Shear Delight


| August/September 2005

  • Ikebana
  • Corona
  • Felco

“ Make way, gentlemen, and let me go back to my old freedom; let me go look for my past life, and raise myself up from this present death. I was not born to be a governor or protect islands or cities from the enemies that choose to attack them. Ploughing and digging, vinedressing and pruning are more in my way than defending provinces or kingdoms.” — Sancho, Don Quixote, by Miguel Cervantes, early 17th century

It is widely understood that the first plants to be intentionally cut by humans were grapevines. One story about the origins of the pruning practice appeared in The Compleat Gardener, published in 1693. Seems a wild ass wandered into an ancient Armenian vineyard somewhere around 6000 b.c. and chewed some vines to stubs. As often happens with new inventions, this apparent disaster evolved into one of the greatest agricultural practices ever to benefit humans, when it was observed that the gnawed vine grew back fuller and produced more fruit than those left unscathed.

Herb gardeners rely on pruning to encourage more or better foliage and flowers; to develop, train or maintain a desired shape or appearance; rejuvenate older or neglected herbs; remove diseased or damaged parts; or balance roots and branches. With every important technique, a plethora of tools evolves, and so it is with pruning. Each cutting task has at least one specialized implement designed specifically for the job, and the modern pruning shears we find today are direct descendants of the British billhook and the Roman falx from six millennia ago.

Herb gardeners will be the first to attest that deadheading and the harvesting of tender leaves, sprigs and flowers require a much more delicate pair of shears than those that might be suitable for woody stems and shrubs. Indeed, the perfect set of snips for this dainty piece of work is lightweight and fine enough to cleanly sever herbaceous stems without mangling or tearing them.

Garden fanatics may insist on two sets of flower shears: one long-handled set to reach the target in the garden, and one smaller version that gives precise control for trimming stems on the potting table or kitchen counter. Choose carefully, giving thought to your cutting needs. For instance, Ikebana shears, the traditional Japanese bonsai implement, work miracles on dwarf woody branches but may be too awkward in the herb bed. And while fruit and flower shears neatly lop off thicker stems, there’s no need for such heavy artillery for culinary herb foliage, such as basil, parsley and other delicate sprigs.

Generally, the best all-around flower shears have straight carbon or stainless steel bypass blades (they work like scissors and give a better cut), two to five inches long, and can be sharpened.

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