In last week’s blog we took a look at safe hedge trimming, an important subject for those who value their safety – and who doesn’t? In passing we mentioned ladders, and specifically tripod ladders, a professional tool that should be in every garden. Since it got only a brief mention, it seemed that ladders, so necessary for trimming tall hedges and evergreens, was a subject that needed more discussion. So here we go. . .

What’s Wrong with My Regular Ladder?

You probably already have a conventional step-ladder, and if you do use it in the garden you will probably already be aware of the limitations. Unlike a floor, gardens are often uneven or sloping, so it’s difficult to place a step-ladder on the ground without it wobbling. Perhaps you end up placing boards or bricks under the too-short leg(s), but this is an accident waiting to happen, and unstable support is the cause of many falls from ladders. If your hedge runs alongside steps, it is particularly difficult if not impossible to get a ladder on that section, so cutting is made much more difficult.

The second problem is getting at the hedge. With four legs you must place the ladder parallel to the hedge, so you are standing facing sideways, instead of face-on. This makes it more difficult, and dangerous, to reach the top and trim it thoroughly. A relatively easy job becomes frustrating or downright impossible.

If like most gardeners you have faced these difficulties, you probably thought they were just something you had to live with, unless you were willing to work with adjustable platforms, which are large, slow to erect and take down, hard to move and often impossible in confined spaces.

Three-legged Ladders Make a Lot of Sense

The answer has been around for centuries, but oddly it is largely unknown to American gardeners. In Europe, the United Kingdom and Japan the solution is well-known, but in the USA many gardeners struggle along with their step-ladders, not realizing there is a simple answer – cut off one of the legs.

No, not from your step-ladder, Homer. The third leg must be centered at the back, and it is often adjustable in length too. Three-legged ladders solve both of the main problems with using a regular step-ladder in the garden – unevenness of the ground and facing the hedge.

These ladders are called ‘tripod ladders’, or sometimes ‘orchard ladders’, because they are also very useful for fruit-picking and general tree pruning, as well as trimming topiary and clipping any kind of evergreen or tall bush. Working around the garden is so much easier with one, and everyone is amazed by their versatility and usefulness, compared to struggling with a conventional step-ladder.

With just three legs, as long as the front two are on a level surface, the third one can be anywhere. The third leg can be leaned out at any angle, so for a down-hill slope pull it closer, and for an uphill-one lean it further away. The step section can be kept with the steps horizontal with that simple adjustment. Even easier, many models have an adjustable height on the tripod leg, so by shortening or lengthening it you keep the steps horizontal, no matter where you need to place the foot of the third leg. So uneven surfaces are no longer a problem – you can even use it along garden steps.

Even more useful is the ease with which you can slide the tripod leg inside your hedges, making it possible to climb up and face the hedge straight on. Not only is that a much safer working position, it gives you more reach onto the top, and further back. The top step is now right against the hedge, and you can use the trimmers to their maximum extent. Until you try it, you can hardly believe how much easier this is. There is only one situation where facing the hedge can be difficult, and that is on a steep slope, where the two front legs are not level enough for safety, however that is partly compensated for by the design.

What is a Tripod Ladder Like?

The front of a tripod ladder is designed for safety in the garden. Instead of sides that are parallel, they flare out, so the lowest steps are much wider than the upper ones. This creates a very stable tripod-effect and means that when you lean to one side or another, you are much safer, and there is much less chance of the ladder tipping sideways, even if it has a bit of a lean to left or right. So minor unevenness of the ground under the step legs is not the problem it can be for a conventional ladder. For a steeper slope you do need to face the ladder up or down the slope.

The third leg attaches with a hinge just below the top of the ladder, and it can be angled outward without any restraints. This raises the only safety concern. If you have smooth stone or paved surfaces in front of your hedges, then the legs can slide more easily. If the ladder has an adjustable third leg, so that you can keep the angle constant no matter if the ground falls or rises, then the leg will be chained for safety. Some manufactures supply non-slip feet for use on hard surfaces, and these are definitely worth having – and remembering to put on when needed.

Tripod ladders are available in height between 5 and 16 feet, usually in one-foot increments. Not all manufacturers will cover the full range. Some have a wider platform on that all-important ‘third step from the top’ which is the safe place to stand when working from a ladder. This is very helpful too, for extra stability and safety. On the third step from the top you can work with both arms free, without danger of tipping over.Go higher and you can fall, like tipping over a balcony with a too-low railing.

So Where Can I Buy a Tripod Ladder?

If you Google them you will see lots for sale in the United Kingdom, but they can be found in America too. A major US supplier is Hasegawa, with distributors on both coasts. An American manufacturer is Stokes Ladders, who also have a network of distributors. There are others too. Finding a ladder is not going to be much of a problem for you, wherever you live. If you are a serious gardener, you will wonder how you ever lived without one.