photo: twentieth century fox
with spring in full bloom, and the sun shining down, it’s time to plant. whether you’re a professional horticulturist or an amateur green thumb, every gardener needs a good pair of shears. from the hobbyist trimming back begonias on the front lawn to the landscape designer sculpting hedges and boxwoods on a big estate, all gardeners are basically looking for the same thing: a sharp, comfortable, durable pair of shears that can accomplish the task at hand and hold up well over time.
to find the best tools for any job, we spoke with nine experts who know a thing or two about gardening shears: bob fiorello, chief horticulturist at san francisco botanical garden; laura mele, horticulturist at the arnold arboretum; kyle forrest burns, owner of nye ranch; krista everage, principal designer of everage design, which specializes in interior, garden, and floral design; kurt morrell, vp of landscape operations at new york botanical garden; rachel burlington, curator of the international rose test garden in portland, oregon; caleb leech, horticultural manager of the met cloisters; valerie strait, a garden designer based in brooklyn and michigan; and michelle alfaro, co-owner of maranta plant shop in milwaukee. below, their recommendations for the best pruning shears, hedge shears, lopping shears, and garden scissors.
our experts told us that if you had to choose just one type of garden shear, nothing is more essential than a good “bypass” pruner — or secateur — which is basically a one-handed pruner with two curved blades. this is the go-to tool for clipping delicate branches and trimming shrubs, perennials, and flowers because the blades are specially designed to give a “clean cut” without tearing the plant tissue. as morrell puts it: “the cleaner the cut, the quicker a plant heals. the quicker a plant heals, the less susceptible it is to disease.”
nearly every gardening expert we spoke with mentioned the swiss-made felco f2 as the industry standard. “a good gardener or horticulturalist anywhere in the world is most likely going to have a pair of felcos,” says morrell. gardeners prize the f2 for many reasons, but it’s perhaps most famous for its durability. morrell still has his original pair from 1985. he told us that the nybg’s school of professional horticulture gives a pair of f2’s to every new student. the large handles and strong coiled spring make it the most comfortable pruner on the market, our experts say. they also like that it uses interchangeable blades, which allow the pruner to feel “like new” no matter how old it is. “they’re a staple of every gardener’s tool box,” says burlington. “i never leave home without mine.”
the felco f6 or f7 is the same idea as the classic f2, but it’s built for smaller hands. morrell says the f6’s smaller blade is “nicer for pruning in tighter spots” with roses, for example. strait uses these herself — “they fit in my small hands,” she says — and has been for the past 25 years.
corona is an old-standby brand that morrell, burlington, and leech all mentioned. burlington says that if you want a less expensive bypass pruner that’s still “a quality tool,” the corona 3180 is a great choice.
although the f2 is a favorite of the staff at the san francisco botanical garden, fiorello actually prefers the vs-8 hand pruner from japanese brand ars. “they are very good quality stainless steel, they are very easy to clean, and they don’t gum up nearly as much as the felco,” he says. “some people refer to ars as ‘always really sharp,’ and that’s pretty much true.” mele agrees and calls her ars pruners “my favorite.” she loves the squeeze-lock feature and finds that her hand “doesn’t fatigue as much” as with other pruners.
like ars, okatsune is a japanese gardening-tool company with a cultlike following in the states. leech almost exclusively uses japanese-made shears at the met cloisters museum. “i just love how japanese hand tools are built,” he says. most japanese hand pruners lock with a latch, which leech vastly prefers to the “dial lock” used by felco and many american brands. he says the dial locking mechanism can be “fiddly” and doesn’t always close right away. “i just like simplicity.” while leech declined to mention a specific brand — per the museum’s policy — we have a strong suspicion this okatsune pruner is the one he was referring to, since it fits his description and all of the experts we asked confirmed the brand’s reputation. mele confirms that these okatsune pruners are a great investment: “a number of people at the arboretum swear by them,” she says.
everage swears by these pruners for deadheading, trimming, and floral arranging. “they are supercomfortable in the hand,” she says. plus, “some brands get stuck in the spring, which drives you crazy. with the way the spring is designed, this one stays loose, so it is very quick and you can keep moving.” and you always want to keep moving: “when you are pruning or deadheading, you are in an uncomfortable position a lot of the time, so you want to be as quick and efficient as you can,” she says. forrest burns uses this tool exclusively for “flowers and bigger tomato branches” on his farm. “it’s a smaller, delicate pruner, and it offers a lot of finesse,” he says.
while bypass shears are definitely more generally useful, burlington says a good pair of “anvil shears” is important to have in your kit. anvil pruners can sometimes crush the branches or stems as they cut, so while you wouldn’t want to use them on living plants that need to heal quickly, they can be really helpful if you want to “deadhead roses” to encourage reblooming or “cut back herbaceous material like annuals and perennials.” basically, “if you’re looking more for speed than precision,” an anvil pruner is a good choice according to burlington, who uses these needle-nose hand shears from ars. “it’s hard to find a good anvil pruner because a lot of time they’re cheaply made. i highly recommend this one.”
according to alfaro, these anvil pruning shears from modern sprout are great for beginners. with pale-blue handles and a lock that integrates seamlessly into those handles’ design, these look a lot nicer than your average garden-shed gear. “i love how neat and clean they cut,” alfaro says, adding that the pruners are easy to grip and “lightweight and durable,” too.
according to morrell, these german-made berger hedge shears are the only model used to trim and shape the many hedges and bushes on the nybg’s property. his favorite thing about them is the wooden handles. “a lot of homeowners will go for something with rubber handles because they think it’s cushiony, but rubber gets slippery when you sweat. the wood is just more comfortable if you’re working all day long.” morrell says that while it’s a higher upfront cost to supply all their groundskeepers with these, it ends up being worth it because they almost never need to replace them. “if you go and buy something cheap, it may only last one hedge trimming. if you’re using a tool all day long, you want something that’s durable and that’s going to last. we have pairs that are 15 or 20 years old.” this strong endorsement, coupled with the fact that these shears are also less expensive than the other styles we heard about, led us to give them the title of “best overall.”
“hedge shears are really geared toward cutting soft fresh growth on a hedge,” says leech. the long sharp blades are perfect for shaping hedges and even for topiary design. these have wooden handles and the same high-quality construction that leech values in japanese garden tools. leech says the strong steel blades will hold an edge, but “you have to take care of them” by periodically sharpening. that’s all part of the process that leech appreciates, and it’s key to getting many good years out of these or any other garden shears.
fiorello and his team are currently transitioning to lithium-powered battery tools for increased efficiency and comfort. “if you have a hedge and you are going to be out there for a while trimming, it can be hard on your wrists, so this lighter weight goes a long way. there’s nothing better than slapping in the battery and going right to work. there are no fumes, no spilling of gasoline, and no cord to have to plug in and deal with,” he says. plus, it’s good for you and the environment: “it gets people off of using two-cycle fuel mix, especially since it’s such a dirty fuel,” he says. “it’s a no-brainer.” yes, this is technically a hedge trimmer. but since you would use it for the same purpose as the other shears on this list, we felt it appropriate to include here.
a lopping shear — or “loppers” — comes in handy for “larger woody things,” says leech. “it’s like a big pair of hand pruners that you can use for large diameter branch.” morrell is partial to felco “loppers,” as is fiorello, who calls felco a superior tool, perfect “if you are really training a tree or managing shrubs, and you want them to be great cuts.”
for something less expensive, morrell says corona “has a good reputation with homeowners.” mele agrees that the corona loppers are the best value. and fiorello says this is the tool he buys for all his staff at san francisco botanical garden. this version, with its aluminum handle, is “very lightweight and very good on the hands. it can do high-end stuff where cuts are critical, but it is also good for everyday general use,” he says. “if i had only one lopper, i would go with the corona.”
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if you want something even more affordable, strait recommends these loppers from fiskars, which she calls “a good company.” she likes that the handle on this pair extends from 25 to 37 inches, making them quite versatile.
the staff at nybg uses this extendable ars telescoping pruner when they need to cut hard-to-reach branches or trim a high hedge. “it keeps you from having to get on and off a ladder,” says morrell.
“my no. 1 tool is actually something more like bonsai scissors or ‘grape scissors,’” says leech. “we have a ton on hand all the time,” he adds, because they’re perfect for detail work and trimming flowers.
forrest burns suggests these hands-free pruning shears for any gardener. “they rest on your two fingers, and you can work with two hands,” he says. “they are a time-saver, but also they are so light and small you hardly even know they are there.”
according to burns, this portable sharpener “folds up like a little butterfly knife and fits in your pocket.” the tool is double-sided, with one coarse side and one finer side, and he uses it to keep the blades of his shears in prime condition. mele is another fan, calling this “a gadget worth having.”
while strait says a simple sharpening stone might be all you need to maintain shears, she told us this sharpener might be easier for beginner gardeners to use, thanks to its ergonomic handle and a built-in finger guard. made from diamond-honed tungsten carbide, the tool’s blades are designed to sharpen the curved edges of bypass pruners and other gear, like shears, loppers, hoes, shovels, and even lawn-mower blades.
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