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The pruning maven Lee Reich, author of the best-selling "The Pruning Book" (Taunton Press), advises the best time to trim and shape our deciduous shrubs is in late winter or very early spring. Of course, there are always exceptions to every rule, so spring flowering shrubs and roses are not on that list. 

For me the other exception is the weather. Lee lives in Pennsylvania where the temperatures are beginning to climb into the 50s. With the sun shining and 50 degree weather, I’d be out there snipping away, too, but that’s not going to happen here in Michigan for several weeks.  But now is a great time to get those pruning tools cleaned and sharpened and replace any that are not up to snuff, so when that first breath of spring arrives, we will be ready to hit the ground running. 

Dull blades make crushing cuts that heal slowly and encourage disease, so the first things to look at are your hand pruners and long-handled loppers. 

If you bought inexpensive tools your best bet is to replace them. Cheap blades are stamped out of soft metal that does not hold a sharp edge and quickly dulls, and that affects the health of all your plants.

Professional gardeners, like professional chefs, have an array of quality cutting tools and they keep them in good condition.  The famous English garden designer and television personality Dan Pearson has five pairs of by-pass hand pruners to choose from when pruning: three pair of Felco No. 2s and two very expensive Japanese models he uses for intricate work. Pearson uses his oldest Felcos to cut back perennials in spring as the blades end up poking into the dirt and the grit quickly dulls the blades, and if he’s working for a long period of time, he switches them out.

The two things to consider when buying a pair of hand pruners is comfort – how they fit your hand –  and blade quality, which determines how well they will take and keep a sharp edge.   Brand names such as Felco and Corona and are among the companies that manufacture quality cutting tools.   

Long-handled pruners called loppers are the tool of choice for branches larger than ½ inch across to about 1 ½ inches in diameter.  

Larger branches are best removed with a pruning saw with teeth specifically designed to cut live wood. They are relatively inexpensive and easily replaced if sharpening is an issue.  

Remember, if you have to force a cut and your hand is straining, move on to another tool. 

Nancy Szerlag is a master gardener and a Metro Detroit freelance writer. Her column appears Fridays in Homestyle. To ask her a question go to Yardener.com and click on Ask Nancy. You can also read her previous columns at detroitnews.com/homestyle.

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