Monday, 26 January 2015

Brambles: Part 7: The Right Tool For The Job

Well, ok, probably not actually part seven, but I do seem to keep on writing about brambles, and I keep on getting questions about this subject, so it's clearly one of those topics that is never going to die.

Rather like the brambles, it seems!

(See  Bramble Removal: How To Do It and What Shrubs can hold brambles back? for information, and try this article for an uplifting success story.)

I had an interesting question from a lady called Jill today, asking what tool I actually use when cutting through the roots of the brambles.

Oops, did I not mention that?

Right, just in case, here is a quick expo on How To Cut Bramble Roots.

I would always recommend using secateurs/pruners.  The names are interchangeable, and relate to a one-handed hand-held tool, rather like a pair of scissors on steroids. In moments of stress, kitchen scissors can indeed be used for many gardening actions, especially those sturdy ones you get for chopping through meat and fish (Kitchen Devils do a good pair) but really, it's worth spending a few pounds and getting a proper pair of secateurs.

I would not recommend using a knife, as knives a) tend to slip, b) can be dropped on the ground and then knelt on (ask me how I know this... yes, I've seen it done) and c) require a sawing action, which is hard work, and getting soil on the blade will blunt it very quickly. You can also chop round each root with a sharp spade, but again, that's hard work. Secateurs are best.

They come in two types, and many sizes: the two types are Bypass and Anvil. Bypass have an action like a pair of normal scissors, and these are the type that I use, all day every day. Anvil have one blade and a flat plate, and in my experience they tend to squash whatever you are cutting, rather than cutting it cleanly. A ragged cut is not only unsightly, it leads to infection, so in my opinion, anvil secateurs or anvil loppers are only fit for rough work - we use them down on the Canal (in my "spare" time I am a volunteer on the Wilts and Berks Canal) and they are fine for hacking back overgrown towpaths, but I would not allow them in any garden of mine.

The sizes are usually 15mm or 20mm, and relate to the size of branch they can get through. However, it is more important to look at how "wide" the handles open, in relation to how big your hands are.

For men, the bigger the better. For ladies, don't use secateurs that open wider than you can comfortably get your fingers round. You will just strain your hand if you do, plus they will tend to "pop" out of your grip at awkward moments. Better to buy a smaller pair that fit your hand, and if you encounter bramble roots (or any other root, branch, or stem, for that matter) which are too tough for your slightly smaller secateurs, then use a pair of loppers, which are basically secateurs with long handles, which give you better leverage.

To demonstrate this point, here are two pairs of secateurs that I am currently using: both are bypass pruners made by Wilkinson Sword, who changed their name to Fiskars, both are 15mm with 10 year guarantee (pause while I laugh hysterically) and should therefore be similar.

 Here are the two pairs - one black pair, one orange - on top of each other, with the handles left open.

As you can see, the orange pair open far less than the black pair.

But the blades open the same distance, so they can both make exactly the same size maximum cut.

This means that the black pair are harder to work with, as you need bigger hands to get round them.

To  demonstrate this, I've taken photos of my hand holding each pair in turn, fully open.

As an aside, I am holding them left-handed as my camera phone is easier to operate right-handed: but secateurs work equally well for left handed or right handed people. The only difference is whether the lock has been positioned for one-sided use, or for two.  The orange pair are only usable right-handed, as the lock is on the left (out of sight in these photos, sorry). The black ones have a sliding lock on the top, which means they can be used in either hand.

It's good practise, to get used to using them in either hand: most garden tools can be used either way, and it reduces muscle strain to be able to change hands. Also, there are some situations with awkward access where it's very handy to be able to lean round with the "other" hand, as it were.

Where were we? Oh yes, to  demonstrate this, here is my hand holding each pair in turn, fully open.

Firstly the orange pair: old faithfuls, as you can see by the wear on the handles.

See how I can get the tips of three fingers around the outer handle? My middle finger is slightly bent, showing that I can already start to close my hand, with the handles fully open.

 But with the black pair, I can only get two fingers around the outer handle, and my middle finger is fully straightened.

This means I can't get a grip on them to close them, without shifting my hold.

And you can see that my holding hand is right up against the red lock, which is on the "top" of the tool, rather than on the handle. Compare this to the photo above, and you can see that my whole hand is much lower down the handle. This means that, mechanically, I don't have the full length of the upper handle for leverage: I am squeezing the handles together right at the top, near the hinge, instead of comfortably part-way down the handles.

So using this black pair is more tiring than using the orange ones: each and every "squeeze"  is slightly harder work than it needs to be, I have to constantly shift my grip in order to close them, and if I let go a bit casually, the handles spring apart wider than I can easily get hold of, so I tend to drop them a lot while working.

Trust me, it gets very tiresome after a while.

Unfortunately, it seems that Wilkinson Sword/Fiskars are phasing out the dear old orange ones, probably because I keep sending them back to have the locking tab replaced. The presumably "new" design with the locking on top is far better for ambidextrous use, and does not wear out in the same way, but as these photos demonstrate, the shape and proportion of the tool has been changed for the worse.

Ah well.

This is why I would advise you to take secateurs out of the pack and try them in your hand before buying them.

Next point: What brand to buy? At this point, someone usually mentions Felco, and people will always tell you to buy the best quality you can afford. As a Professional Gardener, I am going to buck that trend and advise you against buying ludicrously expensive tools. Garden snobs always say "Ah, but my Felcos have lasted me for 200 years and if the blade wears out they will replace it for just £30" or whatever.  Well, I treat my tools terribly: I use them to get through material way above their advised size, I get them filthy, wet, I use them to cut roots ie in the soil, which is very bad for metal blades, and finally I rarely bother to clean or oil them. I sharpen the blades probably every second or third day, and I find they generally break before the blades ever wear out.  So I would shudder to spend £40 or more on a tool that I am going to abuse.

On the other hand, I would warn you very strongly against buying anything for the garden from "cheapy" shops:  any shop with the word "pound" in their title should be avoided, and buying from any shop which appears chaotic will only lead to disappointment.

I would suggest buying from a local garden centre, or from B&Q/Homebase: don't buy the cheapest own-brand, don't buy a pack ("Buy these, get THIS thing free!" you will never use it...), try it out for size, and - here's where we get "do as I say, not as I do", sorry - wipe them clean at the end of the session, and make sure they are allowed to dry before you put them away. If you don't garden every day, as I do (the rust never gets a chance to form, ha! ha!), then give them a drop of oil (3-in-1 preferably, but cooking oil or baby oil is better than nothing) on the hinge, and on the spring if it is one of those solid-looking wraparound ones, rather than the traditional coil.

How much to spend? Well, do some research: look on the internet and find out what Felco cost, look in your garden centre and see what the cheapest ones cost, then buy a pair for a bit more than double the cost of the cheap ones, or a bit less than a third of what a Felco pair would cost. At the time of writing, Felco are £37-£45, the local cheapy shop is doing a pair for about £3, and I would spend about £10. Obviously this will vary depending on whereabouts in the country you are, and how old this post is by the time you read it, but hopefully by relating the price to two extremes, you will be able to spend about the right amount, and will be happy with the result.

So, Jill, I hope this has answered your question: use bypass-style secateurs to cut the bramble roots, and wipe them clean afterwards. 

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  1. I have just discovered your bramble article - my new garden has plenty of the blighters - and am very pleased with the articles. Thank you very much for sharing your knowledge and encouragement! Jane M

  2. I have just found your website and after looking at several of your posts on brambles I am feeling better about tackling my patch at bottom of new garden. My dogs keep getting brambles stuck in skin and my partner has a 6 year old daughter so need them gone! I'm growing strawberries and raspberries in pots but these invasive nasty brambles are taking over the bottom of garden. Thankyou let's hope it all works.

  3. I'd like to uproot the bramble seeing as Im looking dry up the root and eat it, it seems to be medicinal, I think also was used as a dye, whats the best way to uproot the root somewhat intact?

    1. Hi Gerald,

      A deceptively simple question, with a rather complicated answer! Please check out the new article - here:

  4. Hi Rach. On the subject of ease of use of hand secateurs. Ever thought of using sturdy elastic bands which placed around the end of the handles should constrict the span of the tool to allow for easier use?.

    1. Hi Steve,

      No, I've never considered that: I can't quite see how it would work.

      The elastic would have to be exactly the right size, otherwise they wouldn't open properly: and although I can see what you mean by restricting them from opening too far, I feel that whenever you close the handles, the elastic bands would then slip off.

      Also, I wonder if the volume of the elastic bands around the handles would not just make the problem worse, because you are, in effect, thickening up the handles.

      Please send photos!


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