Shear madness

bad landscapes 7-09 006 (1) 4-24-2014 post

Gum drops, meatballs and blobs:  believe it or not, these are typical shrub shapes commonly found in many suburban neighborhoods. Well-intentioned homeowners and professionals alike regularly shear off each year’s new growth, forcing bushes into visions of symmetrical greenery never found in nature.  And then we all wonder – why do my shrubs just keep getting bigger and flower less?

To answer this conundrum, we must learn a little about plants and their growth patterns.  When we cut a stem of a plant, it sends a signal to the plant to grow MORE shoots further down on the branch and produce two “bunny ear” shoots at the cut tip.  So one cut ultimately encourages a burst of even more growth.  This starts a maddening cycle of shearing, profusion of growth, more shearing and more growth.  Soon your forsythia only has a few yellow blossoms on the outside of the shrub and your front hedge look like a chaotic pile of twigs all winter long.  The indiscriminate cutting of all branches, or shearing, has an unanticipated effect:  more vigorous and uncontrolled growth.

And we compound the problem by inadvertently shearing off flower buds, removing the aesthetic beauty, fragrance and natural form of the plant.

Pruning, by contrast, is the process of strategically cutting select branches to meet the plant’s short-term and long-term health and aesthetic goals.  Pruning takes into consideration maintaining optimal plant health, controlling growth, encouraging flowering and fruit production, and ensuring property safety.  Suffice it to say, electric hedge trimmers can’t be used exclusively for a more thoughtful approach to plant pruning.  Aesthetic pruning considers all of these factors, then adds the goal of maximizing the plant’s beautiful shape given its type and function in the landscape, and how it relates to surrounding plants.  Aesthetic pruning brings in an artistic element to the landscape and the shaping of plants.

Using an overgrown Forsythia as an example, aesthetic pruning requires considerably more thought and planning than simply shearing off new growth.  Carefully consider the following before picking up clippers:

  • Time of the year: What is the optimal time of year to prune your plants and shrubs?
  • Plant location:  Should it be trimmed back from the window or the front walkway, or allowed to develop a lovely fountain-like shape in the lawn area?  Should the plant be moved to a more suitable location?
  • Age of the plant:  Is this an older plant with inner stems that should be removed to encourage new growth and more abundant flowering?  Is this a young plant that requires a stronger root system and more density in its branches?
  • Type of tool:  Should I use hand pruners to make a few more significant cuts to the plant that will meet my goals?  Will a hedge trimmer start that maddening growth process?

Defining your goals for any plant pruning will lead to the best results and minimize unintended consequence.  Late winter and early spring is prime pruning season, especially for spring flowering shrubs and plant which need to be pruned after they flower.  If your goal is a beautiful and healthy home landscape, the benefits of aesthetic pruning may be right for your garden. Pruning with a vision for your entire landscape scene will increase the enjoyment of your garden plants today and for many years to come.