Garden diary

A cut above

 

I suspect many professional gardeners like myself started out with a pair of very pedestrian secateurs before being introduced to the eponymous Felco no2 by some wise council and from that point they never looked back. Felcos are light, sturdy, powerful, hold a good edge and every piece is replaceable, meaning that with a little care a pair of Felcos will last you a lifetime. Many gardeners will therefore think this comparison post is irrelevant, and I don't mind if you do. Secateurs are perhaps a gardener's most-used tool and, like a choice of footwear, the pair you choose is intensely personal.

Until I was introduced to Niwaki a couple of years ago my Felcos had never left my hip, but the promise of razor sharp, hand forged secateurs turned my head and I bought myself a pair. I love my Niwaki Tobishos and have used them daily ever since, which has led me to wonder about other options I might be missing out on. And of course the all important question: How much do I need to pay for a decent pair of secateurs?

Secateurs should be fairly straightforward to test, they are in effect a sharp cutting blade on a handle with a catch - simple! I have chosen, more or less at random I must confess, six pairs of secateurs which range in price from £22 to £79 and cover a wide range of makes. I have then spent some time cutting roses, top fruit and herbaceous material with each of them to represent the typical lifetime duties of the tools.

Felco No2 £40

I thought I'd better start with the baseline by which all others are judged. Felcos come in a range of sizes and styles to suit every conceivable need. They are all lifetime guaranteed and can be easily dismantled, cleaned, old bits replaced and then put back together. Stories of their endurance are legendary; I personally lost a pair in a compost heap for 9 months, the acid had pitted and eaten away at the aluminium handles but after soaking them in oil for a day or two they were free enough to be stripped down and rebuilt, and although clearly not as good as new they went on to lead a full and varied life.

Holding them again in my hand they feel like an old friend. They are on the chunky side after so much time with the Tobishos (see below), but they are easy to sharpen and hold up to a lot of abuse; they can cope with tough woody material and you are likely to develop a hernia before you will damage the blade.

Rough, tough and dependable, why did I ever leave them? The answer is, they don't feel special. Now I know that that is not only highly subjective but it's also dependant on how much more you want to spend on a pair that does feel 'special'!

Lowe original £35

Most of you may not be familiar with the name Lowe, I know I wasn't, but I was interested to know what had happened to Rolcut secateurs. They used to be everywhere, everyone had a pair, and then they disappeared. In fact I have never used a pair of anvil secateurs since Rolcuts until these arrived a few weeks ago. The story goes that Lowe designed what we know as Rolcut secateurs which were manufactured in the UK under the Rolcut brand. The brand was then discontinued after being bought by Fiskars in the 1990s.

I chose the original pattern without the plastic grip handles, mainly because I prefer the look but also because I wanted to get as close as possible to Rolcuts. The only difference in fact is the catch, which although plastic is very easy to operate and feels good quality, in fact everything feels good quality, the blade is strong and the action feels sturdy, solid and positive. I really enjoy using them. Anvil secateurs have a reputation for bruising and flattening the opposite side of the stem to the blade and in the case of very thick rose stems this is just about noticeable. The cut is very clean however, especially on thicker woody growth where it proved superior to its rivals.

There is a drawback; on light herbaceous stems they are next to useless, chewing fretfully where others positively glide through the soft growth. I so wanted to love these secateurs and in many ways I do, but if you are looking for a single pair of secateurs that will do every job in the garden, then I'm afraid these aren't it. That said I will certainly be using them for tougher work.

Tenartis vintage grape shears £22

I have, for a long time now, had my eyes pealed for a good pair of vintage french grape shears but it's very hard to explain why in a singe sentence. I suppose that many of the best tools I use at Allt-y-bela are vintage handmade tools, they are rugged, strong and have a beauty which has been earned over decades of use. I guess I wanted to know if the same attributes could be found in vintage secateurs. I found these Tenartis on Amazon for a very reasonable price and wanted to see if they would give me a feel for the ergonomics of vintage pruners of the same shape.

They look rather roughly cast with a leather catch that I knew would be annoying. What I wasn't prepared for though was just how tough the steel was - it is almost impossible to get a sharp edge on the blade. After much mucking around and eventually filing down the blade, I finally achieved a tolerably sharp edge. The pruning experience was not really up to scratch to be perfectly honest, although I suppose I didn't really expect it to be. I bought these for their looks, for light home use and flower work and for that they are perfectly adequate. They will also look lovely in the tool shed.

Burgon & Ball Sophie Conran secateurs £25

When we first ran our rose dome course a couple of years ago we asked that people brought along their own secateurs. The result was that many pairs were either blunt or not really up to the task. Last year we bought 12 pairs of these for each guest on the course and being totally honest I chose them because they looked like my much more expensive Japanese pair, were very reasonably priced and were made by a well-known manufacturer. When they arrived, beautifully gift boxed, they very much looked the part too and performed faultlessly through both our rose dome course and our plant supports course.

I felt I should include them here because I had them around the shed, where they reside waiting for our next set of courses. Using them now I am pleasantly surprised at how sharp they are and how well they sharpen - the steel seems to be a really fine quality - and they are tough enough for the rougher tasks, yet precise enough for detailed work. The chunky brass catch looks lovely and works well. In fact my only criticism would be that the bypassed side of the secateur blade is very chunky which makes getting the shear in to tight spaces difficult, I would love to see that edge ground down a little. It's such a small point though and so if you are looking for a quality pair of secateurs, perhaps as a gift, and you don't want to spend a fortune then these are a great buy. They will last forever, cut really well and look beautiful.

Tobisho SR-1 by Niwaki £79

Since arriving at Allt-y-bela I've become increasingly aware of the importance of detail and craftsmanship. The Tobisho SR-1s look perfectly at home here, perhaps with the exception of the slightly jazzy yellow and red covers on the handles. They arrived in a beautiful box, polished and gleaming and have settled to an understated gunmetal grey. I have often thought of removing the plastic covers but I fear I would lose them and also they do protect your hand from the worst of the cold!

The Tobishos are hand-forged from two pieces of very fine steel in a family workshop in Japan, and everything about them feels special. The clacking sound they make is somehow joyous where it should be irritating, so much so that I spent much of my first month using them thinking about how much I loved the sound! The cut too is perfect, razor sharp and precise. They feel like a tool that will help you to become better at your job.

The downsides are two fold, they steel is fragile as I found very early on when I took a knick out of the blade (ouch!) and although they make a lovely sound as the back pieces come together behind the blade, they can become an unwitting trap for a stray thumb. (The same is true for the Sophie Conran pair, and the results are painful and bloody!) The Tobishos are heavy compared to the Felco pair too. However, I love the Tobishos despite, or perhaps partly because of their faults. Using them feels like a privilege although I'm not sure I can explain why.

Bahco Professional £40

The other secateurs here at Allt-y-bela have been bought over time, mostly by myself to try or just because I like the look of them. These Bahcos have been sent for me to try by Arthur & Strange and I must first confess that they are not my usual style. I tend to buy secateurs that are generally all metal and look fairly traditional. The Bahcos are certainly neither. They are designed to be ergonomic and to reduce strain on the wrist from constant use, they are also available in three handle sizes and blade types meaning that you can customise them to suit your needs. They can also be stripped down and every part is replaceable like the Felcos.

Bahco makes good cutting tools. There are few professional gardener's sheds which do not contain a pair of Bahco loppers, probably much like ours, having seen much better days and having faced the worst that gardening has to offer. Ours are battered and the bump stops are pretty perished, the blade however is sharp and they always get the job done. I think that they are great and so it's slightly odd I suppose that I've never tried a pair of Bahco secateurs.

Let's get a negative out of the way first. The catch is slightly awkward and it's quite small and stiff to operate although I think it would wear in with use. The other negative I found was that when pruning up a ladder I tend to want to move the secateurs from hand to hand to reach as much as possible from my position and of course as soon as you change hands with the Bahcos the ergonomics become a little odd, having been designed for one-handed use.

The Bahcos don't make a fuss about getting on with the job, they are very quiet in action, which seems to have a slight bounce, making cutting satisfyingly easy over a longer period of time. I think that the Bahcos will come into their own over time and in some ways a short test perhaps doesn't see them at their best. Of all of the secateurs I've tried it has probably been the Bahcos that I have come back to the most. For me though I wish that they were all metal, I wish that the catch was easier to operate and also that the spring felt a little better secured. They are certainly a great quality tool and you can't fault the cut but if they are going to challenge the likes of Felco it will probably be on the superior ergonomics and that will take a leap of faith. I think they deserve a closer look though.

Conclusions

Did I find an all-round secateur to beat the ubiquitous Felco No2? Probably not. Will I personally go back to the Felcos? Again, probably not. This is perhaps the crux of the matter; the choice of secateurs is incredibly personal. I would encourage everyone to try something different though, especially if you use secateurs every day. Most pruners are fairly inexpensive and each will give you a different experience. I don't think that I will ever stick to one brand or model for too long, next I have my eye on the Tobisho Hiryu which look incredible but come with a price tag to match and the Bahco P3 which seem to combine my love of simplicity and style with hopefully the ruggedness of Bahco's loppers.

Words: Steve Lannin, Head Gardener at Allt-y-bela

Photographs: Britt Willoughby Dyer

© Arne Maynard Garden Design 2016 - reproduction of content and / or photographs only by request.

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Effortless order

 

I was once told that the mark of a truly great gardener is the ability to leave no trace of their having been there at all. Good gardening should look effortless. This is both a blessing and a curse; on the one hand you have a garden with continuity which evolves through the seasons without there appearing to be any major upheaval, on the other hand this can be misinterpreted as overstaffing. I've seen this happen many times and it's very sad.

Gardening is often quite messy and challenging physically but there are few greater pleasures than showing people around a garden, which has been thoroughly prepared to look spontaneous and unprepared!

There are broadly three types of jobs in the garden; those which entail a huge amount of work but look as if you have done very little, those in which you do very little but it looks as if you have done a lot, and those in which you do a lot and it shows! I suppose I could add those where you do little and it shows, but we won't go into that!

Possibly the most obvious example of jobs where a little effort goes a long way is lawn mowing. Borders might be well prepared, flowers dead headed and pots in perfect condition, but a tatty looking lawn will spoil everything. At Sudeley Castle there is a lawn which is full of lumps and bumps, the evidence of former gardens and buildings, where a close cut and neat stripe utterly transforms it into a piece of English garden perfection! Arne would quite possibly despair of me if he came home to find stripes in the lawn at Allt-y-bela - it really isn't that kind of garden - but the point holds just the same.

The pleached crab apples around the courtyard at Allt-y-bela have been looking a bit wayward for some time now; every time I go to take a picture for Instagram or Twitter I just can't bring myself to post it. The new vertical growth has obscured the delicate horizontals which frame the house front and have turned the thin veil across the façade into a virtual wall of green. The crab apples are pruned in much the same way as our eating apples using the modified Lorrette system, which calls for the new growth to be cut back to four or five buds above the basal rosette. It's important not to do this too early because if you do you will get a second flush of new growth from the point just below the cut. The idea of cutting it now is that it is too late in the season for the tree to put lots of energy into new vegetative growth and so its redirects that energy into the fruit. 

What this all means in practice is a lovely sunny day, enjoying the clacking sound of your secateurs shortening the new growth. At the end of the day you end up with a barrow load of clippings and one very neat façade. Combine that with a little mowing and you have a very smart looking house for comparatively little effort!    

Words: Steve Lannin, Head Gardener at Allt-y-bela

Photographs: Britt Willoughby Dyer

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