growth, in a few years you end up with a woody tangle and fewer blooms).

The healthiest and most vigorous growth on roses is at the very ends of the branches — and if you prune as directed, you cut it off, leaving stumps from which you hope and believe better new growth will come. At the plant’s lower height, you will be able to see and appreciate the flowers. That’s a good reason for pruning, but right after making the cut — reducing a lush mass of fresh, red-tinged leaves to a bare stub — I feel like like a vandal.

I’ve been gardening for more than 30 years, and I still have trouble cutting off healthy-looking growth, even when I know it will (eventually) improve the looks and performance of the plant. Even now, there are occasions when I simply don’t do it, which means the plant gets leggy or woody, needing more drastic treatment (including total removal) down the road.

“Strength follows the knife.” I mutter this gardening maxim as I stand in front of a plant, secateurs in hand, contemplating amputation. It’s what I think of as the Pruning Paradox — the weaker the plant, the harder you are advised to prune it, because pruning stimulates new growth. Like many maxims, it’s not 100%: once a plant is really weak, my advice would be simply to save yourself the effort of hard pruning its measly little limbs. The result will probably be the same, in the end. Once a plant is dead, there is no hesitation before cutting it down.

Epimedium "Frohnleiten"

Epimedium “Frohnleiten”

Dryopteris fiddleheads

Dryopteris fiddleheads

Garden Notes

I’ve kept a garden notebook for years. It contains monthly precipitation figures, comments on how well (or badly) things are going in the garden, a record of watering from June to September (so I can be sure of watering all areas equally) and lists of things to do. Turning to the notes written last summer or fall, I find: “Important Notes for 2014” in all caps and underlined. The first note is a list of plants to be netted against deer by certain points in the growing season, starting with bergenias and tulips, progressing to hostas, roses and sedums (yes, sedums, specifically the big ones such as “Autumn Joy”).

Well, so far this year I haven’t had to take any anti-deer measures. Either deer no longer find my place interesting, or there aren’t as many of them around. Of course, the tulips are pretty much gone as a result of their visits in 2012 and 2013, but bergenia blooms were untouched this spring. Last year they barely had time to sprout bloom stalks before they were nipped. I’m wondering if enough gardeners around here have fenced off their plants that the deer no longer find it worthwhile to visit the area. (In the meantime, the municipality is still entertaining the idea of a “cull”).

Note #2 says:  Introduce chicory to that patch of miserable lawn on the far side of the driveway. This is sort of interesting. I’ve observed this plant, with flowers about the size and shape of dandelion blooms, but a gorgeous sky blue, growing without any care at all on roadsides. It grows to 3 feet if left alone, but if mowed it blooms practically at ground level, much as dandelions do. I think it would be cool to see it in the scraggly lawn, looking like a bright blue dandelion, weedy but wonderful. So far, though, all I have is one seedling in a pot and seeds scattered in the lawn’s bare spots.

Notes #3 and #4 contain lists of plants to be pruned, both perennials and shrubs. Some perennials can be made to grow shorter and bloom later than they are inclined to by cutting them back halfway earlier in the season — asters, for example, and others such as Echinacea, fennel and sedums. Yes, those same tall sedums that got deer-nipped a couple of years ago. (Which makes me think — too bad deer can’t be employed as plant management experts, the way herds of goats are. But no — they’re too unreliable. Didn’t even show up this year).

As for shrubs — photinia, barberry, spirea and cotoneaster are all on the “to be pruned” list, and some of them can actually be crossed off. The photinia is done (totally — just bare stubs 3 weeks later). I whacked the cotoneaster back a couple of months ago, but decided to cancel the barberry job after I found a bushtit’s nest in it last fall, in case the birds decided to refurbish the nest this spring. I thought I was too late with the spirea, but Peter McHoy’s Pruning : a practical guide recommends “early to mid-spring,” which is where we are right now. Trouble is, the spirea is sprouting out with new little amber-coloured leaves, which makes it hard for me to even think about cutting it back. Well, maybe next year.

There’s always something else that needs to be done. Time to make a new list.


The Agony of Pruning

It’s pruning time in my garden.  Late winter is an appropriate time to prune many trees and shrubs, but the reason I prune in March is because of “Compost Day.” Once a year, the municipality picks up garden debris piled on the boulevard by residents. Just once. The rest of the year we have to dispose of this stuff ourselves. Hauling long, sometimes prickly branches to the municipal yard is not easy, unless you have a pickup truck or utility trailer, which I don’t. Even then it’s not a fun trip, for a variety of reasons. So I make the most of the Compost Day pickup. In the past few weeks I have performed selective amputation on a climbing rose (‘New Dawn’, I suspect), a tall photinia and an Oregon grape.

I find pruning to be the most difficult of garden operations, in part because it is irrevocable. Cutting pieces off a shrub I want to have in my garden, growing and prospering, seems counter-intuitive. Obviously, I don’t want to kill or damage it. Pruning is supposed to be beneficial, resulting in improved appearance or better flowering, but the immediate result is slanted stubs where there used to be bushy limbs. The sad truth is that many gardeners don’t dream of pruning until the little shrub from the two-gallon pot turns into a hulking monster blocking access to the front door, and Something Must Be Done.

Before I commence a pruning operations, I ritually consult a book that was recommended as simplifying the whole business and making it crystal clear — Pruning : a practical guide by Peter McHoy (Abbeville Press, 1993). It has no doubt been superseded in the nearly two decades that have passed, but by now I am convinced that you can’t really learn to prune by reading about it, so I haven’t bothered to seek out any other books on the subject. Still, as a psychological aid, I dutifully consult Mr. McHoy before I get out the secateurs and saw.

McHoy describes nine different pruning techniques, each one appropriate for a specific group of plants. His book also has an A-Z section (by Latin name) in which you can see which of the nine is recommended for the plant you wish to prune. One of the simplest is trimming the outer growth of a shrub, achieving a bun-like or lollipop shape. This is the only technique many people use, which explains all the gardens you see full of shrubs that all look more or less alike, even though they are of different species. Another easy technique is cutting back to the ground or at least to a framework of old stumps — a no-brainer, as they say. Just cut off all the stems, every one of them, making sure you slant your cuts.

Lollipop photinia

The problem arises when you have to be selective, as in Technique 5, cutting out one stem in three. This is recommended for a surprising number of species. So — first you count the stems. If there are nine, you have to decide which three you are going to remove. Ideally, it should be the oldest and weakest, but at the same time you are trying to achieve a balanced shape, so if the old stems are all on one side of the plant, they can’t all be removed. On the other hand, I don’t want to cut this one because it will leave a big gap over here. Well, maybe this little guy; it looks kind of weak, but…

You get the picture. Once cut, a stem can’t be put back, so you have to visualize what the plant will look like before you make your amputations. I have circled a shrub many times, secateurs in hand, dithering over this stem or that stem and working myself up to a state of high anxiety before I snip. If pruning is painful for the plant, the gardener suffers right along with it.

Another thing that makes pruning difficult is the fact that the best foliage is usually found on the ends of stems and branches, because this is where the newest, freshest growth is. It feels wrong to cut this off, leaving a stub of older wood. And yet roses, to give an example, are rejuvenated by cutting them down to stumps. In spring they put out all sorts of bushy new growth and all is well. But at pruning time, all you can see is that you are about to remove what looks like perfectly healthy growth.

I suppose this is yet another reason why gardening is a craft that takes a long time to learn.

I can’t say that I have actually harmed a shrub by pruning it. Most likely I have achieved less than spectacular results by choosing not to prune, or by doing so too timidly. That’s hard to believe, though, when you look at the pile of stuff I have waiting to be hauled away on Compost Day. All this from a 50 x 120 foot lot! And more to come through the rest of the year.

The Results of Pruning